Selling safety

An Ontario fire department uses popular images, buzzwords and hashtags to drive public education
February 12, 2016
Written by Tanya Bettridge
 The Minto Fire Department’s Twitter feed gets creative with popular images such as a pumpkin spice latte to grab people’s attention.
The Minto Fire Department’s Twitter feed gets creative with popular images such as a pumpkin spice latte to grab people’s attention.
February 2016 - A shift is happening in the required skill sets of fire-service personnel: firefighters need to be more high-tech than ever, and non-suppression personnel are moving up the ranks. The fire-breathing dragon of the past is long gone, replaced by new challenges such as lightweight construction and alternative energy sources.


But there is also a new dragon slayer in town, one with a keyboard mightier than any sword, one who has the ability to do what fire services have struggled to do for decades: get people’s attention.

From social media messages to buzzwords, hip hashtags and snazzy slogans, the new firefighter is essentially a marketing guru with an eye for opportunity and an ear for the community.

The Minto Fire Department in Ontario employs a new dragon slayer – administrative co-ordinator Callise Foerter. Using her marketing background, Foerter is steering the department’s public-education campaigns and social media accounts to draw in the community.

Foerter regularly uses pop-culture references, seasonal graphics and trending hashtags to command attention from the public. An October tweet, depicting a delicious #pumpkin spice latte, gently reminds people to get their chimneys cleaned. Similar to the way private marketing campaigns for fashion brands or beer companies use humour or visuals of people having fun – often unrelated to the actual brand – Foerter uses popular imagery or incentives such as a prize to draw in her audience before linking to a fire-safety message.

Foerter and Minto Fire Chief Chris Harrow discuss the incorporation of marketing into the fire department, particularly through social media and connecting with the community.

Q How or why do fire services miss the mark when it comes to communicating to the public, be it during incidents, via social media and/or with their public-education campaigns?

Harrow Consistency. Being on social media and communicating with the public is not a nine-to-five job. It requires us to be on at all hours of the day and even on weekends. We had a tornado strike our community [last] year on the August long weekend. The communications we sent out were the key to a successful community response and awareness of the entire incident.

Foerter From my perspective, the fire service, overall, misses the mark on public education because we don’t cater to the needs or wants of our communities. We think that fire-safety messages are strong enough messages to stand alone, when I believe in actuality the safety message is a secondary message.

We need to go back to basics, and look at fundamental rules of communicating with people. Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People outlines commutation rules such as listen to people, make a connection with people, know the kind of person/personality you’re talking to, talk to people about
themselves and their interests. We as the fire service need to take advantage of our position as being the helping hand and get to know our communities. The more you engage with [people],the more inclined they are to engage and respond to you. We need to think more about the various people with whom we’re communicating and less about ourselves and our messages.

If, as a fire service, we can build that credibility and rapport with our communities, we are more apt to get positive responses. The community will rally around us and support our organization because they will feel we genuinely care about their well being. I don’t know if we should be called public educators anymore; we’re more relationship co-ordinators, or community-investment builders.

Q Can you describe the shift from traditional fire service-centric communication delivery to the modernized community-centric approach that Minto has adopted?

Harrow We are utilizing the partnerships in both the community and business community to increase the traffic through their stores and associations and increase the awareness of their businesses. In turn, they help us to spread the fire-prevention messaging and awareness of how Minto Fire is a great community partner. The best part for us is the fact that it costs us minimal dollars and very little staff time so our firefighters are not overtaxed with work.

Foerter To reiterate, we’re shifting our focus to look less at the programs and more how we can make material fit the personalities of the people with whom we are communicating. One generic program does not fit the entire community. We need to analyze businesses and the many strategies they employ within not only their marketing departments, but their entire organizations. Many businesses are successful because they have mastered the customer experience; they take care of their customers and make them feel valued or important. Satisfied customers create a loyal fan base. As a fire service, we want our community to be loyal to us and participate in our programs.

Walt Disney World is the epitome of family vacations for almost every young family. Why does Disney stay in the top position for family entertainment? Walt Disney’s philosophy is, “You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them. Get out there, be willing to listen, and then institutionalize learning and continuous improvement on behalf of your [community].”



Q Chief, what advice would you give your fire-chief colleagues across the country who are looking to create more effective public-engagement strategies?

Harrow Step away from tradition. Hire non-traditional firefighters. Callise is as much a firefighter as our suppression firefighters. She does not respond to calls in trucks, she responds to the public via social media.

Secondly, start seeing the fire department as a business entity. Aspects of the fire department need to be run as a business. We are starting down the road of a new marketing strategy that compliments what we have been doing in public education that we are hopeful will take off. Thinking like a business manager can shed a whole new light on your department and some of the possibilities that are open to us.

Q Callise, what steps do you recommend departments take when it comes to engaging with their communities via social media?

Foerter My steps for starting on social media:
  1. Start with one or two networks and post great content regularly
  2. Grow your network by engaging with the type of people you want to follow you
  3. Be available always. Unfortunately, it’s not a nine-to-five job. I joke that you should have online firefighters who respond online when  firefighters respond on the ground, but I’m not really joking.
  4. And my favourite advice from Scott Stratten’s book Unmarketing is if you want to evoke emotion, it’s internal emotion for the reader, not the writer. If someone reads your tweet or blog post, or sees your video, and the only thing they learn is more about you, you’re not evoking emotion. That’s an ad. If you want to persuade people and get them to pass something around, evoke their emotion.
Q Since shifting the approach to a more marketing-savvy style, what results have materialized in Minto?

Harrow Our volunteer and recruitment program has become more successful. The firefighters are able to feel proud of their organization and how well the community responds to them. The entire organization needs to buy into a successful public-education program. The firefighters in the department deserve credit for promoting the program and being out in their home communities.

Foerter Our department has reaped many benefits from our new approach to public education, including:
  • Increased awareness of our organization and members.
  • Increased attendance by both our firefighters and our community members at public-education programs and events.
  • Increased community engagement by both our business community and our residents.
  • Increased rapport with our municipal council.
  • Influx of volunteers signing up to become part of our department.
  • Increased retention of our volunteers.
  • Influx of dollars to our training, public-education and equipment divisions.
  • A heightened profile of our organization in the community.


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