"Chief" Marketing Officer: Toward Ever-Higher Quality

March 1, 2006

Since creating "Where's the Fire?", our interactive fire education experience in collaboration with Liberty Mutual at Epcot, we have been fortunate to see many fire service organizations holding their meetings at Walt Disney World Resort. Last year, I met Chief Randy Bruegman during a Commission on Fire Accreditation (CFAI) board members' conference there. Readers know how much I believe in the good work and effectiveness of CFAI. Every time I write about CFAI and measuring the success of a fire department's effectiveness, I receive well over 100 e-mails.

I asked Bruegman to answer key questions relating to marketing through his successful efforts with the department in Fresno, CA, Fire Department. My purpose was to understand how one of the top chiefs in the country sees marketing's application to the fire service, especially to his department.

Bruegman began his career in the fire service as a volunteer firefighter in Nebraska. In 1979, he was hired by Fort Collins, CO, as a firefighter and later served as engineer, inspector, lieutenant, captain and battalion chief. He was fire chief for the City of Campbell, CA, the Village of Hoffman Estates, IL, and Clackamas County, OR, Fire District 1 before becoming chief of the Fresno Fire Department since September 2003. Bruegman has served as president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and is president of board of trustees of CFAI. He has an associate's degree in fire science, a bachelor's degree in business, and a master's degree in management. Bruegman is the author of Exceeding Customer Expectations: Quality Concepts for the Fire Service (Prentice Hall/Brady Fire), in which he sets the standards for how a fire department can deal with change as it enhances its services to meet the needs of citizens.

As president of CFAI, Bruegman is creating a strong organization that is making one of the more significant contributions to our nation's fire protection system. In the short time I have known him, I have found him to be on the forefront of progressive leadership. He is consistently striving to lead the fire service to ever higher standards of quality. He never stands still, knowing very well that the market is always a moving target and change is constant.

Established in 1877, the Fresno Fire Department is one of the oldest fire departments in the United States, rich in history and tradition. Over the past 20 years, it has had to do more with less. In 1980, with a population of 180,000 in a service area of 80 square miles, the department had over 300 firefighters. Today, it serves a population of 470,000 covering over 110 square miles with 353 permanent positions and responding to more than 32,000 incidents annually.

The department has received national recognition for its innovative and progressive approach to alternate methods of providing municipal fire protection, such as a municipal fire sprinkler ordinance. Recently, it gained approval for the inclusion of sprinkler in kitchens in all new construction and full systems in all multi-family residences starting with three units and in single-family homes over 5,000 square feet.

Firehouse: As a chief, how have you come to understand the term "marketing" and its uses for the fire service?
Bruegman: Many times in the fire service, we get confused in respect to the difference between education and marketing. We believe if we have a quality educational outreach throughout our community, it serves as the basis for marketing the department. I don't believe this is the case. Marketing takes a much different approach. Although it has an educational aspect, marketing is the means by which you get the broad goals and objectives out from a community-wide perspective. Also, it educates the community about the department's key strategic initiatives. It is the "top of the mind" awareness of what your organization is doing that you are trying to translate through effective marketing in your community.

Firehouse: When you came to Fresno, what major challenges did you face?
Bruegman: When I arrived in Fresno, we faced significant challenges in all areas of the department. The department had been under-invested in for almost 25 years and in fact, today we still have fewer firefighters than we did in 1980 and the city has more than doubled in population. What I found was a department that was highly skilled, yet simply did not have the infrastructure to support the demands placed upon it, including personnel, rolling stock and fire stations. The existing stations were in disrepair; we are literally seven to eight stations short from where we should be currently. We focused on getting our hands around this challenge and began to formulate a strategic effort to address these issues.

Firehouse: What were the key initiatives you wanted to move forward? How did you use marketing and public communications to gain your initiatives?
Bruegman: It was evident the problems were so significant that we needed to take a different approach in addressing them. It was often hard to articulate in terms of the fire service our needs to the general community. So with the development of a community-based public safety commission report sanctioned by the mayor and the city council, which outlined the needed resources over the course of the next 20 years, we framed the needs around a very basic concept, "Four Minutes to Excellence." We explained to the community and continue to do so today that the arrival of a fire unit within four minutes after being dispatched is critical to survivability of our residents in an event of a major medical emergency and is paramount if we are to control fires before they reach flashover. The "Four Minutes to Excellence" theme is displayed on our marketing and educational materials as well as displayed on our rehabilitation/command bus. These marketing efforts have helped to articulate this message throughout the community.

