Up front, here’s the bottom line; volunteer fire departments across America have incredible marketing problems. In today’s world, we’re constantly flooded with information. We get it from our phones, our computers, TV’s, tablets, poster’s, flyers and more. At present time and continuing into the future, the volunteer fire service will need to lean heavily into marketing plans. Marketing your department provides incredible benefits for improving the department’s image, generating positive morale, and enabling a greater ability to recruit new volunteers. Creating a marketing plan for your department takes forethought, creativity, motivation, scheduling, budgeting, and overall planning.
Today’s volunteer Fire Chief needs to be many things, an incident commander, a fire prevention inspector, an instructor and mentor, an administrator, a politician, a strategic planner, a communicator, a counselor, a customer service rep, and most importantly a marketing manager; add that to the long list of emergency service disciplines and it seems nearly impossible that these people can actually exist at all. The position of Fire Chief is likely one of the more dynamic careers in the modern world.
Why does my department need a marketing plan?
It’s rather important to take a holistic view of fire department management. When I say holistic, I mean to describe how all the little parts of the organization are intimately interconnected with other parts. These intimately interconnected parts help to form the overall health of the department as a whole. For example, a department with strong community risk reduction programs(CCRP) can be linked to having a greater ability to recruit new members because CCRP’s increase the amount of exposure department’s have within the community. Community risk reduction programs help to improve community relations forming a positive public perception. Possessing a positive public image also has a direct effect on morale within the department. If the public has a high degree of confidence in their fire department, the members will feel that… thus improving morale. Higher morale leads to greater member retention. So on and so forth. When I say holistic I mean that in a very real sense.
Marketing has the ability to increase/improve a laundry list of things including but not limited to: recruitment, retention, morale, building partnerships, budgets, public confidence, education, and create a more informed general public. From creating professional recruitment videos and holiday safety public service announcements to advertising a babysitter certification class, each little piece of marketing content helps to form a much larger picture of the organization in the public’s eye. BUT FIRST YOU MUST HAVE A PLAN!
Answer this one question: Does your department have a marketing plan?
A marketing plan is a comprehensive written document which outlines all of your advertising efforts and challenges throughout the year. Every community program your fire department operates should have an associated marketing effort or campaign. If your department provides community risk reduction programs such as fire extinguisher training, CPR, and/or babysitter certification classes, each of these programs should have a detailed plan illustrating:
- Who you are marketing to
- When you need to start and a schedule of recurring blitzes
- How you’re going to provide the marketing material (ie. Targeted Facebook Ads, Instagram, Youtube, mailers, local businesses, Explorers or Juniors disseminating pamphlets. etc)
- What the marketing material will be(ie. a video, flyers, posters, shareable image ads, newspaper ad and so forth.) and who will create it as well as an estimated cost
Each of these four should be broken down as specifically as possible.
Aside from community risk reduction programs, your department should be planning and be executing a deliberate, consistent, routine marketing strategy that improves the image of your department, showcases the responders who give everything of themselves to serve, and bolsters recruitment efforts. A few lines I often use to support these ideas are:
- If the community doesn’t see it happen, then it didn’t happen. You have to show them.(That means cameras)
- If the community doesn’t understand their role in supporting the fire department, then you will not be supported.
- If your needs are not communicated pragmatically and effectively then nobody will hear it.
- The public’s perception of their fire department is only as good as the information they are consistently provided; So flood the market.
Creating a marketing plan provides you with a road map and a schedule throughout the year and keeps your department running in a timely and deliberate manner. Planning will always provide you with the best possible chance of being successful with your marketing efforts. A greater emphasis should be given to electronic forms of marketing like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and so on. It’s very likely that most everyone in your response area has a Facebook page and scrolls their newsfeeds.
