Moving Fire Departments Forward Through Marketing

By John Kowalski

When I walked into my local fire hall just over three years ago, I was excited, nervous, and stepping into the unknown. I had just moved to rural Tennessee, and I thought joining the fire service would help me connect to my new community, give back, and learn new skills. However, the experience became so much more.

On this journey, I have made friends and now feel like I belong. I have a fire family within my department and throughout the fire service. I have also found that in addition to sharing my time, my help, and my passion with the community, I am able to share my expertise as a marketing professional to help my department grow.

Why Marketing is Important

I know the term ‘marketing’ may initially conjure images of salesmen with slicked-back hair trying to persuade you to buy something. But in my use of the term ‘marketing,’ I see it as an overarching umbrella that encompasses many things that are critical to a fire department from a communications standpoint: public relations, media relations, social media and web site management, event planning, community programs and outreach, grant writing and fundraising, direct mail/email, etc. It’s telling the story of what a department brings to the community and the invaluable services its personnel provide. You have a story to tell, and in telling it correctly, your department can and will move forward.

This sounds good, but how can it specifically help your department?

Marketing can address and help mitigate a department’s challenges. For many departments, funding, recruitment, and retention rank high on that list. In addition, consider what high-risk challenges face your district, such as opioids and illegal drug use, or a coverage area containing a wildland full of fossil fuels. With department challenges in the foreground and an open mind regarding how you utilize marketing, solutions await.

How to Tell YOUR Story – A Piece by Piece Approach

To effectively tell your department’s story, use the following components to build your marketing messaging and plan.

  1. Who You Are and What You Stand For: What makes your department unique?
  2. Your Community – Your Keys to the Future: Who are you talking to and what is important to them?
  3. What to Say: What is the value your department brings?
  4. Where to Communicate: What is the ‘mix’ of communication vehicles you’ll use to get the message out?

Who You Are and What You Stand For

When it comes to telling your story, you must first understand your department and what makes it unique. The tangible services you provide are easy to identify. These may include things like fire suppression, wildland-urban interface assistance, emergency medical services, etc. But the real magic lies in the intangible things. What’s the spirit, passion, and drive for what you do and why you do it? What is unique to you and you alone? These are hard questions and require some serious thinking, but the answers are what sets your department apart. It’s what you do, what you stand for, and who you are.

Your Community – Your Keys to the Future

Another part of telling your story is your community, or who’s going to listen. Is your district metropolitan, rural, or in the wildland-urban interface? Who makes up the people in your community? Are they farmers, skilled laborers, or individuals in professional services? Do you have a lot of college students or retirees? It’s important to outline your community and really think about who you protect and who is listening to your story.

Also consider what is the community’s current perception of your department. Is it favorable or does it need to shift? These are important questions. Define where you are, and then define where you desire to be. A marketing program connects those dots and outlines the journey.

 

 

What to Say

Everything you need to communicate your story is complete if you’ve done your homework (outlined above) and have taken the time to do it correctly. Your story is unique and just needs to be massaged a bit. What are the top three things you want to let your community know or that you wish your community knew about your department? And why does it matter to them? Illustrate these components to help them resonate with your community. What will trigger an emotional response in your audience?

Where to Communicate

Where you tell your story is tactical. Is it a web site or a Facebook page? Is it an annual mailer or an open house? Look at your community and learn how and where they take in information. More than likely it’s a combination of things. The business world calls this an integrative marketing plan. This is simply the intersection of your message and your community – telling your story where your community gathers information.

At my department, we use the following mix: web sites, Facebook page, mailers, community events, educational programs, grant writing and fundraising, and dedicated recruitment efforts. We communicate what we stand for in each medium, clearly and consistently.

Implementing the Plan

Now that you know what steps to take, you may be wondering how to get this accomplished when most volunteer departments are already short-staffed.

Maybe you don’t have enough personnel within your department, but what about in your community or fire family? Is there a family member or a local college student looking for experience in communications, marketing, advertising, or public relations? How about a retired professional? Get creative and look beyond your department. It’s impossible to do everything yourself, so delegate when you can.

Infographic of Interdependence

The infographic to the right illustrates the interdependence of two of the main challenges volunteer fire departments face – funding and recruitment and retention. It also shows how these two challenges can be addressed through various community actions. Community and department actions can snowball and result in improved membership, as well as increased funding for equipment.

The following links provide some examples that my department has found successful. Hopefully these will inspire some ideas for your department:

Web site
Facebook page
Fundraising mailer
Recruitment brochure
Open house video

Marketing can have a big impact on generating support for your department as well as generating awareness of your department’s work and the issues that impact both the department and the community. The steps provided in this article will help you as you manage or develop a plan. First and foremost, be clear and concise, and use repetition. Speak to your audience in their language and meet them where they go, in what they read, and in how they absorb information.

I’ve found that marketing is often one of the last things considered in a fire hall, but from my standpoint, it can be very beneficial. A marketing plan can greatly influence your department in many positive ways. With a dedicated effort and a well-planned program, you can move your department forward.

John Kowalski is a lieutenant with Lone Oak Volunteer Fire Department on Signal Mountain, TN. He has been with the department since 2016. He is also a 20+ year marketing professional, a husband, and father of three. Visit him at Babacita.com for additional content on marketing related to fire and emergency service organizations.