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Fire departments can be agency of first resort

Being the go-to agency for any problem is a lot of work, but it pays huge dividends community support during funding requests


Emergency services, and the fire service in particular, are well known institutions in most civilizations. But what do people really know about us?

The short answer is that they know what they see on TV or the Internet.

They know we fight fires and provide EMS and rescue services. They know they trust firefighters as a group. In fact, a 2009 poll conducted by market research institute GfK found that firefighters ranked as the most trusted profession in Europe and the United States with 92 percent of respondents finding them trustworthy.

But what is behind the headlines and the flashy video images? What else do we offer our residents, our customers?

As a matter of statistics, most people never have contact with the fire department during an emergency. In fact, the average person will only have to call 911 once or twice in their lifetime.

So what does that mean in terms of the original question: What do our customers know about us?

Sales force
The Cottleville (Mo.) Fire District has 40,000 residents. We run, on average, 3,500 calls for service a year.

That means that if the only way we connect with our residents is through emergency response, we are only making contact with 0.08 percent of our residents. And that’s not taking into account the repeat customers who dial 911 far more often than twice in a lifetime.

That is not going to cut it when it comes time to ask for additional funding to meet rising costs, technology and equipment updates and the ability to provide a ready, trained and professional response system.

Let’s face it; we are in sales. Our product is safety, and if less than 0.08 percent of our potential customers are aware of our services and our product, we are not going to be around very long.

We are competing every day for the tax dollars our community provides, and those dollars are getting harder to come by. So the real question is not what does our community know about us, but rather how can we educate our community about what we have to offer them.

New territory
This is not as simple as holding an open house — although they are great — or getting a few news items run about emergency calls or checking your smoke detector regularly.

If you truly want to position your department as that agency of first resort in your community, there is some rough ground to plow to set the stage.

First, you need to get your house in order. There has to be buy-in up and down the chain of command.

We started by having all of our members take a values survey — Rokeach survey is excellent. This set the pace for understanding our own organizational values, what we thought of ourselves and what we determined to be important.

The next step was to reach out to the community and shout from the mountaintops, “We are here to help you with any problem or issue.” This meant having our members join the Rotary Club, the Lion’s Club, the Chamber of Commerce and offering to speak to anyone who would give us five minutes to tell our story. That story was “we are here to help.”

Uber helpful
If we come across someone with a flat tire, we stop and help. If we find mom with three kids wrestling a grocery cart across the parking lot, we are there to help. If you are having a fundraiser or a neighborhood event, we want to be there.

If you don’t know where to find an electrician to fix your smoke detector, we have a list. Need someone to help you navigate the bureaucratic morass of the building permits of special event permitting process? We can help.

The simple goal is to have the members of the community consider the fire department as their go-to place for assistance, no matter the topic or the issue.

It requires a landslide of support and effort to develop, sell and maintain this status of “agency of first resort.” To keep the troops leaning forward takes constant effort. You have to support them and reward them for taking on this huge endeavor.

I don’t mean buying them things, although a nice lunch for a job well done goes a long way. I mean recognizing their effort and praising their work. If a resident passes along a compliment, make sure the crew hears it.

Idea factory
The most important component is getting the input from those providing the service. Listen to them, support their ideas and let them run with them.

They won’t all be home runs, but most will. If you take care of the people who take care of the people, they will amaze you with their caring and their innovation.

The proof is in the pudding. Sooner or later we all have to go to the powers that be and ask for additional funding. It may be a levy increase before voters, a municipal budget request or a volunteer department trying to increasing fire tag rates or contract revenues.

When that time comes, your community will divide into two camp. One camp will say, “I have never had to call them and my money is tight.” The other will say, “I support whatever they need because frankly, I don’t know what I would do without them.”

Which camp do you want your residents in?

Think of becoming the agency of first resort as paying it forward. Yes, it is our jobs to serve, but the level of that service and the commitment of those providing that service is the key to becoming an integral part of the community you protect.

Chief Rob Wylie is a 29-year fire service veteran who retired as fire chief of the Cottleville FPD in St. Charles County, Missouri. Wylie has served as a tactical medic and TEMS team leader with the St. Charles Regional SWAT team for the past 19 years. He is a certified instructor and teaches at the state, local and national level on leadership, counter-terrorism and TEMS operations. Wylie graduated from Lindenwood University, the University of Maryland Staff and Command School and the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Connect with Wylie on LinkedIn.