Why Telling People about the Fire Service Matters So Much

 When Pete Matthews asked me to consider writing a Blog for Firehouse.Com I was really honored.  You may wonder why this might be because I have been fortunate enough to write a column on marketing for both Firehouse Magazine and Firehouse.Com for the last nine years thanks to Jeff Barrington, one of my best friends, and Pete.

“Jewish Boys Don’t Become Firemen”

So let me tell you a story all of us understand.   It’s important for you to understand what got me here.  If I can share some of myself with you then, perhaps, you will share with me the same passion we all have for the fire service.  Why the fire service and why marketing?  Since my first memory when I was a tot in Oklahoma City almost 60 years ago I wanted to be a fire fighter. OK, you are saying, “So what.” “Me too.”  “That’s why I became one.”  “What makes you so special?”   It’s not me that’s special.  It’s each of you reading this blog.  It’s every person in fire protection and in the fire service. I believe that everything happens for a reason and we are all different with unique experiences, strengths and skills. From my first thought to this day, I think about what it’s like to be a fire fighter, a fire officer and a fire chief.  I think about fire departments and what makes them great.  I remember a quote that “Genius is nothing more than observation coupled with a fixed purpose.”  I am certainly no genius but I do have a fixed purpose: to spread the word about how great each fire fighter and fire department can be and what it means to be a part of a brother and sisterhood that represents all that is good in this world. Why would I think this is so?  Why the fire department instead of some other service or group of people. I am not certain that I know but to bare my heart and tell you another story. When I was six my parents were divorced. My father left. He had his own men’s retail clothing business called May Brothers in Oklahoma City.  I spent each weekend with dad.  He would ask what I wanted to do.  I would say, “Go to the main fire station in Oklahoma City.”  So we would go there and I would talk to all of the firemen and go over the apparatus. At the time there were well over twenty stations in Oklahoma City.  And each weekend we would visit a new station. When we finished the last one, we would start over with the main one.  This went on until I was about twelve. Then I stopped seeing dad because it was just easier to deal with my mom’s hatred of dad, and just let it go. Mom sent me to a prep school in Oklahoma City called Casady.  I was one of the only Jewish kids there.  I had few friends and I did not know how to study.  It was hard as hell, but I did learn how to study.

I Had to Put my Mother in the Psychiatric Ward of a Hospital when I was 16. 

When I graduated I told mom I wanted to go to OklahomaStateUniversity to be the best fire fighter I could. She said, “Jewish boys aren’t fireman!”  “You are going to ‘make something of yourself.’”  My mother was a good person and she loved me dearly.  But she had major problems.  She had squandered a very large inheritance as well as the money she got from the divorce settlement. She was addicted to prescription drugs and she was becoming psychotic. I had to put my mother in the psychiatric ward of a hospital when I was 16.  She would be committed five more times over the next ten years.  It was unnerving, but I didn’t have time to be scared.  I paid my way through Casady and buried my dream of being a fire fighter. I think that the fire department represented a kind of strength and calm for my chaotic life.  It encompassed a kind of care and security.  I wanted to be able to give that care and security to others.  I wanted to be the one to say, “Everything is going to be OK.”

I went on to college at the University of Oklahoma and then to the AmericanUniversity in DC finishing with a Master’s Degree in, of all things, the Russian Language because my advisors kept telling me I had an “ear” for language. Go figure. I got married when I was 20.  When I graduate school I couldn’t get a job in the area of Russian Language.  So I thought that maybe I could finally realize my dream and become a fire fighter.  I took the test for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.  I was first on the list, but I froze. I kept hearing my mom’s words (even if she was daffy).  I had no head for math and I didn’t understand tools or technology.  Bottom-line, I had no confidence.  So I became a volunteer with Hillandale Fire and Rescue: a small department in the county.  I approached it like was a full-tine fire fighter.  I graduated first in a class of 100 at the public service training academy. So much for what I thought I couldn’t do. But by the time I took the test again, there were so many people who wanted to be fire fighters; I couldn’t even get in to take the test.

A Fire Service “Salesman”

I had worked my way through graduate school as a clerk in a wine shop in DC. 

