In the past, customer service was taught at the fire station and learned on the job by observing senior firefighters. However, this is doing the firefighter and the community a disservice.
The fire service is known for providing customer service. When you became a firefighter, were you taught to provide the highest level of service to the community that you serve?
In the academy, new firefighters are taught to pull hose, throw ladders, emergency medical service, auto extraction and a long list of other firefighting skills until it becomes second nature. Usually, only a few hours are spent discussing customer service concepts, and then it is back to basic firefighting skills. In the past, customer service was taught at the fire station and learned on the job by observing senior firefighters. However, this is doing the firefighter and the community a disservice.
Customer service should be integrated into the probationary phase of training, so it becomes second nature, just like basic firefighting skills. Customer service skills should be included and taught in the fire academy.
A firefighter will usually receive respect from the public when they are in uniform and show up on a fire engine. However, what if they are not in uniform and working at a business where high-level customer service is the norm? We reached out to a local high-end hotel and asked if our probationary firefighters could fine-tune their customer service skills with their assistance.
The hotel was happy to help and assigned our firefighters to a full day of working at the front desk and concierge desk. They were told to wear a nice suit for the day, and we brought them to the hotel. They spent the first hour in a customer-service class with the front-desk manager. Once the class was completed, the firefighters were assigned to shadow the front-desk personnel.
It was a great learning experience for the new firefighters. A few things they learned were to offer a solution to all guests, be personable, always use the customers' names throughout the interaction and whenever possible, remove any barriers between you and the customer. For example, the front desk personnel would walk around the counter and try not to speak across the counter to customers.
The firefighters were asked to give some examples of skills they learned that could be helpful on incidents. Their feedback included making an effort to remember patients' names, and they learned how to defuse highly stressed individuals by improving communication with upset people and offering solutions.
Another benefit to having the firefighters train at the hotel was that the hotel staff became personally invested in the new firefighters. Now, when a call is received from the hotel, the staff and firefighters already have a working relationship, which will improve customer service. It is a win-win for both groups.
It is important to show new firefighters that customer service is not just words, but also a fire service culture. Implementing customer service into the traditional fire academy is essential in today's world.
Greg Barton, EFO, CFO, CTO, FM, is the fire chief of the Beverly Hills (California) Fire Department. He serves as secretary/treasurer of the Executive Fire Officers Section and is a graduate of the Fire Service Executive Development Institute. He's been a member of the IAFC since 2012.