Quick Reality Check
It’s important to recognize that marketing is not a short sprint, it’s a very long, never ending hike. If you’re holding an expectation that posting a few videos and hanging a stack of posters in various locations is all that is required, then you’ve already submitted to failure. Marketing is a continuous effort to consistently provide the information and the image you want to project to the community. If the residents of your community are constantly coming across positive images, videos, and news stories showing happy firefighters serving the community, you will slowly begin to win the hearts and minds. Again, if the public doesn’t see it happen, then it never happened. Realistically, it could take up to a year before you start seeing the benefits of your marketing efforts. If you start seeing no return at all, it might be prudent to take a finer look at your marketing content and methods, perhaps doubling down with a more focused effort will yield the results you’re looking for.
Ensure that you establish some quality control standards when it comes to posting videos, images, and the like. You want to ensure the content being released reflects the values your department holds and represents your members in a positive light. Videos, with poor quality, loud or humming background noises, lack of proper editing and so forth can really detract from the overall message you’re trying to provide. You’ll want to use graphics, background music, and provide an animated logo at the beginning of your video. Likewise, posters and flyers should be designed and printed with proper quality utilizing clear images. Here is a great example of where the video marketing bar has been set.
Volunteer fire departments are no different than any other non-profit out there. This means that a professional marketing strategy and approach is paramount to running a very successful organization. Utilizing a business marketing template will definitely help you get started. Here is a resource that can be repurposed for your fire department. http://www.sbdc.umb.edu/pdfs/marketing_plan.pdf
When it comes to the marketing of a non-profit, I always like to throw some credit to Team Rubicon. While not a fire department, Team Rubicon’s marketing plan has been unmatched in recent years and it has yielded them incredible success both financially and in volunteer workforce recruitment numbers.
With regard to marketing for the purpose of recruitment, one barrier that exists resides in peoples minds. At times, people have a hard time seeing themselves as a volunteer firefighter, or they just assume they’re not capable. Breaking that barrier requires communications. Handing out flyers and hanging posters is a very passive form of recruitment, it relies solely on the courage of the prospective member to step forward on his/her own. It’s important for current members to recognize that each of them is an ambassador of the fire department and each of them has a role to play in recruitment. Members should recognize that their behaviors both on and off duty create a positive or negative image of the department. As a group, we either display the values of an organization anyone can be a part of, or we display the opposite. Some posters that help soften the image include the following. All of these recruitment posters have the ability to be targeted Facebook and Instagram ads.
Producing ad images and videos highlighting all of the good things your organization does is a surefire way to gain the support you seek in many different areas. When the public sees marketed content from your department advertising community risk reduction programs, informing them of emergency responses, highlighting firefighter training, recruitment efforts, showcasing fire department meetings, spotlighting community partnerships, and showing happy firefighters serving their community, a much larger sense of the overall state of the fire department begins to emerge.
I want to be careful not to suggest that this is easy. It’s not. It takes planning, creativity, ambition, vision, some hard work, and execution. As fire service leaders we’re not professionally trained marketing managers. HOWEVER, It’s likely that there is someone in your community that you could reach out to for some support. If you’re a 501c3 non-profit fire department, any marketing assistance provided by a licensed agency would be tax deductible. Any support given to your fire department should be answered in the form of a certificate or plaque which that business could hang on their office wall. My point here is if you are unable to create your own marketing content or struggle to build a plan, FIND the resources within your community to make it happen. It’s likely there is someone in your response area that could volunteer as a marketing manager.
Disclaimer: This articles intent was to highlight the importance of having a marketing strategy and to start the discussion of building a marketing plan for your fire department. Any resources highlighted in this article were intended to provide you with a vision and an example of a path forward and in no way are affiliated with the author or Station Pride.
Building a community network to support your volunteer fire department.
For the career fire employees out there, it’s likely your fire department provides some level of personnel support with regard to smoking cessation, physical fitness, dietary, psychological support, marriage counseling, stress management, financial planning etc. from an employee assistance program(EAP).
