Marketing The Fire Problem Through Fire Prevention

Oct. 9, 2006
I am constantly amazed at the utter ignorance of otherwise intelligent individuals of the nature and scope of the fire problem in North America.

With all of the attention to EMS and, since 9/11, homeland security, how do we keep the public's attention on the fact that there is still a fire problem? The facts are that the United States and Canada continue to lead the Western world in the number of fires, fatalities, injuries and property destruction from the ravages of fire.

Fire Prevention Week brings home the origin and central reason for the creation of the fire service: to save lives, help the injured, confine and extinguish fire whenever it is out of control and to minimize the damage from it. This also means preventing fires before they begin through codes and their enforcement as well as inspections and public education.

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The Greatest Marketing Opportunity

Fire prevention is the single largest marketing opportunity in the fire service. I am constantly amazed at the utter ignorance of otherwise intelligent individuals of the nature and scope of the fire problem in North America. Not only are our citizens (customers) ignorant of the problem, but there are some in the fire service who are not completely up to date with the current state of the problem across the nation and in their communities.

Ask any of the firefighters or officers around you sometime the following questions:

  1. How many fires occur in the United States annually and on any given day?
  2. How many people in this country are killed in fires annually and how many are injured?
  3. How much property is destroyed annually by fire in this country?
  4. What are the three major causes of fire in this country?

One would think it is only natural that we in the fire service would know the exact detail of the fire problem facing our communities and our country. Not necessarily. Over the last 20 years the basic mission of the fire service has evolved to include over 20 different services besides fire prevention, inspection and suppression. After 9/11, that list has expanded even more. So with all of the knowledge we must accumulate, it is not difficult to understand how we can lose sight of the facts and figures, which govern the origin of the fire service.

Over 1.6 Million Fires Occur Annually in the U.S.

The point: fires still occur in the most technologically advanced civilization on earth and we have one of the worst problems in the Western world. We should all have some familiarization with the scope of the problem.

Let's consider fire prevention, inspection, engineering and public education. The nature of all four is to deter a fire before it breaks out. Much of this part of our jobs is based on selling certain behavior changes to each citizen, business owner and lawmaker so that the environment becomes safer before suppression, the last resort, is summoned. Could you imagine a good salesman attempting to enlighten a customer about something that is for his or her welfare without the knowledge and understanding of the facts of the problem as a basis for discussion?

Think of it this way. We are not selling another widget or a better car or a great bottle of wine. We are selling something of great value: the continued right to live a safe existence in our communities without fear of loss from fire gone out of control. We are selling the right for a group of people to go to a club - such as The Station in West Warwick, RI - to watch a band without fear of being burned alive if not wedged in an exit they should not have taken.

Here is an example of the way you could begin a discussion of the problem to a group or individual. You can tell the customer that you would like to take a few minutes to discuss the fire problem, both nationally and in your community. You might point out that in 1978 the fire problem was seriously out of control. You can relate that a report called America Burning pointed to the seriousness of the problem in the U.S. and suggested ways to reduce the problem.

You could then point out that in spite of the fact that we have greatly reduced the fire problem in this country since that time, we still have the reputation of having the worst record in the western world for destruction by fire. You will probably get a get a blank stare and a response like "I had no idea."

Then you can take the conversation in this direction. Here is an idea of the scope of the problem today in the US. According to the NFPA, fire departments in this country responded to 1,602,000 fires in 2005, an increase of 100,000 fires over 2004. Now, those are fires that we know about through responses to NFPA surveys. Remember, there are over 27,330 fire departments in the U.S., so one must consider the departments that did not have a survey, or did not report through NFIRS. In 2005, 521,500 structure fires occurred, an increase of 3.2 percent. Residential properties suffered 396,500 fires or 76 percent of all structure fires.

There were 3,675 civilian deaths and 115 firefighter deaths, with 2,900 civilian fire deaths that occurred in the home. There were 17,925 civilian injuries. Nationwide there was a fire death every three hours with an injury every 34 minutes. In terms of direct property loss, the count is $10.7 billion.

The Bottom Line: Statistical Snapshot of the U.S. Fire Problem

Here is the bottom line. Every 18 seconds a fire department responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 60 seconds, and in particular a residential fire occurs every 80 seconds. Fires occur in vehicles at the rate of one every 90 seconds, and there is a fire in an outside property every 37 seconds.

In terms of deaths, here is the picture: imagine two fully loaded 747 jets colliding in mid-air with all souls on board being lost every month. Now that you have their attention, you can begin the discussion of how this problem relates to the problem in your community. If you were then to discuss other types of incidents, you might say that in addition to structure fires, fire departments responded to 12,331,000 medical aid calls, 985,000 hazmat calls, 838,500 mutual aid calls. In all, fire departments in the US responded to 20,965,500 incidents.

Crisis Marketing

Louie Fernandez, Senior Bureau Chief of Public Affairs from Miami-Dade Fire & Rescue has coined a phrase: "crisis marketing." The point being that when a major fire breaks out like the one at The Station in Rhode Island just a few years ago, that is the time to immediately begin a media marketing campaign to strengthen the overall initiatives that we all know are critically significant. This is the tactical portion of a good public affairs plan. You might call it marketing ICS. If your department has taken the time to cultivate the critical relationships in your community (i.e., businesses, institutions, government agencies, organizations and the media), you are poised to deploy the information necessary to make an impact. This includes deployment of engine companies for inspections and visibility.

Unfortunately, we are still living by the catastrophic theory of fire prevention - from the Coconut Grove fire to the Happy Land Social Club fire to The Station fire in Rhode Island. This does not need to be the norm in our society. We have been dealing with the problem for so long this way; we think this dysfunctional approach is normal.

This is not the case in countries such as the U.K. or Japan. In those countries, the emphasis and budget spend is on prevention, inspection, in-structure suppression, stricter codes and public education. But, these are thoughts for another column. For now, let's remember to use the marketing mechanism to make certain that the citizens, institutions and businesses we protect are safer from the first reason we are in business: the fire problem.

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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