Finding The $ To Make The Small Fire Department Work – Part 2

July 1, 2003
Steve Meyer continues his focus on funding with ideas for maximizing resources.
In the May issue our focus on the financial aspects of small fire department management dealt with Budgeting Basics, Seeking Assistance, Alternative Funding and Creative Financing. We established a cadre of options available to small fire departments to help keep a small fire department afloat and on a progressive path.

Successful financing in this day and age goes far beyond fundraisers, grants and being able to manage a budget. In this issue we dig deeper into the soul of small fire department finances by discussing three conceptual realms applicable to small fire department financing: Lobbying, Marketing and Customer Service, and Leadership as it applies to money matters.


Just stating, "We need a new engine because the old one is 40 years old," won't cut it with today's taxpayer or governing body official. Call it kissing-up or whatever you want, having influence to get the things your department needs means you've got to be part lobbyist.

How do you lobby? If it's public officials you're working on, first understand what motivates them: public service, ego and re-election. So, "stroke 'em." Tell them and the public when they do good, for certain when they've done something good for the department. Go beyond that, give them kudos for things not even connected with the fire department. You'll show them you haven't got tunnel vision focused only on the fire department and you'll prove you're connected with the community as a whole, just as they are. That's the kind of broad-visioned leadership a public official wants to see.

The number-one rule of lobbying in a small community is understanding the local culture and the nuances of the personalities you've got to contend with. This is one thing that is easier to accomplish in a small community where you undoubtedly rub elbows with community leaders on a regular basis. Know the personal interests and persuasions of people you need to lobby and also know the things that tend to raise their ire. This will allow you to cater your approach to them in an appeasing way.

Make sure you maintain regular dialogue with public officials. Again, this is easier in small communities where everyone is your neighbor. Small-town politics, though, can present a formidable barrier. Lobbying does not mean you become political. In lobbying we are trying to build a consortium of support regardless of political stance.

In a small community lobbying public officials means you may have to drop by the local fix-it shop on occasion and pull up a chair by the woodstove to take part in the mayor's forum. The reality is that more of the decisions dictating community direction are made in these unofficial settings than at the monthly council or commissioners' meeting.

You have ample opportunity to lobby the public. Even in the smallest of communities people gather in everything from formal organizational activities to the knitting circle at Aunt B's. An annual visit to any local club or organization keeps the fire department fresh in the public eye. Presentations to groups are an opportunity to market the fire department and conduct some customer service. Avoid overly emphasizing the department's needs, unless something has reached a crisis situation. Sandwich needs between reports about department accomplishments and personal fire and safety needs of the particular group you are addressing.

Some tips to keep in mind when lobbying:

  • Know what you're talking about-be thoroughly prepared.
  • Show that you're realistic and fiscally responsible.
  • Give people a reason to say yes.
  • Show how your idea would be good for community residents and show how it fits into the community's plan.
  • Show that the benefits of your proposal clearly out weigh the cost.
  • Present them with convincing justification in black and white.

Facts are at the core of effective lobbying. As an example of the factual information you need to lobby for that 30-year old engine, the justification can come from a variety of sources. You will need to inform people about the enhanced service capabilities of the new engine. Also use maintenance cost records, replacement schedules, ISO requirements, and by all means describe the times the old truck you want to replace has let you down and what the consequences were or could have been.

Pare technical jargon down to a level that people can understand when lobbying. More than likely the people you lobby won't be people who deal with fire protection enough to know what SCBA and CAFS means. It also helps to draw comparisons and use inferences in any one-on-one lobbying or group lobbying effort. Using examples like "the number of people who die daily in the world from fire is equivalent to the number of people who are killed in a major airline crash" paints a more vivid picture in peoples' minds than simply throwing statistics at them.

Be prepared for failure. Even when you have successfully lobbied and jumped through all the hoops of justifying a project, you still may not win. The fire service is just one entity among many that have their hands out. People pick and choose where they expend their resources for charitable causes based on emotional appeal. Governing bodies must contend with myriad human needs ranging from infrastructure to childcare.

