In Marketing, Bigger Is Not Always Better

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Answer: Most fire departments and EMS agencies in the U.S. are small. They protect communities with populations of 10,000 to 50,000. From a pure marketing perspective, it is easier to make an impact in a smaller area than to construct and implement a marketing plan for a large metropolitan area. Size invites complexity.

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Photo courtesy of Satellite Beach Fire Department
A Satellite Beach, FL, firefighter provides a lesson in fire safety to a group of schoolchildren as part of the marketing-savvy fire department's year-round fire prevention activities.

Having said that, once a large department has developed and honed a plan that works, the impact can be quite significant. But a large department can be most successful if it still considers each neighborhood as a separate "market" and designs its tactical local plan from the overall departmental strategy. Remember, "you eat an elephant one bite at a time and there is no such thing as a small project."

Other reasons why a smaller department can be more effective are simply a matter of physics. There are not as many "large-scale, big-city" events going on in a small city, so people become more focused on the organizations, events and activities around them. Those activities take on more significance to the local population.

Smart marketing organizations now target what are called "second-tier" cities to promote their products because the reaction is stronger and the market is more controllable than in larger cities. Your message has a much better chance of being received. In today's fast-paced, instantaneous communication environment, the average citizen receives 3,000 advertising messages daily. In a smaller community, the messages from a local, credible agency such as a fire department can provide the basis for effective marketing.

There is a saying in sales: "Proximity breeds sales." This means that one is more likely to be successful when one is around the customer most of the time. Things just happen when you are out and about among the citizens, businesses and institutions you protect. You ask them about their safety needs and uncover new uses for your services. It is just physically easier to send and receive messages among less people in a smaller community. The fire department can be the community hub. It is easier to establish and implement an effective marketing plan in a smaller jurisdiction.

Satellite Beach Fire Department

One such department is in Satellite Beach, FL. Chief Daniel Rocque, a bright and eloquent man with years of experience in his department and a passion for marketing, strongly supports marketing's contribution to his department's success. He notes that while smallness can present obstacles in relationships with larger departments, it lets Satellite Beach initiate change rapidly and view the results of that change in a short period.

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Photo courtesy of Satellite Beach Fire Department
Blood pressure screenings are available without appointments, courtesy of the Satellite Beach Fire Department.

Located on Florida's east coast, just south of Daytona, Satellite Beach serves a citizen base of 10,000 in a two-square-mile area. The department has 11 career personnel and 15 volunteers, and it operates two advanced life support (ALS) engines, a squad and three staff vehicles. The department offers an array of services to its citizens based on their needs.

Members of the department are always checking the market to make certain that the services do not become outdated or that he is not missing a need yet to be identified. Rocque does this by making sure his firefighters are out among the citizens when they are not on a call or training. They are at schools, shopping malls, community functions, skate parks, dance halls and any other place where people gather.

Rocque wants his firefighters to "know the people they work for." His philosophy is that firefighters are already on the duty shift, so they should be teaching, conducting prevention activities year round. All career firefighters are confined space rescue trained, CPR instructors, drive/pump operators, EMTs or paramedics (ALS first responder providers). There are four certified tactical medics who work with the police department's Emergency Response Team.

Marketing Philosophy

The fire department's philosophy of marketing began in 1986, when a referendum to construct a new fire station was defeated. In 1988, the department went again to referendum with a marketing plan. The referendum passed by 75%. That is all it took to recognize the importance and value of marketing.

"From that day forward, we began to operate like many successful businesses," Rocque said. "We began to pay attention to the needs of our citizens. Gone were the days when we directed our services to those areas that we perceived were the best interests of the community."

When an engine leaves the station, a critical part of the marketing plan is that the crew includes a person who is a capable and has the authority to make decisions for all of the following elements of every incident:

  • Company officer
  • Firefighters
  • ALS team
  • Confined space rescue technicians
  • Hazmat technicians
  • Public information officer
  • Water rescue capable
  • CPR instructor
  • Community educator
  • Community liaison
  • Inspector
  • Tactical medic
  • Cause and determination expert

After every medical call, the duty crew sends out a special note wishing the person(s) in the incident and the family well. It was never designed to solicit money, but last year Satellite Beach received $5,000 in donations and over 100 letters of appreciation from these follow-up notes. After every fire, the home or business owner is provided with the name and 24-hour contact number of a department member whose specific duty is to assist the fire victim in any manner possible, whether securing temporary housing, a cash advance, ministry, the Red Cross or insurance.

The key lesson here is that one department member is the link for all of the other services and citizen's needs. There is no more traumatic or more bonding situation than an emergency. The last thing a person wants is to be given a list of numbers to call, especially while undergoing the stress of an incident. Having one department member who can handle everything is an emotional value well beyond the saving of property. People expect us to try to save their property and lives. They don't necessarily expect these other services. These "other services" create the relationships that demonstrate why we do our jobs in the first place.