One day a wine and spirits salesman who called on the shop suggested that I might want to become a wine consultant for the firm his dad owned.  “You are a natural born salesman.”  “A salesman!!”  ‘I hate selling! Hate the thought of it!”  “Well, you could really be good at it if you applied yourself.  “I thought about it and decided to work with what I had.  I needed a job.   I spent the next 25 years in the wine business, working my way up to becoming a Vice President of National Accounts Marketing for a company called Chateau Ste. Michelle.  I read every marketing and sales book I could get my hands on (I still do).  I inhaled them.  Simultaneously, I was taking Fire Science courses at night, developing an area I called “Fire Service Marketing Management.”  I got the idea from Chief Warren Isman, Chief of Fairfax County at the time, having previously been the Director of Montgomery County Fire and Rescue while I was in rookie school, Warren was the foremost authority on HazMat in the country. He would go around the country giving seminars on the subject. One day an article appeared in the Washington Post saying that he was not giving enough attention to his own jurisdiction.  I wrote an article rebutting the article noting that Chief Isman was a great leader and he had good Deputies who could run things while he was gone. Warren wanted to meet me.  I told him my story. He told me that he’d never seen anyone so passionate about the fire service. “You need to tell people our story.”  It is so necessary and nobody is really doing it.” That’s the best way to use your talents on behalf of the fire service. “One more thing.” He said, as I walked out of his office. “I am Jewish just like you, and I am a fire chief!”  It was the last time I saw him.  He died prematurely a few years later from a heart attack while giving a HazMat seminar in England.


So I set about to do just what Chief Isman suggested.  Why couldn’t I apply all of the marketing education and experience I had to the fire service?  So I started to give these presentations around the country at places like FDIC and Firehouse Expo. In 1990 I was transferred from DC to Seattle: the headquarters of Chateau Ste. Michelle. One day I received a call from Chief Jim Davis of Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District, a jurisdiction just outside Seattle.

He sat in one of my seminars, liked what he heard and wanted to know if I would be Fire Commissioner.  “Fire Commissioner?!”  “I don’t think I’m qualified.”  “Oh, yes you are. You love the fire service, you know marketing and business and I think you could make a big contribution to our department.”  “I will report to you.”  The CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle told me to do it.  He thought it would be great PR for the company as long as I could do my “day job” as well.  My wife said, “No.”  I did it anyway.  I had to do it.  So for the next six years I did something I loved more than anything except my children.  I was with a great, progressive department with amazingly intelligent and committed fire fighters. In Woodinville I met someone as “nutty” enthusiastic as me for the fire service: Mark Emery. When we both were in a room together we would “bounce off the walls” with ideas. Mark really helped me and is a great friend and colleague to this day.  In Woodinville I applied all of the marketing and leadership principles I had learned in the organization where I had worked and from what I learned in studying about great leaders. Some things worked and some didn’t.  Many times I would fly to Phoenix and sell wine to large hotel and restaurant companies during the day and spend the night in Phoenix fire houses at night, going out on calls.  Then I would meet with Alan Brunicini to get advice on my next marketing move or a customer service idea, or leading a fire department in general.

 “Where’s the Fire?”™ at Epcot®

 I loved being a Fire Commissioner so much that I left the wine business to pursue the fire service in some way.  It was tough at the time because the idea of a “civilian” in a leadership position was seen as outside of the traditions of the fire service. It’s still a tough sell, but times are changing and so are the needs of the fire service.

 I have been down many roads to achieve my dream.  And I have learned many lessons from the journey so far.  Ten years ago I got a call from one of my closest friends, largest client and mentor: Lee Cockerell, the Executive Vice President of Walt Disney World in Florida.  I had helped him create his wine program first when he was an executive with Marriott, and then when he first came to Disney in France.  He had known me for 20 years and he knew I loved the fire service.  Much of what I learned about leadership came from Lee. I studied everything he did. He was like the big brother I never had.

He wanted me to be a part of a new team called Business Development.  I took the plunge about ten years ago. Disney allowed me to create the largest public fire education experience in the world-Where’s the Fire? - with the sponsorship of a great company: Liberty Mutual insurance. 

Marketing’s Journey and Leadership Lessons Learned for You

So why do I want you to know this story? I hope you don’t take it as being self serving.  It is not my way and that’s not the purpose.  My goal is to convey three thoughts:

  1. If you believe in your passion strongly enough; that you were put on this earth to make a contribution, nothing can really stop you.  It may not be in the exact form you want initially, but if you open yourself up to the possibilities, you may go beyond your goal.


  1. If the fire service is to fulfill its mission and to grow it must adopt a marketing strategy, especially to maintain consistent funding sources. We must be able to come to a place where we no longer worry about financial support-regardless of the economy.