The argument can easily be made that a new rescue unit is an immediate necessity and vital to the health and welfare of the community, but funding a new recreational facility such as a park or playground could very well steal the show. Why? The answer is simple: How often does the average citizen use the park as opposed to the fire department? Which brings them the most immediate gratification the most often? This is the kind of rational applied in public sector bargaining and the murky sea that a small fire department chief must be prepared to swim in.

Marketing and Customer Service

Marketing? Customer service? What place do they have in a small fire department? In a nutshell, marketing and customer service is everything in a small fire department. The chief of East Overshoe Rural Fire Department may not agree, but stop. Why do we call ourselves the fire service? Service - remember that always - we are a service, and in the previous article of this series it was established that the small fire department must regard itself as a business - a service-oriented business. In order for any service-oriented business (i.e., the small fire department) to succeed it must be successful at marketing and customer service.

There is much that can be said about marketing in a fire department, so much in fact that at least one book has been written that is devoted to the subject: Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini's book Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service (Fire Protection Publications, Oklahoma State University).

At first glance, one may say that marketing and customer service are two different domains. By the end of this discussion there will be no argument that the two are inseparable as far as small fire departments are concerned, for customer service is the small fire department's primary means of marketing.

Marketing in a small fire department is not about putting up billboards at major intersections, running ads in local newspapers or any other sort of advertising gimmick. Marketing in a small fire department is not about giving away pencils and bookmarks with the department's logo on them. Marketing is not fundraising. These things are only components of a small fire department's marketing program.

Successful marketing is about what you do in a small fire department, how you do it and how the public perceives you. If the public, and by all means the governing body, feels they are getting quality service from their fire department and fully understands (are not just conscious of) the department's needs, then you have done a good job of marketing. In the words of Brunacini in Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service, "Consider how you and what you are doing looks to others."

The best news for small fire departments is that a successful marketing program may not cost you a dime, but it may pay you huge dividends, something corporate America would kill for. How a small fire department achieves marketing success and ultimately support from the public boils down to a lot of things, some simple, some requiring an investment in time and resources. Done effectively, they all add up to a something big for the small fire department.

A small fire department is not often as bound by the stifling regulations placed upon a metropolitan fire department. A good for instance is, let's suppose your community just experienced straight-line winds that toppled everything from utility poles to Mrs. Dinsdale's elm tree. What's going to be the citizen and governing body reaction when the fire department shows up in force with 25 able bodies, chainsaws and whatever other equipment the department may have to help put everything back in order again? It would be rare to see a large metropolitan fire department doing such a thing, not because they don't want to, but because of the policies they operate under.

At community events offer blood pressure checks or fire extinguisher refills, direct traffic, do anything you can that makes everyone's life a little bit easier. Whenever the city council holds a public forum to discuss anything, whether it be a recreation center or city park, be there in uniform and offer the department's assistance in any way possible. Better yet, volunteer the fire station's meeting room or hall to use for the meeting location. The point: be visible, be helpful, be available - these are zero-dollar budget items.

Events like the fill-the-boot collections for the "Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy" show that the fire department cares enough to raise money for something other than itself. Again, do something that scores big points with the public for the fire department.

In small communities, the fire department is the public service entity people look up to. If you're not out where they can see you, what message does that send people?

Consider the department's alcohol policy. This article is not going to get into the debate over whether alcoholic beverages should be allowed in a fire station. Un-monitored use of alcohol at the fire station has proven to be a consistent negative marketing problem in the volunteer fire service. From a small fire department perspective, the best advice to heed is that if you are permitting alcohol in the fire station monitor it, don't make a spectacle of it, keep it off the street.

How does the department's equipment look? Dirty apparatus, even if it is a second-hand truck that long ago lost its luster, reflects a vacuum of pride in the department. Show the public you're taking care of what you do have and they're likely to entrust you with even more. The same can be said of facilities. Perhaps your department is operating out of a converted garage, but if it's the most stellar looking garage in the community a resident looks upon it and the firefighters staffing it with a whole different level of esteem than a firehouse with weeds growing along the foundation and peeling paint.

