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Create an Effective Marketing Plan for Your Department Now: Here's How

There has been so much written about plans over the years that the very thought of it can cause a fire officer’s eyes to glaze over. On the other hand, think about it this way:

Would you allow your firefighters to attack a fire in your jurisdiction without a pre-fire plan? You wouldn’t begin to deal with simple house fire without establishing incident command, would you? It is the same with a marketing/communication plan. I lump in communications with marketing because it is a part of the marketing; it is the “carrier” of the plan’s implementation.

Keep it Simple and Just Do it with Three Key Elements

There are three key elements that dictate the success or failure of effective marketing. The first is the demonstrated commitment of the chief and senior officers of the department in the use of a marketing plan as an integral part of the department’s success. The second is the creation of a working marketing plan. The third is implementation of that plan.

A Marketing Plan is the Department’s GPS

A marketing plan is nothing more than a roadmap to assist the department to achieve its marketing goals. The most effective plans are created in coordination with the department’s strategic plan. Used in such a manner, it is created as an “action-plan” based on specific goals from strategic plan. In this case, the marketing plan assists the department in achieving goals that are specifically community-oriented such as tackling a persistent problem such as abnormally high fire rates from a particular part of the city, or assisting the police with abnormally high rates of traffic accidents.

In other cases, there could be a perception problem. For example, the public may have a misperception of how emergency equipment is being used. Citizens in one community could not understand why so many pieces of apparatus were dispatched to simple traffic accidents or to good intent calls from a particular apartment complex.

Still other examples might include changing elected officials’ misperceptions about expenditures. In a recent series of seminars I conducted in Minneapolis, we found that most of the major problems and departmental initiatives revolved around marketing problems. The point here is that the marketing plan and the departmental strategic plan are inextricably related. A marketing plan should not be a complex, multi-page binder. In fact, in most situations it can be a simple document with a few objectives.

A Marketing Plan is a Call to Action

Too much has been written about the creation of complex “pretty” plans that are ineffective and not reality-based. Many plans can be created from one or two simple objectives that can have optimum impact in the department and the community. You can create a more complex plan from the results of these simple actions. The main point is to do something.

If your department is very small and strapped for human resources, you may be able to enlist the support of a local community college’s marketing department. In this way, you leverage community resources that are focused on the marketing discipline to apply to the real world. This can be quite effective and demonstrates community involvement. The creation of the new Fire Corps provides another path to tap into the civilian resources of marketing expertise, perhaps from a marketing executive living in your community.

Creating the Plan

The creation of a marketing plan very closely shadows the strategic plan. Your department can establish a specific committee, made up of a small number of members, to create the plan. Senior management can then assign roles to execute the plan with consistent input from the committee. The committee should include a public information officer (PIO), public education officer (PEO) as well as an operations battalion chief and or the administrative deputy chief. You may wish to include an elected official and/or ancillary community leaders as well as a health care official from the local hospital who understands your objectives.

The first meeting should include the chief of department with a clear mandate to establish the marketing mechanism and create and execute the plan. This means that the chief creates the expectation throughout the organization that the marketing initiative must be created and achieved. This may involve explaining and educating the department about the reasons why the department should launch a marketing initiative. He or she must then put a follow-up mechanism in place to monitor the progress and to overcome barriers to achieving the marketing goals. These barriers include such things as resource allocation and officer and line resistance.

The following outline notes the elements of a marketing action plan:

Strategic Direction

You can create strategic direction from senior management’s guidance in combination with the view of the committee and other departmental and community needs.

  • Review the strategic plan if one exists
  • Create a mission statement
  • Create a vision statement


The analysis process can provide you with the critical, rich information with which to develop and fine-tune your objectives.