In front of every Satellite Beach fire station is displayed a monthly banner, such as the department motto "To Better Serve Our Community," a safety message or a service message such as "Our Goal Is To Exceed Your Expectations." Visitors are greeted with "Welcome to your Fire Station." Blood pressure screenings are available without appointment from 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. After 8 P.M., citizens can just call 911.

Every summer, the department offers three or four duty tours of "Be a Firefighter for a Day." Children 11 and up spend a day with a crew and participate in the day's activities. This year, the department had to turn away over 50 people. People from other communities also showed interest. Here is a ground-floor way to set the stage for recruiting volunteers. This idea could be expanded to include adults who enroll in a "Citizen Academy."

Satellite Beach has a "Fireman Jim" who is recognized for his unique public safety education presentations. Central Florida Cable TV now airs 30-second "Fireman Jim" safety spots to over 50,000 citizens. The channel won a national award in Texas this year for these safety programs. Many times, Satellite Beach will provide the opportunity for other departments to have their firefighters and equipment in the safety spots.

Marketing Yields Results

The results of these marketing efforts are as follows:

  • 1990 - Built a new six-bay station.
  • 1991 - Purchased a new ALS engine.
  • 1992 - Replaced a staff car.
  • 1996 - Replaced a staff car.
  • 1997 - Purchased a new ALS engine.
  • 1998 - Purchased an additional staff car.

Complete building and vehicle replacement occurred in less than 10 years.

The department has enjoyed a 5% annual budget increase. The fire-medics are among the highest paid in the country, a fact that helps Satellite Beach attract and retain high-quality people. The department uses the most technologically advanced ALS equipment available, while the medics have one of the highest educational and skill levels in the state.

Customer service is the top priority in Satellite Beach. The department enjoys political and popular support. Citizens know that they receive value for their money. In the 12 taxing areas within the county, Satellite Beach ranks in the middle for tax rates. The department provides all of the services and equipment for under $650,000 annually. Intelligent purchasing, quality equipment, ability to set a vision, work out of the box, lead and follow-through have been elements of the department's success. Most important is Rocque's understanding of how to demonstrate the results of the department's actions to its citizens.

"We all compete for a portion of the financial pie," he said. "All we request is our fair portion. The budget is not 'padded,' but realistic and supported with need statements. We regularly compare our needs with other departments in the city so as not to infringe upon their needs. We support their needs as they support ours."

Satellite knows the value of interdepartmental relationships. Rocque noted that it is very important to let other agencies know what the fire department has to offer to them, and how they can better interact. Many of the department's safety programs are offered through the community's recreation department, which is better set up to receive money or reservations, as well as allowing the fire department to piggyback on their brochures and monthly mailings. The fire department then markets with many of the other external organizations with some kind of synergy - this means other fire departments, ambulance transport, hospitals, emergency clinics and physicians' offices, outside utilities, professional teaching centers, schools and many other institutions and agencies. The list can be quite extensive.

In 1991, Satellite Beach's total budget (less capital expenditures) was $423, 492 with an operating budget of $48,397. Today, the total budget $798,123 with an operating budget of $78,195. Marketing is credited as a major reason for this success. Marketing, that is, based on its true definition: exchange for mutual gain. This includes managing every relationship inside and outside the department. The fire department continues to market itself, keeping the city manager, mayor, council members and customers informed of service offerings and expected outcomes.

Why should the department concentrate on EMS and provide the best equipment available? The answer is that with these established qualifications and expected outcomes, the service level enjoys a 30% to 35% cardiac arrest success rate vs. a national average of 7%. More than one hospital emergency department physician has said that if you are going to have a heart attack, have it in Satellite Beach. Your chances of survival are greater.

In summarizing his marketing philosophy, Rocque noted, "Often, I have heard people say that we simply do not have the human or financial resources nor the time to implement marketing. If you do not make the time, you only end up losing money, personnel and equipment. When that happens, you do not have the resources to accomplish the basics of the job. Sooner or later, the community will find some other provider who understands the message and lesson of marketing."

The Marketing Toolbox is a bimonthly column devoted to the application of marketing management to emergency services. Its scope includes questions and answers about marketing and sales basics for large and small departments as well as emergency service organizations at the local and national levels. Please send your questions and problems as well as examples of successful programs and lessons learned to firecom1@aol.com. Ben May will review your marketing issues and provide a marketing audit for your department or organization.


Ben May has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of marketing management to fire departments and emergency service organizations. He has been a firefighter and fire commissioner, and is a graduate of the Montgomery County, MD, Public Service Training Academy. May has over 25 years of experience in business-to-business marketing and sales in the U.S. and internationally. Currently, his responsibilities include developing new business at Walt Disney World's Epcot. May was fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, from 1994 to 1998. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of arts degree in public affairs and received his master of arts degree n international communication from the American University. May is a member of the Society of Executive Fire Officers, a trustee of the Education Foundation of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and a board member of the Tampa Firefighter's Museum. He welcomes your feedback on the column and he may be contacted at firecom1@aol.com.

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