“Smoke Showing”: Marketing ICS

Aug. 1, 2004
Question: The U.S. fire service has been on a public-image roller coaster since 9/11. FDNY and all of us endured the catastrophic results of that horrific day. Immediately thereafter, we thought that we had rightfully attained the public’s realization and support of our place in society. Now we find ourselves “on the defense” once again. Can we consistently “manage” our image in such a way that brings us the budget strength to maintain our service both locally and nationally?

Answer: This is the real issue in fire and emergency services marketing. How do we maintain a consistently positive image so that we can maintain our budgets to deal with all of the demands on our service? We can’t achieve this goal if there is a sense out there that there are too many of us and that we don’t need the money because the fire problem in the U.S. has diminished so much. We have not done a good enough job of demonstrating our many services to our markets, nor have we demonstrated that we still have a significant fire and fire death problem in the U.S.

Over the past few months, a number of well-placed articles about the fire service have appeared in the print media. Some of these are politically motivated and, hopefully, will have a short-term effect. Political articles can be invitations for a no-win contest. Among other points of contention, the idea that the fire service is on the verge of obsolescence seems to be a consistent theme in these articles.

Two such pieces appeared in The New York Times: an editorial defended the closing of firehouses in New York City and a column by Clyde Haberman focused on the negative behavior of a few firefighters on Staten Island. The conjecture was that the firefighters who got in trouble had too much time on their hands, implying that this is a result of a diminishing need for firefighters. The main reason for this excess time, the articles contends, is that we have been so successful in reducing the fire problem that there’s less for firefighters to do.

The thrust of an article in a right-wing think-tank magazine, American Enterprise (published by the American Enterprise Institute), by Eli Lehrer was that the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is correct in supporting John Kerry for president because the fire service is on its way to obsolescence. The implication is that the Bush administration has given appropriate weight to the financial needs of the fire service by diminishing its financial support. Kerry wants to hire 100,000 new firefighters, in addition to making the FIRE Act more robust. As Lehrer noted, “America’s 291,650 professional firefighters want to keep their jobs; indeed, they will need all the help they can get: Despite the heroic image firefighters earned on 9/11, the profession is currently staring into the abyss of obsolescence. Nearly every major city has reduced its firefighting ranks in the last three years, and, while federal grants to fire departments will remain at nearly double the levels of 2002, the Bush administration has proposed a fiscal 2005 budget that would give firefighters less federal aid than they got in 2004. Firefighting cuts at the local and federal levels make good sense because professional firefighting has become almost boring. New building practices, technology, professional emergency management and exigencies of homeland security are sending firefighters the way of blacksmiths and slide rule manufacturers.”

We have seen these kinds of articles before and we will see them again. But there are important points to observe. First, these articles are from totally divergent sources, one liberal and one conservative, yet they say the same thing. The New York Times is a very influential liberal newspaper. The American Enterprise Institute, founded in 1943, possesses some fairly influential and noted academics, politicians and statesmen who happen to have a very conservative view of the world.

While politically motivated messages are usually taken with significant beakers of salt, the underlying meaning for us is to be vigilant and, in some cases, take immediate and decisive action. This is especially true when the facts don’t bear out the message. People have a way of believing these things, especially when they are presented in media many people trust.

So what do these signals portend for us? Think about it this way. Your engine is first due on a call for “light smoke showing.” The caller states it appears that brown smoke is emanating from a window in a large building. Your station is about a mile from the building. As you pull out of the bay, you see light smoke looming up over the horizon. Nearing the scene, you see the light brown smoke turning to black as it pulsates out of the three windows on the first floor of the building. You radio headquarters for a second alarm, noting that if you don’t move quickly you will have to deal with “all hands.”

As a marketing professional dedicated to the fire service, it is always important to watch the horizon for that “loom up.” When you see it, you need to think about “Marketing ICS” to keep that dragon in its cave. Marketing ICS means we need an action plan. This problem is only going to become worse, unless and until the national agenda adds more strength to the fire and emergency services.

Even if the national agenda changes for the better on our behalf, we still need a comprehensive marketing action plan (ICS) that addresses these contingencies once and for all. This means the involvement of every significant agency and enterprise (government, political and corporate) that has a stake in the perpetuation of a healthy (well-funded) fire service.

Sometimes, even our best efforts at marketing management and planning are not enough in the face of rapidly changing market conditions. We can always chastise ourselves for not having a consistent message at all of the right places at the right times. But, fire departments are not marketing agencies, they are multi-service emergency providers. Sometimes, preventative measures only go so far.

Here is an outline for an action plan any department can implement immediately. It is made up of only five “sectors”: relationships, facts, media, message and proximity.

  • Relationships. Relationships are the DNA of the system. Assign the right person at the appropriate influential level to make the department’s case, from the chief to firefighter. Key support relationships are citizens, administrators, politicians, institutions, organizations, corporations and the media.

  • Message. Message is the heart of the system. The message defines the direction of the facts. This is the time to make the case. A decision is made about what the department will say to deal with the issue. The message should be clear, unified and consistent.

  • Facts. Facts are the nuts and bolts of the system. They back up the message. Deal with each disputed point by presenting iron-clad facts. As an example, to refute the point about obsolescence in the Lehrer article, we would note that the fire service is the first-line responder to all emergency incidents, including fires. Call rates of all types of emergencies are increasing – and this does not even begin to tackle the consistent need for new kinds of training to handle the terrorism threat. We do still have fires: 1.7 million last year. These facts should be presented in a format that is well understood, clear and indisputable.

  • Media. Media are the delivery vehicles for the facts in the message. Most fire-rescue service public information officers (PIOs) have excellent relationships with the media. Immediately contact your sources and have the highest-ranking officer deliver your messages with the PIO to all chosen sources – TV, the Internet or forums.

  • Proximity. Proximity means that each assigned member of the department should be in a position to “touch” citizens with the department’s message where and when appropriate.
Ben May 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.

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