Marketing Your Fire Department

In his 1980 book titled Managing in Turbulent Times, management consultant Peter Drucker wrote, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

It’s still true today. If the American fire service is to thrive in the next decades, it will require the best thinking of firefighters, officers and administrators – not only to understand the critical needs of citizens, but the needs of firefighters and their families. Strategic marketing, reputation equity and public communication for every fire department will be among the critical factors supporting our mission.

The fire service is a profession imbued with the nobility of protecting communities around the clock. The result is that our citizens know we are people who care. We dedicate our lives to that care. The public knowledge of that single fact is priceless and it must be the foundation for all our marketing.


Love is not enough

You may love the fact that you are a firefighter. You may gain satisfaction knowing that you work with intelligent, highly motivated and caring people. You may glow with pride when you return from a successful “knockdown,” after you rescue a trapped citizen or while you deliver a prevention message that is “getting through” to children. But if you do not understand the importance of marketing or how to use it every day, you may not have the privilege of continuing do be a firefighter in the manner you love.

If the fire service is to thrive, it must adopt a marketing perspective. Just because we do a good job does not necessarily mean we will stay in business in our present form, especially if nobody knows what we do, how we do it or why we do it.

Marketing is exchange for mutual gain. In the case of the fire service, the public gains protection, prevention and life safety from us. The fire service gains tax dollars for delivering its services. Fire and emergency services marketing ensures that all services are delivered at the right time to the people who need them in a way that meets their needs and reduces the risk to the whole community.

Fire service leaders have begun to understand the need and benefit of marketing management. The critical focus of marketing is to support a department’s efforts to effectively execute the fire and life-safety mission while maintaining strong community and financial support. Virtually everything we do in public service has a marketing aspect to it – from our uniforms and apparatus to how we fight fires.


The dividends of effective marketing

Marketing is the responsibility of each department, each firefighter and each officer. Just as we depend on one another at an incident, we depend on each other for the future of the fire service. The result of effective marketing is that the community you serve views your fire department as one of its most trusted public service agencies. It means citizens in your community will do all they can to maintain the services you provide. In a poll taken some years ago by USA Today, citizens rated their fire departments as the most trusted entity, second only to their immediate families. If this same survey were taken again today, would the result be the same? It should be when one considers the motivation and passion that most firefighters display for their mission.

This perception comes from the fact that when a citizen dials 911, he or she usually receives immediate service. Given the citizen’s state of mind in his or her own perceived emergency, it is little wonder the “rescuer” has gained a trust that is literally life-dependent. While many citizens experience perceived emergencies, for most a true emergency is a rare occurrence. The frequency of true emergencies depends on a number of socio-economic factors. Naturally, those segments of the community we define as “at risk” will experience more emergencies.

The fact remains that the fire service has the responsibility to itself and its constituencies to make certain the public is aware it is fulfilling its mission. This is critical to maintaining financial support. The fire service, however, is not effective in getting its message across to the public; and not just about what it is as an organization, but what it does. The U.S. has one of the worst records for loss and destruction from fire in the world. These losses, as we all know, occur locally. The fact that the fire problem is a local issue further emphasizes the need for marketing.


How we are known

Public image of the fire service is critical. Every act we perform in public is watched and evaluated. People make judgments about our abilities all of the time. They are sizing us up when we are in emergency situations and when we are not, which is most of the time and an excellent time to communicate to the public who we are and that we know what we are doing.

Marketing brings our actions in line with what we say. Our public image and reputation is one of the most important qualities we possess. In marketing terms, it is called "brand equity." The Maltese Cross is “brand fire department.” Think about the opportunity and strength in that symbol. Everyone knows what it means. Our citizens are inculcated with “brand fire department.” It is in every town in America. It is interwoven in the fabric of this country. And its growth is our responsibility. Always ask, “How are we known?” Consistent, positive awareness equals community support.


The marketing environment for fire departments today

According to the American Advertising Association, citizens are bombarded by more than 6,000 marketing messages daily. The public is more informed than ever before because of information proliferation. It is also more difficult to penetrate that bombardment to get our message across. With more knowledge, citizens are more inquisitive. They want to know how their money is being spent. With no visibility comes speculation. Technology and speed create a “do-more-with-less” mentality. This may mean the public perceives that it should take fewer people, fewer organizations and less material for us to do our job more efficiently and with higher expectations.

