Spreading Our Wings: Creating an Effective Marketing Strategy for the American Fire Service One Department at a Time

Issue 2 and Volume 15.

“So, Chief, how do you explain blocking the main city thoroughfare with three fire engines, an aide car, and an ambulance for a one-car hard ‘bump against a guardrail’?”

“Commissioner, how is it that we have fewer fires, more minor EMS calls, and ever higher personnel costs?”

“Chief, what is the impetus behind this ‘accreditation’ exercise that is costing us time, effort, and real dollars?”

“Chief, my neighbor recently had a house fire. Not only did he wait an apparent eternity for the fire engines to arrive, but a quarter of the house was burning while the firefighters put on their gear and laid out the hoseline to put the fire out. By the time they were finally ready to attack the fire, the house was fully involved!”

“Commissioner, I have been researching cost comparisons between private fire departments and our local department. Can you explain why Rural/Metro in Scottsdale, AZ, does the job for significantly less money and less people? I noticed their fire rate is much lower than ours.”

We are all familiar with these kinds of real questions. Most of us will probably agree that these may be some of the easier ones. It’s past time to face a few facts. Most of our citizens don’t know much about the details of any public services including the emergency ones we provide. Why should they know? It’s easy just to maintain that they pay their taxes and give their trust to us to protect them, certain that their safety needs are handled without worry. In fact, our best moments are when they begin to worry, and we do our professional best to diminish that worry. The reality is that any company or organization that provides a service people support financially must be accountable to its customers. We do not have the luxury of segmenting our markets like a corporation marketing products and services. We are accountable to every citizen we protect, and we protect all of them day and night.

It is not like we don’t know this. In 2016, Wingspread VI released its comprehensive conference report Statements of National Significance to the United States Fire and Emergency Services. A few months ago, I gave a presentation to a state conference of fire chiefs. I asked if they had heard of Wingspread. I think two people in the audience of more than 100 raised their hands. This was not some insignificant report, and the chiefs who contributed to it are leading the fire service today. I recently was asked to provide comprehensive public information officer criteria and a plan for a large department. I called a few people from departments around the country who were experts in this area. The results were less than encouraging.

It’s not that we in the fire service don’t understand the necessity of marketing our services to the public we protect. Statement five of Wingspread VI is very clear about this necessity, even using sophisticated marketing terms like branding. The United States fire and emergency services must place importance on marketing and branding. Our ability to survive and thrive is dependent upon having the ability to communicate our value to the community. The statement gets even more specific: Fire and emergency services organizations must develop and implement aggressive marketing, branding, and educational programs to inform stakeholders and the public of the dynamics of service delivery within the community. The statement goes on to outline 15 suggestions to demonstrate the economic value of fire and emergency services to the community, finishing with the call for each department to appoint a cross-functional team to draft and implement a comprehensive marketing plan within 12 months.

Doing the Work of Marketing: Our Competitive Edge

Realizing the necessity of marketing is important; doing the hard and necessary work to achieve effective results is critical. Volumes have been written about marketing and its various definitions, especially in the United States: the world’s “bastion of marketing.” The best definition I have seen is from Philip Kotler, one of the foremost professors of marketing and author of numerous texts on the subject: ‘Marketing is about clearly defining your unique identity and strengthening it with authentic integrity to build a strong image.’

Corporate vs. Public Service Marketing: The Defining Difference

It is very important to differentiate corporate or commercial marketing from public service and social marketing. A clear understanding of the difference in these definitions gives the fire service its competitive advantage. Corporate or commercial marketing exists to create customers for the products and services companies sell. Its overriding goal is profit, regardless of lofty missions and visions, along with support of social agendas. This is what makes our economy thrive and, of course, contributes to the country and our lives, providing employment for large segments of our society. Public service marketing is demonstrating the national and local government services provided to all our citizens. We are marketing when we appear in public, whether it’s at a house fire or emergency medical call or conducting public fire education in a school or presenting a strategic plan in a public forum. When the good citizens see us performing our duties, they may feel that their tax dollars are well spent and that they can rely on our protection day and night. This nice afterglow is good as far as it goes for public support. The good news here is the image of the fire service, the kind of people we attract, and the trust we instill in our communities. It strikes a heroic difference compared to corporate marketing. I like to call it “might for right.” Is it any wonder we see so many commercial products using the image of firefighters to promote their products? The answer is they trust us.

Recently, I attended a meeting at Delray Beach Fire and Rescue. As I listened to the speaker, I noticed the department’s Maltese Cross logo surrounded by the words Respect, Integrity, Courage, and Honor. These are the kinds of beliefs that drive our actions. This is the philosophy behind our mission. This is one of the key factors that differentiate the fire service–or any public service–from corporate America. And it is one heck of a significant difference if we understand and act on the opportunities it provides in the present marketplace. Image differentiation through mission is a small part of our marketing opportunity, and it can’t save us from obsolescence if private enterprise successfully proves to enough cities that it can do our job for less money.

