Recently, there seems to be a great deal of buzz in the fire service around the idea of branding your department. Gone are the days where just being the fire department was good enough to receive community support and the government funding needed to operate.
In today's society, we must justify our existence and the age-old method of showing some charts with graphs depicting the department's annual number of alarms and response times by itself is no longer acceptable.
The economy has been slow to recover and government bodies are scrutinized more than ever before; there are no sacred cows in the budgeting process. It doesn't matter whether your organization consists of volunteers or career personnel, or if your budget is $20 thousand or $2 million; mayors, alderpersons, business leaders and citizens alike want to know what they're getting in return for their tax dollars.
There are many different spins on what branding is supposed to look like, but let's make things simple; we'll refer to it as a means of marketing your message to the public.
Many departments are utilizing the prevention and education arm of their organization for spreading their message. This is a natural fit, since the people working within these areas often have existing relationships within the community and are comfortable speaking to large groups of people.
Some see these added responsibilities as a burden on an already overloaded work schedule. However, it's important to see the opportunities that are created by these extra activities.
For example, the opportunity to speak with the business community about such topics as CPR classes or health screenings at the fire department rather than about an exit light not working or an egress being locked provides an opportunity to change their perceptions of you and the department from an enforcer to an informer.
Due to the nature of their jobs, those working in the prevention and education sections of the fire service are most often well-networked within the community. Performing inspections has allowed them to develop relationships with the leaders in the business community while their education efforts have made them a fan favorite to hundreds of children and their families.
Value is the name of the game and plays a key role in keeping your part of the budget away from the chopping block. What makes this so difficult for the fire service is that determining value is most often based on how we're perceived.
Perceptions are subjective in nature and derived from either a positive or a negative experience, either personally or shared by someone else—thus the importance of branding. A branding campaign that is proactive and consistent can help shape how the organization is perceived.
Utilizing your department's prevention and education personnel to expand community outreach programs that result in positive experiences will increase perceived value and strengthen the organization's brand. Simple but effective programs may include such events as conducting public-safety days, inviting the public to the fire station for blood pressure checks or offering free CPR classes and child safety-seat inspections.
You may be saying, "We already do all of those things."
But the question isn't, "Are you doing them?" The question is, "Does the community know you're doing them?"