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Fire service customer service: How can we demonstrate excellence?

Achieving a culture of stellar service among firefighters requires multifaceted approach and capacity to care


Every fire department has some form of customer service spelled out in its mission statement or department values. Customer service is our core, it is our responsibility, and it is a gauge to our success.

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Customer service. This term takes the gold medal for most debated or communicated term in the fire service, at least, that’s been my experience over the course of my career.

From my initial fire service classes to my battalion chief interview, the topic of customer service has always been a topic of discussion or the subject of questions. In fact, every interview I have participated in has included a question either directly or indirectly related to customer service.

Why? Because customer service is our job and our responsibility as firefighters and public servants. Every fire department has some form of customer service spelled out in its mission statement or department values. Customer service is our core, it is our responsibility, and it is a gauge to our success.

But what does customer service really mean?

Over the years, I have contemplated the true meaning of customer service, and I have heard many insights about what it means to others. In general, the answer to the question usually revolves around “going above and beyond” or providing an “excellent level of service” that is “doing the right thing.” True. That is exactly what the result should be.

But how do we get there? How do we, as individuals, provide the highest level of service to those who call us in need? The answer is more than just a canned statement read from a book, and the results are not something that can be taught solely in a fire service class.

Customer service is about going above and beyond on a consistent basis and using multiple avenues to address a needed action or response in your community. It is about fostering solid, well-rounded first responders who consistently, and without thinking, act and react with the highest level of regard for our constituents, plus a leadership team that sets a high standard and leads by example.

Let’s dive deeper to outline three factors that impact our individual customer service.

1. Core values and ethics

How and where we are raised helps shape us into who we become as adults. I was raised on a rural ranch in Northern California where hard work was instilled in me at a young age. My father expected me to help with the animals and maintenance as well as other labor-intensive needs.

The skill sets and work ethic developed on the ranch were extremely helpful in my transition to the fire service. Today, we tend to see fewer recruits with this type of background, particularly in more metropolitan areas of the country. That is perfectly fine; however, fire departments must recognize this and adjust their academy and probationary periods to ensure that these types of skills are ingrained into our newest members. Having a leadership group that leads by example and passes these traits on to others will help develop a culture of hard-working members who understand the hands-on labor needed to excel in this career.

Self-motivation is a critical skill for every firefighter or prospective firefighter. For me, this was not a taught skill but rather something that was instilled in my core values as a result of being around people who got things done. Firefighters must be doers – members who do not have to be told what needs to be done, but those who are already working on it because they recognize that it needs attention. We need members who strive for goals and work for them without someone pushing them all the way to the finish line.

Mentorship will always be necessary and important, but when someone has self-motivation, the mentors will give that much more and provide an extra level of guidance and effort. We need to have the “nothing in this job is handed to us” mentality and work hard for everything we want to achieve.

The late Chief Alan Brunacini was a staunch proponent of customer service and encouraged firefighters to truly care about their community members. Caring is the single most important trait of any firefighter. Caring is a vague term, but I see it in every aspect of our job. We need to care about our coworkers, our constituents, and we really need to care about ourselves.

When you truly care, you become a solid contributor to the organization and the team, and you find yourself making the “right” decisions. You become a part of this family, and you become a trusted and respected contributor to this trade. Looking out for your brothers and sisters is something that radiates through your organization and helps improve the morale and foster an overall positive culture within the organization.

2. Education

I have been involved in and have listened to many arguments about the necessity of education in the fire service. I even wrote an article that dives deeper into the trade skills versus education argument. To be clear, I am a proponent of both, as I believe there is a balance between the value of education and the value of work/experience. I believe that the higher you promote and the more administrative responsibilities you possess, the more valuable your education can become in your day-to-day activities. Higher education is not a necessity to be successful, but education provides an experience that cannot be replicated.

Not only does education increase your knowledge, skills and abilities on the job, but it also helps instill a work ethic and time management skills that are helpful when you are promoted or in a senior leadership position. Ultimately, it is not a requirement for becoming successful, but education does make you a more well-rounded employee.

Education has helped me with my communication and administrative capabilities, and I believe I am a much better chief officer with a degree in my background. Could I do the job without it? Yes. But I would need additional guidance and mentorship to get through my daily responsibilities and the management of those assigned to the shift.

Further, education has improved my customer service by giving me the confidence and competence in speaking and writing. Being able to speak to the community has improved the level of service that I provide. And understanding technology and how to use multiple platforms has increased my abilities in producing reports, press releases and other administrative responsibilities.

3. Experience

Experience is the single most important contributor to customer service. As I progressed through my career, I learned from so many great mentors who showed me what customer service was all about.

Early in my career I remember asking myself questions like, “Why are we doing this?” “Why are we still on this call cleaning up the scene?” These questions were because I did not really understand the full-service concept that is key to our profession. Once you figure it out and realize that we are there to help in every aspect, those questions start to fade, and you become the member suggesting things to improve our customer service.

Staying behind after the ambulance transports in order to put the house back together or to clean up from the incident are levels of service that become natural and are never given a second thought. Spending extra time at the front door with someone who just needs to talk or going the extra mile to ensure someone is taken care of becomes the obvious action. Helping someone finish the yard chores after an incident or delivering groceries to a house after someone was involved in an accident – these are all examples of what happens when your experience grows and you start to recognize what actions are necessary and what the “right thing” to do is.

The end result

When we combine solid core values and ethics, education and experience and surround our members with solid leadership, we start to see an organization full of members who provide a high level of customer service to their constituents and fellow coworkers. These combined factors are the keys to a successful “full-service” fire service career.

When people ask me what customer service means to me, I acknowledge that it is providing the highest level of service in all aspects of this job. However, an explanation of how we get there is necessary because providing this continued level of service is only possible when you combine the aforementioned traits. Those who are educated, experienced and have those core values provide a high level of service without questioning their actions; it’s automatic. When these traits exist, your members and department will increase their customer service capabilities and provide a higher level of service. It will become natural and just a part of their day.

When a member does something admirable and they reply with, “I was just doing my job,” I smile. This is a member who has figured out how to get there and an organization that has figured out how to foster a culture that all members and organizations should strive to maintain.

Now let’s go do our job!

Chad Costa is assistant chief with the City of Petaluma (California) Fire Department. With 20 years of fire service experience, Costa has worked in a variety of organizations, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), rural districts, semi-rural districts and a city. He is the technology and communications battalion chief and a division group supervisor on California Interagency Team 5. Costa has a bachelor’s degree in emergency services management and a certificate in homeland security.

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