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.