Marketing in the Public’s Service: We Have a Fire Problem

April 1, 2007
The fact remains that the fire service has the responsibility to itself and its constituencies to make certain that the public is aware it is fulfilling its mission.

As I write this column, I am watching TV news coverage of a multiple-family loss from a catastrophic fire in the Bronx, NY: nine people, including eight children! Over the past few months, there has been a major surge in multiple deaths in residential fires all over the country.

We may have been doing an adequate job in stemming the tide, but our luck may have run out. This is a major social marketing problem and one for the fire service called fire prevention!

The dream. Many of us always wanted to be firefighters. As a young boy in Oklahoma City, whenever I saw fire engines pulling up to a fire, men jumping off the apparatus, deploying to attack the inferno, I was mesmerized by the sight: the action, the precision and the control of men knowing what to do in the midst of apparent chaos. It's hard to convey the sense of awe and respect, but think of it like this. Have you ever stood at the foot of the Empire State Building and looked straight up, or stood at the ocean shore just as a violent storm approached? That's how I feel whenever I pass a firehouse and see the apparatus at rest or watch firefighters "on a job." When I had the honor to become a fire commissioner in Woodinville WA, just outside Seattle, I had that same sense of wonder. I remember the night I was sworn in. On the way to headquarters, I kept saying to myself, "This is it, this is it, this is it!" I was never more proud of anything I ever did, besides being my wife's husband and my children's father. I am often asked what is it that so attracts men and women to this profession? My wife often asks, "Why do you want to be around it all of the time?" I do not know the answer to that anymore than I can tell you why my hair is black or my eyes are blue. I just know how I feel when I am around those people and what it means to be a part of that brotherhood of goodness. I have met some of the toughest, most intelligent and kindest individuals anywhere who have chosen to become firefighters. I never met one who just liked the profession, they love it. During a particular tough time in my fire department, I was trying to reassure one of our firefighters. He looked at me and said, "Don't worry, Commissioner; I still get to come out here and do this job. The only regret I have is that I can't live my life twice and be a firefighter all over again." Recalling 9/11 and the ultimate sacrifice of 343 New York City firefighters, I think about the motivation, the care and the love behind that sacrifice. And I remember the central driving force behind a firefighter is not doing a job to pay the bills, it's being a firefighter. The Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran said, "Work is love made visible." If ever there were a manifestation of those words, fire fighting is it. It's not a job, it's a calling. Marketing the fire service is solving our nation's fire problem. You may love the fact that you are a fire officer. You may gain an inner satisfaction knowing that you work with some of the most intelligent, highly motivated and caring people you have ever known. You may glow with an inner pride when you have returned from a successful "knockdown." You may swell with satisfaction after having rescued a trapped citizen who will forever remember your professionalism and care. You may know that you really made a difference after delivering a prevention message that really got through to a group of citizens or children. But, if you do not understand the importance of marketing as a discipline or how to use it as a tool everyday, you may not have the privilege of continuing do be a firefighter in the manner you have come to love. If the fire service is to thrive, it must adopt a marketing perspective. Our existence is not completely dependent on our competency. Just because we do a good job does not necessarily mean we will stay in business in our present form, especially if nobody knows what we do, how we do it or why we do it. This is true locally as well as nationally. Within the past decade, fire service leaders have begun to understand the need for and benefit of marketing management. The critical focus of marketing is to support a fire department's efforts to effectively execute the fire and life safety mission while maintaining strong community and financial support. Marketing management as a formal activity has significant application to fire and emergency services. Virtually everything we do in public service has a marketing aspect to it - from our uniforms to our apparatus to how we fight fires. One of the most respected fire officers in this country, Chief Ron Coleman, noted in Fire Chief magazine over 20 years ago that "if the fire service is to survive in the next century, it must adopt a marketing strategy." The result of effective marketing is that the community you serve views your fire department as one of the most trusted public service agencies in its geographic area. It means that the citizens in your community will do all they can to maintain the services that you provide. In a poll taken some years ago by the newspaper USA Today, citizens rated their fire departments as the most trusted entity of all public services and second only to their immediate families. This should come as no surprise when one considers the motivation and passion that most firefighters display for their mission. This perception comes from the fact that when a citizen dials 911, he or she usually receives immediate service. Given the citizen's state of mind in his or her own perceived emergency, it is little wonder that the "rescuer" has gained a kind of trust that is literally life-dependent. While many citizens