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...


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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.