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Date last updated: Wednesday, January 3, 16:26 PST

Volunteer Fire Department Marketing Part 1

The column I did on the VCOS’s Blue Ribbon Report sparked quite a few comments, but the one I found most interesting was the concept of starting a marketing department. I have never thought of it in those terms but the truth is that departments do need a marketing arm. VFD marketing would help public relations, recruitment and retention, funding, fund raising, and even company morale.

In the business world, marketing can make or break a company. Let’s take a look Microsoft. Microsoft is the largest software company in the U.S. The question is, how did they get there? Microsoft’s product, especially in its infancy, was inferior to most other products. What set Microsoft apart was its aggressive marketing. The same goes for AOL. If aggressive marketing is good enough for the largest companies, why not for our fire companies?

Let’s look at marketing basics. We need to start with developing an image and position within our market. Fire departments have the bonus of existing goodwill and an established reputation. As a matter of fact, some corporations are even using our good will to help with THEIR marketing. ( , If our goodwill is good enough for other corporations to use in their marketing, then why not for our fire companies?

Companies looking to gain a government bid or a handout from the government actively market for sales. They go out of their way to build goodwill and socialize with the ‘pols’ in order to gain favor. Lobbyists are in the business of marketing to politicians. It does not matter whether you agree or disagree with marketing to politicians, but it works. If marketing to politicians is good enough for corporations, why not for our fire companies?

When restaurants are looking to bring in guests, they do marketing. How do you know that the local restaurant is running a special? Why do they even run specials? It is all about marketing. The best chef without marketing would be serving to his staff rather then customers. If marketing is good enough for restaurants, why not for our fire companies?

I think Chief Larry Curl, Chairman of IAFC’s VCOS put it best: "I hope we will begin to see and value our department and our self as the business we really are, and stop thinking of ourselves as some sort of social service which we are not. We have a product that we sell and a customer base to sell it to and that product is SERVICE, and our customer base is our community. "

If you are looking for a ‘real life’ example of where fire departments need marketing, the best example would be the emails I get daily. Since I launched, the most common email I receive is from the public asking how they can volunteer in their town.

Ok, ok… Enough of that. Obviously we need marketing, the question is how, where, and when? The answer is of course in multiple ways, everyday, everywhere. There is a reason why the Las Vegas Fire Department went to red fire trucks, and the reason is marketing. When kids visited the department and sent thank you notes, even though their trucks were white, the kids always colored the vehicles as ‘fire engine red’.

Fire departments in the past did not need to market as they were the center of the community and everyone who was someone was a member. The public turned out in droves to see the new fire engines and there was nothing better then watching the trucks go ‘screaming’ through town. Over time we have gotten complacent and taken marketing for granted, but there still is a good framework.

We want to build on our strengths and the existing framework. One of the best things you can do for your department is poll the public regularly. This is for the same reason why I poll’s readers regularly. When you know what your customers, and the area you serve are your customers, then you know what they expect and you can fulfill their needs. (BTW, the next poll will be out on Thursday.)

The ‘old school’ thought is that we always fulfill our customers’ needs by putting out their fires. But we do not even do that now a days. If you look at statistics, the number of working fires is down and we have done our job. (After all, we are the only business in the business of putting ourselves out of business.) If we fulfilled all of our customers needs we wouldn’t have a problem when it comes to budget time. Satisfied customers will continue to ‘buy’ our product no matter what the price.

We spend most of our time doing service calls and wonder why. The reason is customer satisfaction. If you do not do basement pump outs, lock outs, etc, then you are loosing valuable ‘face time’ and public relations. It is true that when all else fails and no one knows who to call, they call the fire department. We have one of the best marketing tools available; we help our customers in their time of need. The problem is, it is on a one to one basis, and is ‘expected’.

When a lay person saves a life, they are a hero. They make the front page of the paper and all the news channels. We do it on a daily basis and it is ‘routine’. Our customers do not se the thousands of hours that went into saving their loved one or their home. As a matter of fact, the only time they notice us is when we fail to do our job. This is due to their high expectations and our lack of marketing.

The other problem we have, especially as volunteers, is some of the ‘old school’ negative images that were developed over time. Many people picture volunteers as the big fat guys with beards who are busier drinking then putting out fires. Yeesh, add a red uniform and we could be Santa Claus. We do like to party, and we have had our beards, but the public needs to see us as a service, not as a bunch of guys hanging out.

Next week I will look at our ‘competition’, market position, and marketing strategies. A well developed marketing plan will help your department to grow and retain members, while improving the public’s opinion of your service and the service overall.

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