may experience some kind of perceived emergency once in their lives, an emergency is usually a rare occurrence. The frequency of emergencies depends on a number of socio-economic factors. Naturally, those areas of the community we define as "at risk" will experience more emergencies. The fact remains that the fire service has the responsibility to itself and its constituencies to make certain that the public is aware it is fulfilling its mission. This is critical to maintaining financial support. The irony of this reality for the fire and emergency services is that the fire service is not more effective in getting its message across to the public; and not just about what it is as an organization, but what it does. The United States still has one of the worst records in the world for loss and destruction from fire. These losses, as we all know, occur locally. The fact that the fire problem is a local issue further emphasizes the need for marketing. We need to keep these two key challenges in mind: public awareness of the fire service's function and the fire problem itself. Differences between public service marketing and private enterprise marketing. Public and commercial marketing are worlds apart, yet they appear to be the same on the surface. It is critical to know the difference between the two because this is the point of confusion and misunderstanding in the fire and emergency services about marketing's definition. Private enterprise finds needs to fill and seeks total market domination at a profit. Public service marketing finds needs and seeks service perpetuation. Public service marketing is dispensed in proportion to need. More is not necessarily better. Public service marketing seeks to serve the public to protect and enhance the quality of life of its citizens. Private enterprise seeks to create and retain a customer for increased market share, increased volume and increased profits. In public service marketing excellence, pride and care are always the motivating factors, not profit. We are not selling widgets. We are informing the public about our service as we protect our communities so that they know what we are doing. When they become educated about what we do and the value of what we do, we grow and maintain our support. As we do this, we control our image. While the general use of marketing management as a tool is to inform the public about what we do, it also educates the public about what they should do to protect themselves. Safety is a two-way street, a team sport. This is a major difference between commercial and public service marketing. We communicate to educate. This is called social marketing and its main use is to change behavior. Your fire department's public image: How we are known. Public image of the fire service is critical. Every act that we perform in public is watched and evaluated. This means the way we deal with the public and look in public. People make judgments about our abilities all of the time. They are sizing us up when we are in emergency situations and when we are not - which is most of the time. Especially when we are not at incidents is an excellent time to communicate to the public who we are and that we know what we are doing. In emergencies they expect us to know what we are doing. What we do is how we are known. Marketing brings our actions in line with what we say. Our public image and reputation is one of the most important qualities we possess. In marketing terms it is called brand equity. The Maltese cross is "brand fire department." Think about the opportunity and strength in that symbol. Everyone knows what it means. Our citizens are inculcated with it from the time they are babies until they die. It is in every town in America. It is interwoven in the fabric of this country. And its growth is our responsibility. Always ask, "How are we known?" And make sure the message is consistent/simple. Consistent positive awareness equals community support. Any act we perform, good or bad, reflects on the entire brand nationally. This is not true in private enterprise. If we have a bad experience with a particular car, we can go to another brand. However, if we cannot help the public prevent fires, our image and brand equity will suffer. The fire and emergency service's consistent need for marketing: comprehensive fire prevention. Until recently, fire and emergency service officials never even contemplated how the marketing concept could have any use for their needs. It was foreign to them, reserved only for commercial business. It is just within the past 10 years that we have begun to realize that the term does have significant application to all public services. And even now, the term can invite distrust and misunderstanding. That is why it is important to have a clear understanding of its true definition. Consider the development of fire protection in America even as late as 30 years ago. Now, compare it to the origins of a production-driven economy. Fire departments predominantly extinguished fires once they broke out. The fire service was basically a suppression business with very little emphasis on prevention and education until the publication of America Burning in 1973, detailing the scope of the national fire problem. We saw ourselves as a vital, one-dimensional service in every community, a virtual monopoly. As the needs of our citizens changed, we had to change. The fire service now has many more functions and services that it offers to our citizens. However, there is nothing written in stone that we will continue to deliver our services if they are not seen as needed and vital for the market. And, we have a major fire problem that continues to this day. BEN MAY, a Firehouse contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for more than 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.

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