  • Conduct a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses/Limitations, Opportunities and Threats) analysis with an emphasis on marketing as well as departmental direction from a strategic plan. Where are your strengths and supporting organizations in the community, such as the businesses, institutions and political support?
  • What is your relationship with the media? Outline all media sources and points of contact.
  • Outline the codes and mandates for which you are responsible. Do you wish to lower your ISO rating or become accredited? Where do you stand in terms of numbers of quality of inspections? Do you wish to conduct more pre-fire plans?
  • Review citizen phone calls or inquiries as well as customer satisfaction cards if you have them.
  • Review inspection reports from businesses to assess critical educational needs.
  • Review call reports to determine areas of need in various part of the community. This will include analyzing runs and incidents by location and community demographics to determine any patterns.
  • If possible, create and conduct a simple survey: internal departmental and external community. The survey should focus on the department’s relationships with its members and its citizens in achieving satisfaction with the department’s services.
  • Review target hazards in you community as well as the threat of natural and man-made disasters
  • Review financial, human and capital resources needs. Do you need a new station, new training facilities, new apparatus or new firefighters?
  • Map out all key departmental relationships (note each customer segment such as businesses, schools, citizen groups, elected officials, neighborhoods, etc.) in the community according to quality and perception.

Creating Objectives

You create this part of the plan based on the combination of departmental goals and the critical needs of the community. The objectives must be qualified according to the following criteria: are they strategic, measurable, achievable and consistent (SMAC) with departmental policy. Most important, will they make a significant impact and difference in the mission of the department in achieving its mission for the community. Finally, the objectives must be directly within the department’s responsibility. For example, the city of Orlando, FL, consistently experiences a high incidence of pedestrian accidents. While the fire department can play a part in decreasing these incidents through a joint emergency services strategy, it cannot have the sole responsibility for achieving the result.

Examples of simple SMAC objectives:

  • Decrease fire loss by X% in the X area of our city by X date
  • Increase department funding by X$ by X date
  • Make certain smoke detectors are in X% of homes by X date
  • Pass home sprinkler legislation for new construction in the next 36 months
  • Ensure that the city supports and passes this year’s annual budget

Creating Strategies

Providing a general road map, strategies are simply the means to achieve the objectives. For example, in the case of the fire loss problem, prevention will need to drill down to determine the cause(s) of the problem and determine the best approach to reduce it. Let’s assume it is kitchen appliances left on the stove. The strategy might be as follows:

  • Create a public awareness campaign in X area of the city to tell citizens not to be careless with their appliances.

Another example deals with the funding of the department. In this case the strategy might have a number of parts:

  • Create a formal presentation for elected officials who can support the request for funding.
  • Utilize the good relationship between the fire chief and elected officials to explain the situation and the reasons for the need in one-on-one meetings.
  • Create a public awareness campaign through the media, institutions and businesses, noting the various services of the department and how they help the community.
  • Create a philanthropic foundation for businesses to support the fire department.
  • Create an alliance with local businesses to target childhood obesity with firefighters as role models.
  • Submit grants to the federal government for financial support through the Fire Act.

Creating Action Plans

The action plan portion of the marketing plan defines the specific steps that the department takes to achieve the objectives. An example of a part of an action plan might include the following as it relates to creating an awareness campaign for smoke alarms:

  • Engine 12 will deliver 25 smoke alarms in the Glen Park neighborhood on December 12th and report specific alarm placement and any feedback from neighborhood citizens.
  • Engine 14 will conduct 10 inspections of homes and businesses within the next two weeks.

Reporting and Feedback

The action portion of the marketing plan always requires a simple reporting and feedback loop for two reasons. First, with so many competing needs in any department, it is important to make certain that the action is taken. Second, feedback and comments from citizens provide the DNA for modifying and improving the plan, making it more attuned to market needs. As we noted before, needs are always changing. This is really one of the primary returns on investment of any marketing plan.

The marketing plan is really where the rubber meets the road in showing the public what we do and who we are. The main thing is to take some kind of action and see how fast the plan and its effectiveness will yield results of which you can be proud.

Please contact me at for suggestions and support as you create your department’s plan.

BEN MAY, a Firehouse contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for more than 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development at Walt Disney World.