Fire Politics Sidebar: Managing Your Department's Reputation

T he International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) paper Taking Responsibility for a Positive Perception (http://www.iafc.org/files/1DEPTadmin/TakingResponsiblity4PositivePublicPerception.pdf), issued earlier this year, highlights the marketing...


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T he International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) paper Taking Responsibility for a Positive Perception (http://www.iafc.org/files/1DEPTadmin/TakingResponsiblity4PositivePublicPerception.pdf), issued earlier this year, highlights the marketing challenges facing the fire service and the “spiral effect” of public scrutiny: financial security, budget cuts, antagonistic debate, defensive posture and behavior scrutiny. This public observation keeps us “under the microscope.”

The good news is that who we are and what we do is there for all to see. Now, this could be our worst nightmare if we approach it from a defensive position, especially when it comes to firefighter behavior and fire officer leadership. If, however, we approach this reality with a strategy and strong, supportive leadership at all levels, these marketing challenges become major opportunities. It can grow into a dynamic force for all public services, but especially those that are literally in every neighborhood in the country and close proximity to our citizens: the fire service.

Back to the beginning

In 2010, one of the great American marketing academics, Philip Kotler, in collaboration with Hermawan Kartajaya and Iwan Setianwan, wrote the book Marketing 3.0: From Products to Customers to the Human Spirit (published by John Wiley and Sons Inc.). While the essence of the book has broad application to the private sector, the real opportunity lies in how public services can use the shifting marketing paradigm to achieve some of the goals outlined in the IAFC paper. The basis of my comparison is that if we look at how fire service marketing has progressed, we can see how it has matched the progression of marketing in the private sector.

The origins of fire protection were based on the delivery of one product: fire suppression. We rescued those in danger and saved property by extinguishing the fire. Simply stated, people called us and we did the job. As time passed, we learned from what has been called “the catastrophic theory of enhanced protection.” We dealt with enough horrific fires and loss of life that we began to progress from fire suppression and life safety to an expansion of the service: comprehensive prevention. This expanded our service to include the key areas of prevention: engineering, code enforcement, inspection and public education.

One of the next major progressions in the extension of our service was aggressive emergency medical intervention. Over the past few years, with the apparent frequency and severity of natural disasters, we have seen the growth of emergency management. This is yet another extension of our service and another chance to work with the public to demonstrate professional behavior to our citizens in a real time of need and concern, both before and after the incident. (This is especially true in the urban/wildland interface.) It gives us the opportunity to broaden our working relationships with other agencies, further demonstrating our value. Of course, all of this is dependent on our behavior and our integrity in the eyes of these agencies and our citizens.

Marketing 3.0 notes the progression of marketing from “products to customers to the ‘human spirit.’ ” The book notes that “Marketing 1.0” was transactional, the key concept being product development and sales in a one-to-many transaction. This is product-centric marketing – “We make it and you buy it.” The similarity to the fire service is “You call us and we put out the fire and save your life.” This was a purely functional approach to our business.

“Marketing 2.0” dealt with the need to position a product or service, as well as the corporation, by speaking to the mind and heart of the individual. Information technology and knowledge create a better-educated consumer. We see consumer-oriented, one-to-one marketing and the attempt to understand what the consumer needs. We see the growth of brand development and the many ways to create a dialogue with the consumer. The similarity in the fire service is a focus on citizen care at the incident (especially care for valuables and integrity of the building after the fire), public fire education, EMS and disaster preparedness.

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