For the volunteer departments reading this, it’s likely you have little or no support at all in the areas serviced by a professional EAP program, nor can you likely afford to pay for the services for one like it. Alas, there is always a solution to the most complex problems but it might take a little idea tweaking, politicking, handshaking, and community organizing to pull it off.
Every community has services that can be drafted or harnessed to provide support for your fire departments’ volunteers. For the 501(c) fire departments, your job may be a little bit easier, as donations to your organization are likely tax-deductible.
When broken down in numbers, volunteer fire departments save their communities millions in labor costs. In fact, a recent study by the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York determined that volunteer firefighter’s save the citizens of New York State $3.1 billion in taxes to support wages and associated employment benefits of a statewide career department. Equating the dollar equivalent of a volunteer firefighter doesn’t exactly fill one with pride, but it’s a valuable number to calculate for your area because it can be used as a selling point to garner support from the community and it’s business power.
Volunteerism is down all over the country, it’s a common headline these days. Every volunteer fire chief struggles to keep active volunteers on their roster, and there is a slew of reasons why. (See The Volunteer Solution) It’s imperative to find creative ways to sweeten the pot for your volunteers. Wouldn’t it be great if you were able to offer a welcome package to a new full member of your department? A welcome package that comes from the community as a ‘thank you’ for serving them? Hint: the answer is yes! If you’re a fire chief reading this, you already know you have more tasks than not, but two very important primary tasks are to find the balances between serving the needs of your membership as well as the needs of your community, each serving each other.
What I’m describing looks a little like the businesses of your community offering small discounts to the volunteers of your organization. For example, volunteer firefighters receive 5% off a particular gas station, 10% off at a local chain restaurant, a rebate at the car dealership, one free oil change per year at the quick lube, a free consultation with a nutritionist, chiropractic services, discounts on gym memberships and so on. The list is endless and it’s all unique to what your community has to offer. Where possible, always make attempts to include services found in a typical EAP. The idea here is to engage the services of your community to support the selfless services provided by your volunteers. Small discounts may not seem like a big deal, but when added up over the course of a year it could mean hundreds or even thousands of dollars saved by the members of your organization and as we learned in the Volunteer Solution, every little bit counts.
Where do we start?
As with any large task, you break the situation down into logical, manageable chunks of work.
The central idea here is that the volunteer problem is not a fire department problem, it’s a community problem. We’re all in this together. The solution is a community one.
Develop your pitch. In the Volunteer Solution Part 3, we discussed communicating your needs as an o
rganization to your community. If you fail to communicate the type of support you need, you will certainly NOT receive it. You’ll want to write all of these things down and package this as a fire department program. Give it a name, for example, “Community volunteer firefighter assistance.” Start with drafting a statement of your intentions, highlight your volunteer numbers, national trends, the number of hours these individuals provide the community and the disruption it causes to their lives. Express your needs openly and honestly. It may even be useful to communicate how volunteer firefighters save their businesses thousands of tax dollars but at a cost to very few among us. Create an understanding with business owners by describing your plan to harness the collective power of the community to support volunteerism and ask them if they’d be willing to help. No threats need to be made, but the bottom line reality for every volunteer department is if people stop showing up, the cost of replacing a volunteer can be astronomical.
Identify the services, businesses, and organizations in your community you’d be interested in forming partnerships with. These services could include, nutritionists, physical fitness (local gym), gas stations, restaurants, box stores, car dealerships, barbershops, chiropractic services, massage therapy, car maintenance businesses, grocery stores, hotels, and any type of entity within your reach. There is literally no limit to the participants of your developing program. It could take a year to build fully, however, meeting with each business owner or proprietor to communicate your needs takes time, thoughtful effort, and a little bit of politicking. Arrange a one-on-one meeting, or host a group meeting with local business leaders, each choice will help to get your message across.
