Who We Are And How We Are Known

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.

Consider this. Your department has been trying for years to lower the fire rate through prevention, code enforcement education and suppression. You have achieved that goal. What do you do now? Close the fire department? No way. If you close the department, you know what will happen. The problem is chronic. It just comes back, perhaps in a different form. You are paid to maintain the safety of your jurisdiction all the time, 24 hours a day.

New problems arise: hazardous materials incidents, terrorism, etc. And we all know that the fire problem is still alive and well in the U.S. We still have the worst record in the world. That's about a million fires, 7,000 people killed and billions of dollars in property losses - every year. Unfortunately, the public still actually does not know about this. Think we have a marketing problem? The same chronic and changing problem applies to marketing, especially marketing a public service that relies on public funding and tax dollars for its existence. For a public service a marketing approach is one that maintains the service's existence to minimize a problem affecting the public. It has nothing to do with selling another widget.

The real question now is how the U.S. fire service will manage its new level of awareness to maintain its service for its customers. The answer to this question lies among us first. We need to clearly define among ourselves at all levels - local, state and national - who we are. What is the comprehensive mission? Isn't it fire and life safety? This is crucial, especially as that mission continues to expand. We must define our various agenda and attach a responsible budget. We need to clearly define our multiple markets and the needs of our various constituencies. We should create clear national, state and local marketing/public affairs action plans. Finally, we need to implement those plans, knowing that we will need to modify them as we gain feedback from our markets. The question is whether we will define our own future or allow others to do it for us.

Give a firefighter a tool to solve a problem, show him or her how to use it, and you will get the problem solved. We can create the tools: marketing and public affairs plans designed to better demonstrate to our citizens at every level what we do, why we do it, how we do it and what is costs. There is no question that each department and jurisdiction should engage in this task. Especially now, there must be a long-term plan at the national level. The market is a moving target. We may be in the spotlight now, but that light fades. Our image and our work define a worthy mission. Let's use the tools to maintain it. We deserve our very best, for each other and for the public we serve.

My mission is to contribute to the fire and life safety services by bringing an understanding and awareness of its purposes, actions and accomplishments to the citizens and institutions the it protects.

The purpose of this column is to provide a forum for discussion about marketing and public affairs issues facing the fire and EMS services at local, state and national levels. E-mail to me your marketing problems, successes and ideas. We will learn from each other as we solve the problems together. The answers are out there among us. Let's share them here.

Editor's note: We're pleased to introduce The Marketing Toolbox by Ben May as a bi-monthly column. A passionate advocate of the fire service, Ben is a speaker, teacher and writer on the dynamics of marketing the fire service to the public. He wrote a two-part series on fire service marketing that we published last year and he has lectured on the topic at Firehouse Expo. Ben has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of fire service 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. Ben 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. Ben 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 in international communication from the American University. Ben 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. Ben welcomes your feedback on the column and he may be contacted at firecom1@aol.com.