What about those T-shirts some firefighters wear that say something like "Butt-Naked Firefighting"? That's all good humor among firefighters, but it is not embraced in such a manner by the public. The small fire department whose members look, act and dress in a professional manner is held in high regard.

Every small community has something in its culture that sets it apart. It may be an annual poker run it hosts for bikers, a grand Fourth of July celebration, a gala Christmas spectacle, or it could be a major stopping point on a walking or hiking trail. These are small fire department marketing opportunities. Be in the defining things of your community; better yet, be at the forefront.

Marketing and customer service goes on at the emergency scene and following an incident. How a fire officer reacts to the nosy reporter sticking a microphone in his or her face says a lot for how your department is held in the public eye. The same applies when the press is interviewing you after the council meeting where you were denied your new Taj Mahal station. The key is, don't be derogatory; be factual.

A follow up with fire or emergency victims is the epitome of small fire department customer service. Touching people in some special way when they've just experienced the worst of life creates an indelible good impression.

"All the marketing in the world will not compensate for an inefficient and ineffective fire department," said Firehouse® marketing columnist Ben May, who served as fire commissioner in Woodinville, WA, from 1994 to 1998. "We are a public service, financially accountable to the citizens in our jurisdictions. This is a constant in our business regardless of public image. We might compare this to the accountability of a business and the fiduciary responsibility of stockholders. There are many differences; the biggest is that we do not make a profit. If we add more overhead costs in the form of additional firefighters, equipment or programs, it is not always easy to demonstrate the added value for the public. This will always be one of our greatest challenges. Marketing can support us in meeting this challenge if we use it to manage the evidence. This means showing the public how the added costs will maintain the service as it adds value. Measurements are part of that equation."

May provides eight areas of fire department operations that have measurable parameters the public understands that can be used in marketing: general fire protection, fire suppression, training, dispatch/communications, fire prevention, vehicle/equipment operations, medical and emergency management.

How marketing and customer service can work in a small fire department is explained by the experiences of Chief Daniel Rocque of the Satellite Beach Fire Department, serving a community of 10,000 people in Florida.

"Through the years, we've impressed upon our personnel that customer service is very important," said Rocque. "You might call that in itself a marketing strategy because it generates good support from the people we serve and our municipal officials."

Rocque further explained: "The general essence of our marketing plan is to identify and provide for the needs that seem out of the norm for fire departments. It goes back to the old adage: if you don't know or can't find it, call the fire department; they're the can-do people. The biggest thing I hear from small fire departments is 'We don't have the resources or manpower to put a marketing plan in place.' So many people think that a marketing plan has to be something real definitive. All you have to do is provide good customer service. That may mean you've got to think outside the box a little bit. We mandate customer service in our policies. I think that's necessary."

The Satellite Beach Fire Department does a variety of customer service activities that gain funding from the people it serves. The department sends out a pre-printed card to people it has assisted on EMS calls, wishing them well. Periodically, department members visit people after they get back from the hospital. "It's our way of keeping in touch with constituents," said Rocque. "It was unintentional on our part, but we do get donations because of these things."

The department also takes public education seriously by holding CPR classes, babysitter courses and even providing bandage care for people who have just returned home from the hospital. If you have a flat tire or car trouble in the Satellite Beach fire district and an emergency response unit is passing by, the crew is going to stop and lend a hand. If you have children in one of the Satellite Beach fire district's grade schools, a uniformed firefighter reading to the class is going to be a familiar sight.

Rocque is quick to point out that financial gain was not the motive for any of the above mentioned activities. The motive is customer service; all the contributions and thank-you notes the department receives from its customer service activities are secondary and icing on the cake.

The flow-through from good customer service is invariably that the next time the department has its hand out, the public is going to extend an extra amount of generosity and the governing body will at the very least be more amenable to assisting you.

