Marketing Leadership: Part 2 - What Business Are We Really In?

July 1, 2007

Over the past 35 years, fire departments have gone from providing just fire suppression to offering dozens of services — and they keep increasing. From hazardous materials responses to emergency medical services to disaster preparedness to terrorism to high-angle rescue to confined-space rescue to plans review and inspections to blood pressure checks to business recovery to public fire and safety education in the schools and businesses, people come to us because we are the first and last point of response. We bring safety, care, ingenuity and strength — and we never give up. It's why we exist. It's our mission. We are in every single community and we are answering 18 million calls annually. And, in case anyone asks, we still have a fire problem in this country, so we have much to do.

Many years ago, the railroads were the driving force of commerce and industry in this country. Today, that business is but a shadow of its former glory. Executives in the great railroads saw themselves as being in the railroad business, but not the transportation business. They saw their function as one-dimensional instead of comprehensive. A full-service fire department today is really a fire and life safety agency. We protect every citizen in our jurisdiction. We do not have the luxury of private enterprise, delivering different qualities of service to different economic levels. We do not "segment," or divide, our markets so that specific people receive different levels of service.

According to the American Advertising Association, citizens today are bombarded by over 4,000 messages every day. They are more informed than ever before because of information proliferation. It is also more difficult to penetrate the market to get our message across. With more knowledge, citizens are more inquisitive. They want to know how their money is being spent and they are more cynical.

With no visibility comes speculation. Technology and speed create the "do more with less" mentality. This may mean the public perceives that it should take fewer people, organizations and materials to get the job done more efficiently and with higher expectations. This is a consistent marketing issue. The growth of information creates knowledge. This, in turn, creates customer sophistication. When customers become more sophisticated, they are in a better position to compare services, determine what they think the value should be and demand accountability. This should not come as a shock. Your fire department should welcome this kind of customer scrutiny because it will make your department better. In public service, virtually every aspect of life is under scrutiny and evaluation. If our customers do not know about a service or product, however, why should they pay for it consistently? If they must have the service or product, how much should they pay for it? What measurement do they use to make that judgment? This fact justifies a need for the marketing function for emergency services, but an effective one that is integrated and based on the needs of all of its constituencies—externally and internally.

Changing Needs

Constantly changing needs dictate that marketing be a dynamic system inside and outside the fire department. Before the Oklahoma City bombing, few fire departments were concerned with terrorism. After 9/11, terrorism and homeland security have defined a significant part of our service capability.

The astronomical growth of calls for non-emergency care has brought up the question of the use of emergency vehicles for such needs. A few departments have established non-emergency-care teams to deal with these kinds of special needs. As the population ages, this kind of service may grow dramatically, freeing up emergency teams for critical incidents.

The education and intelligence level of firefighters and officers continues to improve. With more education comes individual leadership and empowerment at all levels. This means less of the "command and control" leadership and more of the democratic, flat organizational approach. While this kind of leadership does not apply to an emergency incident, it does apply to 98% of all other organizational activities. This means that the development of our most important resource — our firefighters — is crucial. Consider the influx of immigrant groups just within the past five years, coupled with the aging of the baby boomers and the growth of small communities outside major metropolitan areas. These trends point to significant challenges and opportunities for your department.

With an aging population comes varying sets of needs, especially the need for emergency health care. Additionally, statistics demonstrate that most fires occur among the very old as well as the very young. Immigrant populations mean that we will need to learn not only new languages and cultural ways, but how these immigrant cultures view and react to fire and health emergencies. Some years ago, the city of Bellevue, WA, experienced a rapid influx of Russian immigrants who did not understand the need or operating function of smoke detectors. After some detailed research, public educators from the Bellevue Fire Department launched a campaign in the Russian language to deal with the problem.

Lead or Follow?

Marketing is a full-time job and it requires the entire department and the entire fire service to be a part of it. This is critical if we are to fulfill our mission and responsibility to the public. We can all study the reasons for it and the need to do it, but if we do not put that understanding into action, we will continue to have the worst fire problem in the Western world. Many of us know which way to go, but who is going to lead?

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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