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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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.