Marketing, marketing, marketing. The services your fire station provides IS your product and
products need to be sold. As a fire department, we don’t produce anything. In fact, our very nature is to consume more than we produce. We’re more of a last resort insurance policy for when people need help, with anything. Market all the good thinks your volunteers are doing, market EVERYTHING, create edited videos with your logo, post images to your website and social media frequently.
During the workshops I provide, I hear department leaders complain about not receiving enough facebook followers or website traffic. Their message is going unheard and nobody seem
s to be paying attention. Here’s a simple trick, provide information people in your community NEED and they will continue to check back. They don’t need to know about your fire prevention program, but they might need to know what traffic conditions are, the weather, tides, storm information, community hazards, road closures, construction and so forth. People will follow you for necessary information and while they’re there, market the things you want them to know and see. My hard point here is that if nobody sees it happen, it didn’t happen. It’s human nature to be absorbed in our own lives, most people do not give much attention to the fire department because it is not relevant to their daily lives. Make yourselves relevant. It takes some thoughtful planning and process building, but once that’s nailed down, it’s a field of dreams.
Volunteer fire departments really need to get back into the business of community organizing. Find ways to make yourselves a more active presence in your community. Consider offering babysitting certification classes, community CPR classes, and child car seat installation. Join nationally funded initiatives like Safe Place. Instead of passively providing a service when those are in need, find creative ways and attempt to be relevant in the daily lives of your community.
Last but not least, when you’ve garnered the support you need from the community, create a membership card whether magnetic swipe or barcode that businesses can swipe or scan for member discounts. Members can carry the cards in their wallet and scan them when used. There are many websites where you can make custom membership card. Such as this one, click (here). Likewise, when/where possible, set your program participants up with your tax exempt number so their contributions to your program can be written off on their taxes, if possible.
Here are some examples of how you can market and recruit for your department.
Before we get started on the meat of this 3rd leg… A fair amount of discussion occurred at the end of Part 1 and Part 2 which led me to an unplanned Part 3 discussing expectations. Expectations can be tricky to navigate. There are moments when expectations run parallel and other times when they meet. When and where they meet is when the engine that drives this paradigm begins firing on all cylinders.
The following are a list of expectations within the relative circle of our discussion.
- The community’s expectation of the Fire Department
- The Fire Department’s expectation of the community
- The Fire Chiefs’ expectation of his volunteers
- The Volunteer’s expectation of their Fire Chief
- The fire department’s expectation of ourselves.
The most important expectation is that of the community.
What does the Community Expect of its’ Fire Department?
The answer is a fairly simple one. They expect that when they dial 911 for an emergency that someone will show up to help. In most cases, when it’s an emergency, whether routine or life & death, it doesn’t matter to them, at the moment, who shows up, as long as someone who can help mitigate or has a relative sense to handle the situation and/or means to communicate the problem to a higher echelon of mitigation.
The inner-workings of the fire service are largely foreign to the average citizen. I’ve responded as a volunteer where homeowners assumed their fire department consisted of paid staff and likewise, I’ve responded to calls as an EMT-Basic and the family couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t start a line and administer medication. The general public isn’t likely aware of the numerous certifications required, the engine company/truck company rivalries, the turf wars, and the politics between career, combination, or volunteers. The public doesn’t care about the logo’s painted on the trucks, whether or not you are properly equipped or adequately funded or any of the trivial things we seem to focus on. They don’t know the difference between TFT’s and smooth bore nozzles or even what that means for how we attack fires. They don’t understand 2 in, 2 out, or that most ladder trucks don’t have water, the list is endless. The general public, by and large, has no idea about the world we (firefighters) live in.
The hard point here is that, in a time of dire crisis, the citizens of your community care about none of our internal politics, as long as someone capable and/or anyone with flashing lights and a radio arrives to help them. What they do EXPECT, is that WE as professionals have all the backend issues figured out in order to provide a functional service. When it’s not functional, the residents of your community can pick up on that right away. It’s important to set aside the focus on our piety internal situations and realize all decisions made during the course of managing our fire department point directly to the product you provide the citizens of your community. Fire Departments don’t produce much as an organization, if anything, fire department’s naturally consume more than they produce, but in our consumption, there is value and a product we provide. Ensuring we’re providing the best possible product for the funding we’re given is our ultimate responsibility and it doesn’t go unnoticed.
