Volunteer Vision: June 2014
Firefighters strive to provide good customer service: that means treating others the way we would like to be treated – going above and beyond whenever possible and surprising people who don’t expect our do-onto-others attitude.
June 2, 2014 By Tom DeSorcy
Firefighters strive to provide good customer service: that means treating others the way we would like to be treated – going above and beyond whenever possible and surprising people who don’t expect our do-onto-others attitude. For the most part, these customers – the ratepayers – are paying the bills, yet it appears that lately customers have come to expect even more from the fire service.
With rising costs in all municipal services, it seems to me that our customers are becoming more like consumers – a term for those who actually buy a product. Customers are the people who walk into your store – potential consumers; you greet them, serve them and answer their questions. If they leave without buying anything, you thank them and invite them to come again. The moment they see something they want and put their hard-earned money on the table is the moment their expectations change, and this is what I’m seeing among today’s ratepayers.
Maybe it’s the fact that as we age and as costs continue to rise, we pay more attention to where our money goes. Perhaps we have become victims of the buy-now-and-pay-later attitude that permeates advertising campaigns for big-ticket consumer items.
Local governments tax their citizens according to the costs of operating the municipality, and, hopefully, put money aside for maintenance and future capital expenditures. It used to be that we, as taxpayers, were happy to contribute to that war chest. I believe that members of today’s older generation are not interested in preparing for the future or making sure the next generation is well looked after. “I’ve paid my taxes, show me something in return,” they say. Fire protection and public safety? “I don’t need that service right now, but I do have a pothole on my street and I want it fixed.” That attitude doesn’t make it easy to replace a fire apparatus come budget time, now does it?
Taxpayers have also become more selective about the services for which they pay. What is the percentage of local customers you serve? How many calls do you respond to that involve people from outside your community (for example, if you respond to MVCs and your department serves a stretch of highway)? Have you heard any uproar over cost recovery to visitors or non-residents in your community? We often hear how we should be charging out-of-town individuals for the service (which is indeed the case in some regions of the country); to me, this attitude goes against the grain of the fire service.
Here in British Columbia search-and-rescue organizations have been publicly criticized for not charging back-country enthusiasts who put themselves in harm’s way, ultimately resulting in spent tax dollars and risks to the responders who rescue these risk-takers when they get lost or hurt. We all know that the moment you start to put a price on the service, there may be a reluctance to call. People won’t call for help if they’ve done something wrong and will be publicly criticized for having taken foolish risks; people will die as a result and no one wants that. You call, we come. More and more, I see emergency services on the receiving end of negative public opinion – in letters to the editor or social media posts from people who don’t understand the fact that we train for their worst days and that when we aren’t running calls we are training and planning and educating; maybe it’s a vocal minority, but it’s the voice the men and women at the end of the hose hear too often.
It’s our job as chief officers to shield our crews from this criticism and help them to focus on the service they provide. The majority of the population appreciates what we do. From social media posts and blogs, to – my favourite – the coffee-shop experts, rest assured that these detractors will never know what we do or see what we see – that we struggle every day just to make sure that enough dedicated people will actually be around town and available to respond if the those same armchair experts call.
So what’s the solution? Education. We need to continue to sell the benefits and realities of what we do – break down the stereotypes and provide good routine service, service that’s as good as we provide in emergency mode. The naysayers are the minority or, as I like to say, the moss; ignore them and feed the grass, give the silent majority all the information they need to spread positive messages on our behalf. There are people who have experienced our services, and know the importance and the value of what we do. Let’s encourage them to tell everyone else.
Potholes or public safety? You can be sure that neither is important until it directly impacts the consumer.
Tom DeSorcy became the first paid firefighter in his hometown of Hope, B.C., when he became fire chief in 2000. Originally a radio broadcaster, Tom’s voice could be heard in the early 1990s across Canada as one of the hosts of Country Coast to Coast. DeSorcy is very active with the Fire Chiefs’ Association of B.C as communications director and conference committee chair. Email Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept
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