  1. There are many great companies and organizations in the world.  Equally, there are many great fire departments, great fire officers and fire fighters.  There is much we can learn from these companies and the way they do things as we are constantly looking to “better our game” in public safety.  There is much these companies can learn from us: our passion, love of our profession, our ability to solve problems and, constantly reaching for higher levels of excellence.



What I Hope this Blog Will Do for You

This blog is designed to relate some simple lessons that I have learned about marketing and leadership- how each of you can use these lessons for your own departments and in your own lives.  Great fire departments are made up of great fire fighters.  People need to know.  My mission is very simple: To contribute to the fire and life safety services by bringing an understanding and awareness of its purposes, action and results to the citizens and institutions it protects.  This journey has taken me to many places –some of them difficult.  Much of the time people around me, especially my own family, just don’t understand the passion and enthusiasm for the fire service. To me, talking about the fire service is like breathing or like eating a big chocolate cake, and never getting full.  And it is something I will always love.  So every week, and whenever I do blog, just remember that it’s for love of the service that I do it, for each of you and your families.


A Burning Passion: Ben’s Weekly Marketing Notes


Ben’s Marketing Notes are for the Global Brotherhood of Fire Fighters and Officers

A Higher Calling

Some of us are called to a profession or avocation very early in life. This is not unusual or strange.  It happens all the time.  It is a passion.  If you look at the definition for passion, you will see the word, "pain."  This is so because one's passion can take one to dark and difficult places where their talent and love of the profession may lead.  It means doing what must be done in the most professional manner possible to deliver on the vision and mission of the fire service and for the citizens it protects. It is never easy to be a good leader. The fire service today needs people who can be great leaders because there are so many demands-from ever changing code compliances to new OSHA standards to changing needs of diverse populations.

If you think about it, every action that a fire fighter takes in his or her professional- and even personal life -reflects on the entire fire service in the eyes of our citizens and our society.  We are called to a higher level of service and expectation.  It’s the reason why we love the job. This is critical to the image and the correct perception that the department projects. It’s in everything we do and for which we stand.

This has everything to do with leadership.  Seems like over fifty years I have seen every kind of leader in so many different organizations from government to private enterprise to non-profits.  And with all of the books and the seminars and everything else dedicated to this subject, it still comes down to a very few things.

First, "who am I?" Who am I as a man or woman?  What do I stand for?  How do I see the world and those around me who live in it?  Specifically, how do I feel and think about the world of my community and my family?  And how do I feel and think about the fire service?  I am not referring to actions yet.  I am talking about how the leader should be.  We are human "beings" first, not human "doings." This is how I felt the night I was sworn in as commissioner for Woodinville Fire and Life Safety District just outside Seattle.  I was transported to a place where I could see myself with a vision of what I could become because I loved the fire department so much and Woodinville was that department.  From that day to this it was the pinnacle for me.  Some people might think this is a bit strange to feel that way about the fire service and even stranger about one fire department in a corner of the Pacific Northwest.  I don’t care about that.  It is a natural extension of what I know about Woodinville’s potential coupled with what I have learned about organizational leadership in the private and public sector over the last thirty years. When I think about the brain power in the department, the passion that most of the fire fighters and officers have, and now, the Board of Commissioners, it was more than enough for me. 

Then we come to what the leader can do.  How is the leader going to take that passion and apply it to the thing he or she loves?  Leading, as you well know, will always be a lonely job in the end. One must be tough minded to make fair decisions based on the needs of the fire fighters and those of the commissioners and the community.  This leads to understanding the processes that make the department perform; being able to dip into the details when necessary if you as Chief don’t understand something.

Then comes the best part: knowing the capabilities and the goals of each member of the department, and making their goals synonymous with those of the department, its vision and mission. We need to know how to tap into the brain trust to bring the department (and those departments around it) to a higher level.  Luckily, there is plenty of room for development in the fire service in this country.  Even the best department is behind compared to some departments in the UK for example. The good news is that there is a pathway to this new level of excellence.  But it needs to be the pathway of your department based on your own people.  I believe that it will always be the job of the leader to focus on the potential of each member of the department and what he/she can contribute. Some people say that the purpose of any organization with good leadership is to inspire common people to achieve uncommon goals. I would also say that the leader's goal is to make individual weaknesses irrelevant by leveraging all of the individual strengths together in an organization.  But I think what many people do not understand is that fire fighters are not common people. They aspire to a higher calling as dictated by the profession. That's why it is so difficult to become a fire fighter.  And that is why I love it so much.