The Fire Department’s Expectation of the Community.
First and foremost, the communities role with/for/in the fire department must be defined. If the community does not understand its role in supporting their fire department, then you will not be supported, plain and simple. Volunteer fire stations MUST act with calculated communication to
convey their needs, their challenges, and their situations to the residents they protect. Information and marketing campaigns are an important tool. There is power in social media, and it’s free. A community should know that without THEM there is no emergency response. Every community must provide its fire department with willing, able, and capable responders, as well as, financial backing. Without the community, there is no fire department. Understanding the role they play allows your community to better serve the needs of their fire department. Don’t be afraid to make your financial documents and spending public. For most of you this is a legal requirement, for others it’s optional. Bottom-line, transparency is critical, information is power, and it should be shared with the public.
The Fire Chief’s Expectations of his/her Volunteers’
The Fire Chief of a volunteer fire department does not have the luxury of hand-picking his/her volunteers. The Chief has to work with and develop the volunteers the community provides. Active recruiting can help bolster your roster but overall, a fire chief MUST manage the individuals who step forward. Expectations for firefighters must be defined clearly. A great place to begin in defining expectations is to create a signed agreement of the U.S. Fire Administrations Code of Ethics (here). You can alter or add to the code of ethics to fit your organization’s needs. A poster-sized code of ethics should be clearly posted in your firehouse as a reminder to the agreement. Likewise, new probationary firefighters must be provided with a roadmap establishing clear, realistic benchmarks for achieving full member status. Likewise, a set of policies and procedures that clearly defines the parameters for membership, expectations, and requirements. No member of your organization should be unsure of his/her role within the department. Another expectation that should be sharply communicated is an overall culture of inclusion. Officers must actively participate in overcoming internal clicks and camps, it’s one team one fight all the way. Problem individuals or members who have difficulty fitting in will require more time and energy, it’s critical for leaders to lean into these individuals instead of shunning them. We all have to work together and the sentiment of the department’s culture is set by a combined leadership. If your leaders are inciting division amongst the ranks, that leader should be professionally developed and provided a path to successful leadership within the organization.
The Volunteer’s Expectation of their Fire Chief
The volunteer’s of your organization will have very simple expectations of the fire department and the fire chief. First, they’ll expect that you will provide them with the proper personal protective equipment and adequate training in order to keep them safe. Firefighting is risky a business and the safety of your members is paramount. They all have a living to make elsewhere. injuries while volunteering will likely affect their livelihoods. Second, volunteer firefighters expect that their time will be respected. Running calls, attending meetings, training, classes, and the like add up to an enormous amount of time. It rivals a part-time job, if not more. Volunteer firefighters aren’t fairweather, it’s a lifestyle we’re asking them to live. As a fire chief, we have to ensure that meetings follow strict agendas and topics of discussion. Training must be planned well, be useful, and informative. Emergency calls must be emergencies. The amount of effort you give to meetings and training will be noticeable and it all amounts to having respect for the time they are giving you. The more respect you give, the more you’ll get in return. After all, time is the most precious thing a volunteer has to give, as they can never get it back.
The Fire Department’s Expectation of Ourselves
This one is really for each organization to decide for themselves. We should all expect that we’ll be part of an honorable and thoughtful organization. With its focus on developing its membership as well as the product that is provided to the citizens of the community. Every interaction with a member of the public is an opportunity to leave a lasting impression, whether routine or emergent. The most important aspect of this is to ensure you have a vision and a mission statement that actually means something and provides a beacon for your members to follow.
Be mindful, and be prideful.
Part 4 we’ll discuss clicks, camps, and divisiveness within the fire department.