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If Prometheus was worthy of the wrath of Heaven for kindling the first fire upon the earth, how ought the gods to honor the men who make it their professional business to put it out?"
Not only have the events of 9/11 raised the awareness of the image of the American firefighter in the eyes of the public, they have created a sea change in the manner advertising and the media approach the public with the image of the American firefighter. At least for now, the public has had enough ads reflecting self-absorption and the cult of conspicuous consumption. I remember a front-page Wall Street Journal article about a year ago noting the controversy surrounding the need for four-person engine companies. The impression from the article was that firefighters really did not have much to do anymore since the fire rate had plummeted over the last decade. I do not think the public would allow such an impression after 9/11.
The true definition of hero has finely arrived on the scene: it's us. Of course, we always knew this. We always knew why we wanted to become firefighters. It was a very clear mission. It was a calling. Now everyone knows. Firefighters are "in." Only problem is that we will be "out" in the mind of the public about the time we think we are here to stay. The difficulty that we see today is clearly an example of a trend versus a fad. Such is the nature of the market. It is truly unfortunate that such horrific acts had to be the impetus for such an increase in awareness.
One of the first things I was taught in an introductory course in fire science was the "catastrophic theory of public safety." This theory stated that the fire service learned its lessons by losing people in catastrophic events. It's a high cost to pay to learn a lesson. You might say we are learning a marketing lesson today. Let's try to make that lesson adaptive ahead of the curve. It seems as though we have been asked to the dance of public awareness. Let's be sure we know the necessary steps to achieve our goals, because our place on center stage will fade fast.
Many of us have discussed the need for the fire service to better market itself to the public. The discussion ranges among leaders of our major national fire service organizations as well. Over the last five years, articles, seminars and discussions in departments and at conferences across the nation have addressed the marketing issue.
Look at us today. I don't believe anyone would have ever thought that we would have the world's attention like we do. Some might even say that the marketing problem in the fire service has been solved. Most of us know that this just isn't true. The recent increased appropriations from Congress are welcome and they will do much to bolster our place in the homeland security equation. Unfortunately, the catastrophic theory applies here, doesn't it?
Saying the marketing problem is solved is like saying the fire problem is solved. We might be able to say that we have gained significant awareness, beginning with the President of the United States and fanning out across the airwaves, newspapers and radios. The image of us as we do our job is a byproduct of the delivery of our service. We all know that nothing has changed. We are just being noticed. We have the public's attention. The question now is what do we do with it? And that is a marketing problem.
The reason many of us think that we are "fat and happy" now is because we may be confused about the real definition of marketing: exchange for mutual gain. The public gives us its hard-earned tax dollars for the protective services we deliver. It is not faddish popularity based on the reality of us just doing our jobs during a tragic event. Marketing is a simple equation comprised of two elements: a promise and the delivery of the promise. It is not an advertising or public relations campaign. These are tactical tools to tell our various publics what our promise is and how we deliver on it so we can stay in business. This is not the same as private enterprise marketing, the purpose of which is to sell more of a product or service for a profit.