Social marketing coupled with the image of our brand is one of the most significant opportunities we have today. Social marketing very simply is behavior change. When we think of the use of seat belts or stopping smoking or responsibly handling our trash to clean up the environment, that is social marketing and the key to our future. When we engage in social marketing, we teach our citizens how to engage in safe behaviors like what actions they can take in emergencies to prevent them in the first place: checking smoke alarms, installing sprinklers, even being models of physical fitness so our children can emulate good physical hygiene to deter obesity. If you think this is going too far, consider that this was done in Merseyside, England, some years ago. It’s a bit like the “broken windows” theory of policing, but through the community firehouse where firefighters become role models for our children. Good social marketing is making a connection with our citizens. And that is what sets the foundation for strong grassroots community support.

Public Private Partnerships

There has always been plenty of room for partnerships between fire departments, supported by national and local corporations. The company gains the leverage the brand image of the fire service offers, and the local department gains the support of the company through their products or money. One example is a local Wal-Mart providing smoke alarms in support of a local department.

The Hyper-Cluttered Marketplace

Much of the difficulty in getting a message across today is the pure number of messages we receive vs. the mental bandwidth we have to process them. Consider that the average American received more than 4,000 commercials daily in 2017 from all communication sources, according to the Wall Street Journal. Considering the amount of time we spend on our iPhones, coupled with constant commercial, work, and personal message streams we receive hourly and daily, it’s no wonder the average American has the attention span of a gnat.

Who Creates the Marketing Communications Plan?

There is nothing difficult about creating a simple marketing communications plan for any department, regardless of size. It’s like most things we do in the fire service: We see a problem and we figure out how to solve it. Creating a marketing communications plan is a bit like incident command but with a longer time horizon. The best person to create the template for the plan, in my opinion, is the public information officer (PIO). Depending on the size of the department, the time has come for the PIO to occupy a destination position at the officer level. One of the best examples I have seen is Plantation (FL) Fire and Rescue. The position is a battalion chief (BC) who created his own niche in marketing communications. There are many excellent PIOs around the country, especially at the tactical level. There is a real need for PIOs to think more strategically, grasping their department’s broad communications goals. There is a recent trend to recruit professionals from the private sector with marketing/communications backgrounds and an interest in public service. These professionals can make an excellent contribution to the public affairs efforts of a department. In my opinion, however, the leadership should come from a career fire officer who has a broad understanding of the department’s goals and objectives, based on the traditions and values of the fire service. One suggestion might be to create a position: BC/Public Affairs, if it’s a large department. The time has come for the marketing communications plan to be part of the department’s strategic plan. Many departments have a strategic plan, and accredited departments must have a strategic plan to receive their accreditation. These plans have a community stakeholder section with desired outcomes. This is where the Community Risk Reduction element fits in nicely. This area might include in-home inspections. Once this element becomes a standard, we are really moving into the “high ground” of protecting our citizens.

Creating the Plan

The plan can be created from the key departmental goals as well as call and demographic data of at risk population segments in the community. A large departmental goal might be a bond issue for a new fire station. Key social marketing objectives might be public education programs for safe behaviors in low-income minority residential areas where a rash of heater fires is occurring. The new INFORS data program rolling out across the country will provide the granular kind of data to attack these problems. Sometimes a small tactical initiative can blossom into a strategic one for general safe behaviors in the community. The details of the plan can be fleshed out from emergency response with input from prevention incorporating education, enforcement, and engineering.

The Results: Visibility, Image and Brand Strength

A knowledgeable, involved citizen is always a fire department’s best “customer.” But the responsibility to create this kind of support is up to each of us, not just our department. People watch everything we do whether at an incident, conducting a plan review, or updating a prefire plan. We are the brand; its creation and strength are dependent on how well we market our actions. Our future depends on it; so, does the safety of all our citizens.


Ben May is a board director of the Center for Excellence in Public Safety and a recently retired director of corporate alliances for the Walt Disney Company. He worked with Disney to create interactive, social marketing experiences dedicated to the betterment of society—specifically, fire protection and prevention–as well as international alliances, most recently as a global senior leader based in Paris over the past two years. He has been a firefighter for Hillandale Fire and Rescue in Montgomery County, Maryland, and fire commissioner for Woodinville Fire and Rescue in Washington State. He has been a marketing consultant to Fire Service Publications (IFSTA) of Oklahoma State University’s School of Fire Protection Technology, the US Fire Administration, and metro fire departments across the country in the creation of strategic marketing communications plans. He has made presentations and workshops to numerous fire service conferences and departments on the application of marketing management to the fire and emergency services. He is a member of the National Society of Executive Fire Officers, the Institution of Fire Engineers, board director of the National Weather Association Foundation, Vision 20/20 for Fire Prevention and Education, Society of Fire Protection Engineers. He is on the advisory committee for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, for public service marketing issues. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Oklahoma in Public Affairs and a graduate of the School of International Service of the American University in Washington, D.C., with an MA in International Communication: Russian & German Languages.