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Marketing Coffee or Fireground Safety: You Have to Sell Your Product

I can recall reading an article in a major magazine a while back which spoke of the marketing of coffee. In this article I affirmed a long-time argument for public relations and marketing within the fire service. Looking back many years, this article discussed the success a certain firm from the Seattle region had in the creation a raging desire for all sorts of specialized coffees. Hmm, does that sound familiar to you? I think that they have succeeded beyond their initial early expectations. I have enjoyed that particular brand of coffee in every state I have been privileged to visit. 

Let me first mention that as an older member of the fire service I come from the generation which solved the world's major problems while drinking a cup of hot coffee at the kitchen table of a firehouse (many, many firehouses actually). I have noted a diminishing interest in coffee among our younger troops, but we still have the coffee machines in our stations here in Adelphia, N.J. And we still sit around the table working to outguess those people who are screwing up our nation. 

I believe that one of the reasons I got my first promotion in the U.S. Air Force was that the fellow who wrote my performance reports at the base fire department loved the way in which I brewed coffee in the big old urn in the kitchen of Station 1 at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. I learned from him and perfected his recipe. Let me assure you that this was many years before Mr. Coffee and all of his imitators were born. 

So, you might rightly ask, what meaning does this have for me as a member of the fire service? A great deal, I feel. It seems that the entrepreneurs in Seattle who brought this concept into being saw something in their research into the European tradition of the coffee house. There was a certain comradely about gathering at the local coffee shop with your friends to solve the problems of the day. He felt that it could be cultivated in our country. I know this always worked for us in the fire station. The feelings of fire department camaraderie seemed to grow through the influence of the fumes from our potent caffeine brew. That and the countless helpings of bovine by-products which we shoveled each day with endless joy and merriment.

That firm felt that with the right marketing techniques, Americans would buy into the various types of exotic coffees which he intended to sell, both in the bean and beverage forms. He felt that the aura of friendship would grow as well. And so it did. When this firm went public its stock shot up more than 700 percent in the first year. And the rest is, as they say, history. And look at the coffee battles which we all see on television every day of our lives.

Another fine example of niche marketing you might say. But there are some important points which you might wish to consider. I say this because they have a meaning which can translate to the delivery of municipal fire protection by you and your fire department. Think about it. What more mundane and commonplace item is there then coffee? I have been drinking it for nearly 50 years, and will probably continue to do so. Let me also assure you that it has done nothing to stunt my growth as early medical experts once preached to worried parents. 

However, this entrepreneur felt that by juicing up the blend with some exotic types of coffee, they could make a difference. That difference would lead to new customers and increased sales. They wanted to make his product attractive, and different. It seems to me as though the original research assumptions of this firm have borne great fruit for the believers in that firm. Let me suggest to you that the lesson here is that if you want to achieve a higher level of firefighter safety on the fireground, you must make your product attractive.

For far too many years now, we have made much of our injury rates. We have thumped our chests and said what tough guys we were. Our departments have, in far too many cases, given lip service to the concepts of safety. Or to say it in still another manner, being safe wasn’t fashionable - it ruined our tough guy image. As one who attended the first Life Safety Summit in Tampa, Fla., back in 2004, and many of the mini-summits around the country, I am here to say that we are the victims of our own marketing.

Think about how many times you have seen us portrayed in situations which were blatantly unsafe in nature. I can recall seeing a photo of a fire officer who ran into a burning building in street clothes to make a rescue. His ignorance in taking this action was overshadowed by the outcome. What would people have said if he too had died as a result of his lack of attention to safe procedures? We must proactively reward those people who play by the rules.

In this way, perhaps we once again can take charge of our safety destiny and stop the inmates from running the asylum of fireground safety. How can we do this?

  • By living the example of safety for your troops
  • Providing awards for units which go without an injury for a given period of time
  • Providing public recognition for those fire and EMS units which practice safety on a daily basis
  • Providing fiscal incentives for safety (and penalties for non-performance)
  • Patches, pins, coffee mugs, t-shirts and warm jackets for the completion of various periods of accident-free performance

Whatever means you can identify should be used. The only way for you to accomplish this is to make your product attractive. Only when people are convinced that they will like your product, will they buy into it. It works with coffee and it can work with safety. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Life Safety Summit, the National Fallen Firefighter's Foundation is gearing up for a 10th anniversary session in Tampa next March. Why not get the jump on them and start marketing firefighter safety for your people?

It has been my lot in life to have been an advocate for firefighter safety for some time now. I have taken a lot of abuse from the tough guys for being a safety sissy. In my case the results have been good. During my time as an active chief officer, all of my people returned home. Some had bumps, bruises, and broken bones, but they all went home. That is my goal for you. Everybody goes home!

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. He is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Howell Township Fire District 2 and retired from the Newark Fire Department as a battalion commander. Dr. Carter has been a member of the Adelphia Fire Company since 1971, serving as chief in 1991. He is a life member and past president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and life member of the National Fire Protection Association. He is president of the United States of America Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) of Great Britain. Dr. Carter holds a Ph.D. in organization and management from Capella University in Minneapolis, MN.