The growth of information creates knowledge. This, in turn, creates customer sophistication. When customers become more sophisticated, they are in a better position to compare services, determine what they think the value should be and demand accountability. This should not come as a shock. Organizations become better internally and externally when they are consistently sharpening their services and its delivery to their customers. Your fire department should welcome this kind of customer scrutiny because it will make the department better. In public service, virtually every aspect of life is under scrutiny and evaluation. This kind of microscopic, “fishbowl” situation provides daily challenges, but that is only half of the story.

If our customers do not know about a service or product, why should they pay for it consistently? If they must have the service or product, how much should they pay for it? What measurement do they use to make that judgment? This justifies a need for the marketing function for emergency services, but an effective one that is integrated and based on the needs of all of its constituencies – externally and internally.


A moving target

Constantly changing needs dictate that marketing be a dynamic system inside and outside the fire department. Before the Oklahoma City, OK, terrorist bombing in 1995, few fire departments were concerned with terrorism. Since 9/11, terrorism has defined a significant part of our service capability. Marketing makes the public aware of our changing responsibilities.

The astronomical growth of non-emergency-care calls has brought up the question of the use of emergency vehicles for such needs – consider the cost of using a fully staffed pumper as a taxicab. Some departments have established non-emergency-care teams to deal with these situations. Marketing informs the public about how and why we deploy our resources in certain ways.

Demographic trends create different needs and opportunities. Consider the influx of immigrant groups just within the past five years, combined with the aging of the baby boomers and the growth of small communities outside major metropolitan areas. These trends point to significant challenges – and marketing opportunities – for your department.

With an aging population comes varying sets of needs, especially the need for emergency health care. Additionally, statistics demonstrate that most fires occur among the very old as well as the very young. Immigrant populations mean that we will need to learn not only new languages and cultural ways, but how these immigrant cultures view and react to fire and health emergencies. Some years ago, the city of Bellevue, WA, experienced a rapid influx of Russian immigrants who did not understand the need for, or operating function of, smoke detectors.

After detailed research, public educators from the Bellevue Fire Department launched a campaign in the Russian language to deal with the problem. (The Fire 20/20 Organization, led by Larry Sagen, has contributed greatly in this area.)


Public service vs. private enterprise marketing

Although on the surface they appear to be the same, public and commercial marketing are worlds apart. The difference between the two is a point of confusion and misunderstanding in the fire and emergency services.

Private enterprise finds needs to fill and seeks market domination at a profit. Public service marketing finds needs and seeks service perpetuation. Public service marketing service is dispensed in proportion to need. Public service marketing seeks to serve the public to protect and enhance the quality of life of its citizens. Private enterprise seeks to create and retain a customer for increased market share, increased volume and profit.

In public service marketing, the motivating factors are excellence, pride and care. We are not selling anything. We are informing the public about our service so they know what we are doing. When they become educated about what we do and the value of what we do, we grow and maintain our support. As we do this, we control our image. While the general use of marketing management as a tool is to inform the public about what we do, it also educates the public about what they should do to protect themselves.

Until recently, few fire service officials contemplated how the marketing concept could have any use for their needs. It was foreign to them, reserved only for commercial business. It is just within the past 10 years that we have begun to realize that marketing does have significant application to all public services. And even now, the term can invite distrust and misunderstanding. That is why it is important to have a clear understanding of its true definition.

Consider the development of fire protection in America even as late as 30 years ago. Now, compare it to the origins of a production-driven economy. Fire departments predominantly extinguished fires once they broke out. The fire service was basically a suppression business with little emphasis on prevention and education until the publication of America Burning in 1973, detailing the scope of the national fire problem. We saw ourselves as a vital, one-dimensional service in every community; a virtual monopoly.

As the needs of our citizens changed, we had to change. The fire service offers many functions and services, but nothing is written in stone that we will continue to deliver our services if they are not seen as needed and vital. There are a growing number of fire departments today with comprehensive marketing plans and dedicated personnel responsible for administering them. There is also an emerging trend to hire an executive civilian marketing professional who has a dedication to the fire service.

Future articles will examine marketing in terms of what business we are in, the key marketing challenges we face and the framework for an effective fire department marketing plan.