Who We Are And How We Are Known

Aug. 7, 2006
Such is the nature of the market. It is truly unfortunate that horrific acts such as 9/11 had to be the impetus for this increased awareness.

"If Prometheus was worthy of the wrath of Heaven for kindling the first fire upon the earth, how ought the gods to honor the men who make it their professional business to put it out?"

Not only have the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina raised the awareness of the image of the American firefighter in the eyes of the public, they have created a sea change in the manner that advertising and the media approach the public with the image of the American firefighter. At least for now the public has had enough ads reflecting self-absorption and the cult of conspicuous consumption. I remember a front page Wall Street Journal article some years ago noting the controversy surrounding the need for four man engine companies. The impression from the article was that firefighters really did not have much to do anymore since the fire rate had plummeted over the last decade. I do not think the public would allow such an impression now.

The true definition of hero has finely arrived on the scene: it's us. Of course, we always knew this. We always knew why we wanted to become firefighters. It was a very clear mission. It was a calling. Now everyone knows. Firefighters are "in." The only problem is that we will be "out" in the mind of the public about the time we think we are here to stay. Hopefully, what we see today is the emergence of a trend. Such is the nature of the market. It is truly unfortunate that horrific acts such as 9/11 had to be the impetus for this increased awareness.

One of the first things I was taught in an introductory course in Fire Science was the "catastrophic theory of public safety." This theory stated that the fire service learned its lessons by losing people in catastrophic events, thus making changes after the catastrophe to avoid it in the future. It's a high cost to pay to learn a lesson. You might say that we are learning a marketing lesson today. Let's try to make that lesson adaptive ahead of the curve. It seems as though we have been asked to the dance of public awareness. Let's be sure we know the necessary steps to achieve our goals, because our place on center stage will fade fast, regardless of the successes of the FIRE Act and other initiatives.

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Many of us have discussed the need for the fire service to better market itself to the public. We can find this dialogue among rookies, firefighters and officers at all levels. The discussion ranges among leaders of our major national fire service organizations as well. Over the last five years the number of articles, seminars and discussions in departments across the nation and in various officers' courses have addressed the marketing issue. Look at us today. I don't believe anyone would have ever thought that we would have the world's attention like we do. Some might even say that the marketing problem in the fire service has been solved. Most of us know that this just isn't true. The recent increased appropriations from Congress are welcome and they will do much to bolster our place in the homeland security equation. Unfortunately, the catastrophic theory applies here, doesn't it?

Saying the marketing problem is solved is like saying the fire problem is solved. We might be able to say that we have gained significant awareness, beginning with the President of the U.S. and fanning out across the airwaves, newspapers and radios. The image of us as we do our job is a by-product of the delivery of our service. We all know that nothing has really changed. We are just being noticed. We have the public's attention. The question now is what do we do with it? And that is a marketing problem.

The reason many of us think that we are "fat and happy" now is because we may be confused about the real definition of marketing: exchange for mutual gain. The public gives us its hard-earned tax dollars for the protective services we deliver. It is not faddish popularity based on the reality of us just doing our jobs during a tragic event. Marketing is a simple equation comprised of two elements: a promise and the delivery of the promise. It is not an advertising or public relations campaign. These are tactical tools to tell our various publics what our promise is and how we deliver on it so we can stay in business.

This is not the same as private enterprise marketing, the purpose of which is to sell more of a product or service for a profit. Consider this. Your department has been trying for years to lower the fire rate through prevention, code enforcement education and suppression. You have achieved that goal. What do you do now? Close the fire department? No way. If you close the department, you know what will happen. The problem is chronic. It just comes back, perhaps in a different form. You are paid to maintain the safety of your jurisdiction all the time, 24 hours a day. New problems arise: haz-mat, terrorism, etc. And we all know that the fire problem is still alive and well in the U.S. We still have one of the worst records in the world. That's about a million fires, 4,000 people and billions in property loss. Unfortunately, the public still actually does not know about this. Think we have a marketing problem? The same chronic and changing problem applies to marketing, especially marketing a public service that relies on public funding and tax dollars for its existence. For a public service a marketing approach is one that maintains the service's existence to minimize a problem affecting the public. It has nothing to do with selling another widget.

The real question now is how the U.S. Fire Service will manage its new level of awareness to maintain its service for its customers. The answer to this question lies among us first. We need to clearly define among ourselves at all levels-local, state and national-who we are. What is the comprehensive mission? Isn't it fire and life safety? This is crucial, especially as that mission continues to expand. We must define our various agenda and attach a responsible budget. We need to clearly define our multiple markets and the needs of our various constituencies. We should create clear national, state and local marketing/ public affairs action- plans. Finally, we need to implement those plans, knowing that we will need to modify them as we gain feedback from our markets. The question is whether or not we will define our own future or allow others to do it for us.

Give a firefighter a tool to solve a problem, show him or her how to use it and you will get the problem solved. We can create the tools: marketing and public affairs plans designed to better demonstrate to our citizens at every level what we do, why we do it, how we do it and what is costs. There is no question that each department and jurisdiction should engage in this task. Especially now, there must be a long-term plan at the national level. The market is a moving target. We may be in the spotlight now, but that light fades. Our image and our work define a worthy mission. Let's use the tools to maintain it. We deserve our very best, for each other and for the public we serve.

Ben May, a Firehouse.Com and Firehouse Magazine contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, D.C. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort. You can e-mail Ben at [email protected]

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