What it comes down to with customer service is that every citizen, every incident and every interaction with the public represents a marketing opportunity for the small fire department. Capitalizing on the opportunity is not expensive or time consuming.

The Role of Leadership

"You can do a lot with very little if you've got the right leadership," observed Chief Charlie Garrett of the Oriental, NC, Fire Department, a small fire department serving a community of 2,500 people. Garrett's observation should become indelibly burned into the thoughts of every reader of this article. Every factor you look at that influences funding for small fire departments pales in comparison to the influence of leadership.

Leadership will be the capstone article in this series. Suffice it to say for this article that good leadership overcomes all obstacles and one of those in a small fire department is funding. The hallmark of good financial leadership is the ability to lobby and express the fire department's needs to the public and governing body in an influential way coupled with a leader's ability to ferret out alternate sources of income for the fire department. Without leadership that is persistent in the pursuit of additional funding, crippling financial hurdles will quickly encumber a small fire department.

Illustrations of leadership's influence on a small fire department's bottom line are the wakeup calls fire departments receive when leadership is lax. Stories abound of fire chiefs discovering that the governing body doesn't have a dime set aside to replace the 1964 engine that just died. There are two causes of such a malady: one being that the governing body has not been levying enough funds to replace the engine. Another reason for such a malady is that fire protection tax dollars had been misappropriated into the municipality's general fund and not used for purposes of fire protection.

The reason these horror stories occur is that someone (namely the chief) wasn't paying attention or has been ineffectual in lobbying. True, the chief dealing with the problem may not be at fault and is left with the effects of a previous administrations apathy, but the blame still lies with inattentive leadership.

The solution: take an active interest in municipal budgeting matters and understand the legal parameters influencing your department's budgeting process. Never rely on someone else entirely to watch your department's funds for you and by all means go to meetings! On more than one occasion, some chief failed to see that the fire department was represented at a meeting where critical budget issues were discussed and as a consequence the department missed out on something.

In regard to leadership and financial issues, there is no way around it; it's a game that requires time and effort. It's an arena that the chief of a small fire department often finds himself or herself handling single-handedly. Realize that there will be a relationship between the effort expended and the gains that are made.

To Summarize

In brief, the rules of small fire department funding can be summarized as follows:

  • Know and understand the fiscal process and legal aspects of your governing body.
  • Don't miss meetings that influence your department's budget.
  • Have a sharp pencil - conservatism holds big gains in the long run.
  • Lobby whenever and wherever possible.
  • Be innovative where possible.
  • Take advantage of all funding opportunities that offer a respectable gain for the effort expended.
  • Justify your needs and keep them in the public eye at all times.
  • Remember, in all things, the small fire department is a customer service. Treat your customers according to the golden rule, in the same way you would expect to be treated.

A looming question that can be posed is, are the times we live in any more challenging than times past? It does indeed appear in this day and age that we are beset with fiscal challenges not encountered by our forefathers. We are asked to do more and to provide more programs and initiatives with equipment that dwarfs the costs of equipment used in years past. Add the increasing costs of insurance, largely in response to liability concerns, and the argument can easily be made that yes, we do operate in times that are more fiscally trying than ages past.

Fiscal challenges, though, have been with the volunteer fire service and small fire departments since the inception of the country's first volunteer fire company. A look at fire department records from decades ago, a time those of us living in this age can think of as times when "things were good," finds chiefs of the era also lamented the lack of funding their departments incurred. The experience of large municipal fire departments over the 20th century reflects the how unyielding fiscal influences have influenced fire departments with the reduction in the size of engine companies from five firefighters to four, then three and sometimes two.

We can all dream of how easy it would be if everything was just handed to us on a platter, and there may be rare instances in small fire departments where it is. Reality is, that's not going to happen anytime soon and probably never will. Answering the fiscal challenge of maintaining a small fire department requires work, dedication, fiscal responsibility and an open mind.

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.

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