Serving Our Customers

When a volunteer fire department thinks about customer service, often the only customers we consider are the ones buying raffle tickets or pancakes at our yearly fundraisers. In doing this, we forget that the general public — or “Mrs. Smith,” as Chief Alan V. Brunacini would put it — are our everyday customers. How we serve them affects every area of our department, from funding to recruitment and retention. While our customers may not be able to choose another department, they do chose where their tax money goes, and that directly affects what our future will be.

The public has an expectation of a certain level of customer service and professionalism from the fire service, and it does not matter to them if you are a paid or volunteer firefighter. This expectation is often heavily influenced by our customers’ first impressions and the way we handle the more "routine" emergencies.

I have had multiple EMS providers tell me that when a patient is dying, no one cares that your boots are shined. This is laughably untrue. Your professionalism, appearance and general attitude are what allow the patient and their family to put their trust in you and put their life in your hands. Your customer service skills are also what will determine if they’ll trust the next firefighter or EMT, and support your department in its time of need.

Chief Brunacini dedicated an entire book to this topic, titled “Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service.” While primarily focused on paid departments, the basic messages apply just as well to volunteer departments. It is an easy read and a must for all department members.

Brunacini’s puts forth eight guiding principles that can serve as a basis of your customer service program:

  1. Our essential mission and number one priority is to deliver the best possible service to our customers.
  2. Always be nice; treat everyone with respect, kindness, patience and consideration.
  3. Always attempt to execute a standard problem-solving outcome: quick/effective/skillful/safe/caring/managed.
  4. Regard everyone as a customer.
  5. Consider how you and your actions appear to others.
  6. Don’t disqualify the customer with your qualifications.
  7. Basic organizational behavior must become customer-centered.
  8. We must continually improve our customer service performance (Brunacini, 1997, pgs iii-iv.)

Chief Brunacini talks extensively about providing a “wow” level of service, but we must increase our base level of customer service before we can even think about “wow.” The easiest place to start is to acknowledge that everyone is a customer and to “consider how you and your actions appear to others.”

We need to look no further than to our peers for the best and worst examples of customer service and how to take the first steps. When it comes to regarding everyone as a customer, one local service has a great policy in place. They assign a member of each crew to be the family liaison. This person’s sole job is to comfort the family, involve them in the process, and explain to them what is going on.

We take for granted that the public understands that what we are doing is in their best interest. A lack of information can cause misperceptions that can hurt both your customer and your department long into the future. While at our family camp in Maine, my uncle provided a great example of how our customers perceive what we are doing.
As we were sharing stories about the past, somehow the topic of the fire in my uncle’s house was brought up. He started off by cursing “those idiots at the fire department,” and it went downhill from there. (Mind you, he knows full well that both my father and I have spent countless years in the service.) When I finally received the straight story from him, it was clear that his primary complaint was that the “amateurs” who “wanted to play” cut holes in his roof and ruined it. (Without those "holes," he believes he would have been able to save the house instead of being forced to demolish it.)

While you and I understand the reasoning behind vertical ventilation, it was clearly not adequately explained to him. In his mind, his home was being unnecessarily and frivolously damaged, causing a negative perception of the fire service to form in his mind and creating a story that I am sure he has told many times to anyone who would listen.

While the family liaison program may seem to be manpower intensive, especially in areas that are short on volunteers, the benefits outweigh the costs. If we can turn just one person like my uncle into a promoter of the department rather than a department basher, we may gain the support we need to get that new engine or other needed supplies. The liaison does not have to be a firefighter either; it could be one of your more "senior" members who no longer wants to fight fires but still wants to help. It could be a social member, an auxiliary member, or even your chaplain. This will allow you to keep these members involved and even allow you to recruit members just for this purpose.

Negative impressions of a department are not created solely on the fireground either. A local department, which shall remain nameless here, made national news for a picture on its Web site. The picture showed the department members drinking alcohol while clad in department T-shirts and standing in front of the department. While we all have our own opinions about alcohol in the fire service, I know we all agree that this is not how we want our department to be perceived by our customers. 

While none of us are perfect, we need to think about how everything we do, wear, and say is perceived by our customers. If your department is perceived as incompetent, unreliable, sloppy or unprofessional, who is going to want to join it or fund it?

Stay tuned for future articles about the impact of professionalism and customer service on fundraising and recruitment/retention. Next month, I will look at how an individual’s innate needs for autonomy, competency and relatedness affect their willingness to volunteer, all of which is a direct reflection on your perceived level or professionalism and customer service.

Brunacini, A.V. (1997). Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service. Stillwater: Fire Protection Publications.

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