Customer Service, Southern Style

The issue of customer service delivery continues to gain momentum within our business. It is rewarding to see this concept taking hold and becoming a basic philosophy of our job.

Previous installments of this series outlined the organizational commitment, support and the other concerns that may help a department get started in its customer service journey (February 1999) and reviewed how to obtain and use customer feedback (April 1999). This article will look at success stories experienced by my department, the Dothan, AL, Fire Department. These case studies offer ideas and opportunities for emergency service organizations.

It's Now Part Of The Job

Late-afternoon thunderstorms are a nearly everyday occurrence in the South. When the large thunderhead clouds appear, you can expect the emergency service workload to soon pick up. First, the high winds tend to cause system problems. Wires arc, transformers explode and many false alarms will be answered because of power surges. Next, the rain seems to compel the "nuts" to drive their cars all over town, resulting in many auto accidents. But perhaps the worst part of these events is the lightning strikes - they provide a great ignition source, starting fires at random.

A few summers ago, one such storm ripped through our city. After about 10 minutes, a structural fire report was transmitted for a burning mobile home. A lightning bolt had crashed out of the sky, striking the trailer and setting it on fire. Within minutes, the fire broke out through a window and began consuming the entire home. The customer was not home, having left with the family members for Sunday dinner.

As expected, the fire spread rapidly and consumed most of the contents before we could arrive. Unfortunately, the resident, a middle-aged widow, had left the sole occupant locked in the trailer. A 5-year old German shepherd was lost in the blaze.

Upon arrival, Paramedic Engine 4 made quick work of the 40-foot single-wide home. After just a few minutes of spraying water and moving the hoseline to the far end of the trailer, the fire was darkened down. As the positive-pressure fans lifted the smoke, the search crews were able to reach the expired canine.

Minutes later, the resident returned to the realization that her home now lay in ruins. The woman's visiting daughter asked about her mother's pet. The bad news was extremely distressing on the widow. Observing the customer's reaction, the incident commander and the owner-occupancy sector officer took the daughter aside and asked permission to remove the dead animal. The remains were unsightly and our guys believed that dealing with this situation would only cause the owner more stress on an already bad day.

The city's animal control officer was dispatched and was on location within 30 minutes (a great response on a Sunday). Firefighters and the animal control officer were able to respectfully remove the pet through the rear door of the trailer, out of the sight of the distressed customer.

In days gone by, the fire department would have not considered such action as being part of our job. The dog would have been left behind for the occupant to see and remove. Although this was a very bleak day for this family, the woman's family appreciated our customer service that day.

Extending Yourself To The Customer

Another local phenomenon (during the summer) is relentless heat and high humidity. From about June through October, we enter our "other season," which is very hot, compared to the "hot season."

In the middle of a sweltering July day, we responded to an automobile fire on the southbound loop of our bypass road. As advertised, the vehicle was fully involved from bumper to bumper. Paramedic Engine 2 and Haz Mat 2 performed the honors. After locating the apparatus uphill, upwind and out of traffic, two firefighters in full turnout gear demonstrated what an elephant might look like stepping on an ant. The 1 3/4-inch attack line nearly submerged the car, stopping the fire just where the firefighters found it.

As the excitement subsided and the mop-up started, an observant fire captain noticed an elderly couple staring at the charred remains of what just minutes earlier had been a perfectly good automobile. He quickly completed a "human" size-up and determined that these two did not need to be standing in the blazing sun much longer. Further, they were from out of state and trying to return home from summer vacation on the Gulf Coast.

Knowing the engine still had some work to do at this alarm, the captain assigned a firefighter/paramedic to evaluate and stay with the pair. The captain also requested the battalion chief to be dispatched, non-emergency. When Battalion 1 arrived, the firefighter/paramedic placed the people into the "chilled" chief's buggy.

With the introductions completed, the battalion chief drove the pair to a hotel about two miles away. He ordered beverages for the man and his wife, then telephoned their insurance agent in Georgia. The agent authorized a rental car and a tow service. Via the 800MHz system, a tow truck was summoned. The captain was asked to collect personal effects from the car. The on-duty chief delivered the now cool and rehydrated family and their belongings to the rental car office. Soon, our two customers were headed east and could plan next years vacation.

Reflecting back a few years again, we would not have extended the simple service that we provided that day. Most likely, we would have gutted the burned portions of the car in front of the melting customers. The smoldering pile of debris would have been piled up at the curb line, near the feet of the two occupants. The fire officer would have explained what we did and how to get a copy of the fire report the following day. The last function would have been to cover the old couple in a thick cloud of diesel exhaust as we returned to quarters.

The next case study involved a diabetic patient with a low blood pressure sugar reaction. This time, it was the men and women of Paramedic Engine 1 to the rescue. Upon arrival, they were faced with an elderly male who was breathing, but unconscious. Among the magic that began to work, one of the talented medics took a blood sugar sample with a "dexistrip." He was able to identify the problem, low blood sugar.

At about this time, a private commercial ambulance arrived and prepared to transport the man. Our medics treated the low blood sugar by administering an I.V. with water and dextrose solution. Within minutes, we had another "save" and the customer regained consciousness.

Seeing the fire truck and ambulance, the patient told the paramedic that he would not go to the hospital. He said he could not pay the ambulance fees and that he wanted to go home. After more monitoring and checking for other injuries, the medic agreed with the man's statement and persuaded him to sign a release form. The ambulance was returned to service and left the scene.

The captain then asked the customer whether he can remember where he lives and whether he has ever ridden a on a fire truck. The crew gathered up the man's shopping bags and placed them in the jump seat area. The man was invited to hop up between the captain and the driver, and they took him home. Again, in the past, we would have left the man very soon after getting a release signed.

Going The "Extra Mile"

When you evaluate the three stories, there is some common ground. First, it took no extraordinary effort to add a tremendous value for the customers. It simply took looking for and then capitalizing on an opportunity, and it did not cost the department or the city an extra dime. The members all said that they enjoy going the "extra mile."

The last factor to consider is the motivation for improved customer service. To a person, our gang is quick to help, not for self promotion or any other rewards. They will tell you that is just the right thing to do. "If my mom and dad were stranded in Georgia, I would want the firefighters there to help them out." The bottom line is that this is a simple, logical process that must be reinforced and rewarded. The liability question will no doubt surface, but I believe that we significantly reduced our liability by not leaving a disoriented elderly man on a street corner or a couple on the side of a busy highway.

I trust that this article has provided fuel for discussion about how your department can provide added value to your service delivery.

Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Dothan, AL, Fire Department.