What has been interesting is that we are 18 months into this process and we can see that it is working. Many times when I'm interviewed, a reporter will ask me how this will impact the department's "Four Minutes to Excellence" plan and the council will do the same during presentations that I make on needed resources. We have been able to frame the issue in a way that the general public can understand. The bottom line is when someone calls 911, they want trained fire personnel as quickly as possible. It is a terminology they can quickly understand and equate it to their own reality in respect to emergency response.

Firehouse: How did you measure the results and convey to the citizens?
Bruegman: We have not undertaken any formal measurement in respect to how our message has been received from the general public but just from the feedback I have received from my interactions throughout the community and with other elected officials I think the communications plan for "Four Minutes to Excellence" has worked well considering our small investment in its marketing. In fact probably the best example is that while going through the most recent Veterans Day Parade we had several people yell out along the route that Fire Department needs more money to achieve the "Four Minutes to Excellence," so we can see that it has performed throughout the community in a real-world sense. I think it has positioned the organization to achieve the objectives outlined in the public safety commission plan.

Firehouse: What role did prevention play in your initiatives?
Bruegman: This past year, we were able to change our master fee schedule in respect to inspection fees and hire an additional 10 inspectors, which was the first time inspectors were hired in over 20 years. Prevention is a critical part of our overall plan as is the educational piece of prevention. We have a very comprehensive juvenile firesetter program that we work in concert with Fresno State University utilizing the psychology doctoral candidates to assist us. This has proven to be very, very successful.

Firehouse: What role did customer service play?
Bruegman: Customer service is critical in everything we do. It only takes one bad experience to turn off many people within the community. We are fortunate that our firefighters realize this and take the time to go above and beyond from a customer service perspective. Their commitment off duty to community outreach is unsurpassed. We are involved in a variety of activities including Firefighters Creating Memories, which takes local children with physical and mental challenges and their families to the fair for 17 days in October; Fill-the-Helmet, which collects money for the local regional burn unit; hosting the box cart races; Fill-the-Boot for MD; the Fresno Fire Chief's Foundation which supports education outreach and a variety of other events. Some of the events are through their union local and some in conjunction with the fire department. It is the primary focus of the department to provide customer service both on and off duty.

Firehouse: How do you view accreditation?
Bruegman: Accreditation for us is the key to moving the organization to where we want to be in the future. We have been engaged in the process for about 12 months and have about 18 months to go before we are ready to submit to be reviewed. This provides us the framework by which we can address some of the significant infrastructure issues that we have had not only from our emergency response standpoint but also how we operate as an organization. It has helped us to internalize and begin to measure all aspects of our organization, is rapidly changing the way we do business, and will lay a solid foundation for us to continue to progress in the future.

Firehouse: What is your internal approach (within the department, personnel, leadership, and management issues) to get your initiatives through?
Bruegman: The internal approach I have used with everyone in the organization is inclusion and communication. We have jointly developed a game plan for what the future of the department will be or try to communicate this to everyone throughout the organization so that no one is confused about the direction and the key objectives of what the department is shooting for. I personally like to take a collaborative approach. For example, when we began to develop our five-year plan, I brought a group of people together, not only senior leadership, but representatives of the local as well as other line officers to prioritize what our key priorities would be over the next five years. This helps to not only create a group of stakeholders who understand the process and will go out and explain it to everybody else, but the key benefit is that it brings different perspectives to the table. It allows for a synergy of thought to be created that is much more powerful than if three or four chiefs sat in a room to develop the plan from an executive-level thought process.

Firehouse: What alliances have you formed; i.e., with businesses, fire departments and other organizations?
Bruegman: While we have created many alliances on many levels, we formed a Fire Chief's Foundation approximately a year ago. It is made up primarily of local business people. This has allowed us to tap into not only their experience and expertise but to create a level of ownership in the department that was nonexistent. Once a year, I personally go to each Rotary Club as well as other organizations, such as the Lions and Kiwanis, to give them an update of what is occurring within the fire department. Although a significant time commitment, it is well worth the effort. We have reached out to become engaged with the Chamber of Commerce, and we are also supporters of Fresno State University and conversely they of us. We have also tried to reach out to develop not only business relationships but levels of understanding of what has impacted those organizations and to see how we may assist them and tackle some of their critical issues as well. It is an alliance that has proven to be very beneficial not only for us, but for them as well.

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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