Marketing Globally To Act Locally

July 1, 2003
Question: Is there one organization, in particular, that has the strength and effectiveness to support my department's needs and its agenda while furthering those of the fire service as a whole?

Answer: The fire service has an association and organization for every emergency function and interest - from the IAFF to SEFO to IFSTA. However, there is one entity that can be a common voice for the fire service on certain issues that affect us all: the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI).

We all experience the daily departmental and community pressures, which appear to involve most of our time and attention. With the increasing number of roles each department must fulfill locally, it is difficult to think about a national agenda. The fire service must speak collectively on certain aspects of this national agenda. If your department is now receiving funding support from the Fire Grant Program, then you know one example of how this national agenda can contribute to our local needs.

Here is a fact that we in the fire service cannot escape: the world is becoming smaller daily. We simply cannot escape the big picture. The events of 9/11 have demonstrated this to us all in the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks to instantaneous communication, the Internet and the proliferation of information, every group or individual that touches the fire service - nationally, globally or locally - can instantly become more knowledgeable about and involved in our business.

It is our responsibility to make certain that such involvement is constructive and supportive. One can even say that this is one of the main reasons to understand and apply the marketing discipline to a public emergency service. The more knowledgeable our citizens become about a particular service, the more involved they become. When they are paying for goods and services, especially in a tough economy, they can become very interested in the value their dollars are delivering.

This really emphasizes a key issue we all must face: consistency and effectiveness of our agenda cannot only be advanced in good economic times. It must move forward all of the time. Our individual and collective futures are linked together. This is true for the largest metropolitan department and the smallest one-station volunteer company. The CFSI acts as a common thread between national organizations to provide information to decision makers at the national level and to promote fire service issues.

This past April, I had the privilege of hosting a small meeting at my house in Tampa requested by Denny Compton, a giant in his contributions to the fire service and past chair of CFSI. We met with Alan Caldwell, present chair, and Bill Webb, executive director. Our purpose was to discuss CFSI and crafting the organization's message. The CFSI is an important piece of the future success of the fire service in gaining support at the national level.

Thanks to the vision of Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pennsylvania), a former volunteer fire chief, the CFSI was formed to become the working arm of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus. With 300 members, it is the largest on the Hill. CFSI is constantly working to enhance its effectiveness. CFSI was created in 1989 to help the members of Congress better understand the roles, needs and challenges of the Fire and EMS Services. Webb, the executive director for the past seven years, is the hard-working, intelligent and exceedingly responsive individual who leads the CFSI's daily efforts. In addition to his small, but effective staff, CFSI receives guidance and support from a National Advisory Committee. Separate from the CFSI Board of Directors, the committee is composed of 48 member organizations that provide input and counsel to CFSI.

The mission of CFSI is to educate the congressional community about the needs, objectives and vision of the U.S. fire service. The CFSI does this through programs, briefings and information dissemination designed to raise the awareness of public safety to new levels. CFSI builds coalitions through knowledge and mutual benefit to reinforce its message and drive through legislation. From a marketing perspective it acts to link fire service needs and objectives to the national agenda, completing a circle of awareness and effectiveness.

The efforts and results of CFSI present an excellent example of marketing leverage at the national level. What is marketing leverage? It is the confluence of positioning, awareness and relationship strength (forming coalitions) to gain objectives. Positioning, we have learned, is the image and the thought that it produces in the mind of the customer (in this case, congress). Awareness increases after we follow through on promises made (the marketing message). However, we must "market," or demonstrate the evidence of our deeds, our integrity. This equation delivers the kind of credibility that makes our voice heard. In a nutshell, that is a function of CFSI. Trust is the result of credibility. Members of Congress and federal agencies turn to CFSI for answers and guidance in support of the national fire service agenda. They, in turn, have the ability to bring even more interest and support to the fire service agenda.

CFSI, although still developing, is following the pattern of an effective marketing strategy. It has exchanged its knowledge and communications effectiveness for the gains of our citizens' safety through the fire service. Those citizens are living in our jurisdictions all over the country, not in Washington, DC. We should never lose sight of how CFSI is connected to each local department and the citizens who are our customers.

The CFSI must continue to increase its own positioning and awareness among the fire service it serves. This is a marketing challenge CFSI must meet through the financial and cooperative support of those it represents: all of us in the U.S. fire and emergency services. The time to establish that support is now.

If you are interested in learning more about CFSI, please visit the website at or telephone 202-371-1277.

Ben May has over 15 years of experience creating and applying the discipline of marketing management to fire departments and emergency service organizations. He has been a firefighter and fire commissioner, and is a graduate of the Montgomery County, MD, Public Service Training Academy. May has over 25 years of experience in business-to-business marketing and sales in the U.S. and internationally. Currently, his responsibilities include developing new business at Walt Disney World's Epcot. May was fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, from 1994 to 1998. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor of arts degree in public affairs and received his master of arts degree in international communication from the American University. May is a member of the Society of Executive Fire Officers, a trustee of the Education Foundation of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and a board member of the Tampa Firefighter's Museum. He welcomes your feedback on the column and he may be contacted at [email protected].

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