For all of us current and former firefighters, we have heard the term “customer service” since our first day on the job. It is often used as a question on interview panels and in mission statements. But what does it really mean? Why is it important?
In its most simplistic form, the definition of “customer service” is straight-forward—doing the best for the citizens you serve. Yet few terms in the fire service have the ability to reach so many different and varied levels and interpretations. In my fire station, we have a banner over the door leading to the apparatus floor that reads “Let's Make A Difference.” It has been there for 20 years. We have all seen similar signs in our stations, but how many of us sit down with our new hires and simply ask them, “What does that sign mean to you? How can you provide the best customer service to the citizens who you respond to 10–15 times a day?”
I would venture to say this is not a common occurrence. Take a moment to think about the impact this simple conversation could have with a new hire who is fresh, highly motivated and untainted by many years of service on the job.
The pioneer of customer service was Chief Alan Brunacini. With his recent passing, the fire service has lost a true visionary and legend. The fire service owes him a great debt of gratitude for all that he taught us about the real meaning of being a firefighter. This article is simply a reminder of the principles that he taught us. RIP, Chief.
Retired Del Mar Fire Chief Jim Baker is my mentor and a strong believer and practitioner of Chief Brunacini's “Be Nice” customer service philosophy. He instilled in all his personnel that the most important thing that we can do is be nice and always go the extra mile to help those in need of assistance. You see someone struggling, either a fellow firefighter or a citizen, you reach out. Most of us have been involved in high-profile situations where we band together as a department or a union to help a family in need during the holidays after a destructive fire. We buy gifts for the kids and assist the family in getting back on their feet. But it is the everyday routine situations that can truly have the most impact of someone’s life. I can tell you from firsthand experience based on these examples how a simple act of kindness can provide an exceptional customer service experience to your citizens.
Here are some simple ways to enhance your customer service:
Thank You Notes—On department stationary, write a short thank you note that can be given to bystanders who have assisted at an emergency scene prior to first responders arriving on scene. Most common situations for this would be motor vehicle accidents. The note can say, “The fire department would like to thank you for helping your fellow citizen. Your concern is greatly appreciated.” Put these notes in an envelope and keep them in the glove box on the rig. Be sure to make these notes available for any crewmember to give out, not just the officer. Encourage the new firefighters to be involved in this process so they can see the impact firsthand and possibly carry it on into a tradition 20 years from now in their career.
Get Well/Condolence Cards—Have a supply of get well and condolence cards on hand at every fire station. These can be sent to the families to whom you just responded, based on the incident. Include thank you cards for those citizens who come by the station and bring cookies, cakes, etc.
Water Bottles—All apparatus rigs carry bottles of water these days. Pack a few extra and hand them out at the emergency scenes. Offer water to bystanders and victims, if appropriate. Don’t wait for the Red Cross to arrive when a family has been burned out of their house or apartment to show an act of kindness.
Help the Needy—Your crew responds to a call from an elderly person living by themselves. While conducting a scene assessment, you notice this person has only a small amount of food in their home. The next day, when your shift is over, go to the market as a crew and buy a few bags of essential groceries. Drop them off at the front door of the person you responded to the day before. Show them they matter.
Remember the Kids—Carry a bag of stuffed animals on the rig. Hand them out to kids who need support on the scene of an emergency. Just don’t put the bag of in the back of a compartment where they might never get used or forgotten.
Clean-Up—Take the time to do a good job cleaning up the scene, especially when in someone’s home. The last thing someone wants to do when they get back home is to be reminded of their previous emergency and then have it clean up.
Protect Heirlooms—On fire scenes, after knockdown and the scene is stable, be mindful of the family’s pictures, photo albums, personal items, etc. Collect them and move them to a safe location away from the smoke and water damage.
Mind Your Matters—Be mindful of your behavior at an emergency scene, especially at fires. The ordinary citizen does not understand the firefighter culture nor should we expect them to. We have all been hyped up after a “good fire,” but we have to keep the adrenaline level down until we leave the scene. This was likely the worst day in that person’s life and they do not understand our culture of laughing and joking. We know we do not do that on purpose, but save it for the station!
The list can go as far as your customer service imagination can take you. Most of us do many acts of kindness on this job on a daily basis without really thinking about it. At its core, that is why we became firefighters! We don’t do this to be recognized; we should always do this simply because it is the right thing to do. Sit down with your crew, your shift, your battalion and have this conversation. If you have a new probationary firefighter who is reluctant to speak or provide input, tell them the badges are off and you want their ideas. This is not the old-school fire service anymore where the rookie is seen but never heard. We need to embrace the new generation and do our best to impart on them what is really means to be a customer service firefighter. They may have some of the best fresh ideas out there!
This customer service article is dedicated to the memory and legacy of Fire Chief Alan Brunacini.
DON MINER is a 31-year veteran of the fire service having served two years as a paid call firefighter with the Del Mar, CA, Fire Department, and 29 years serving every rank in the National City, CA, Fire Department (NCFD), where he retired as Battalion Chief in 2014. He continues to do volunteer work with NCFD and the Wounded Warrior Project in San Diego.