Volunteer Vision: December 2016
Being the chief officer in a fire department comes with its own set of challenges and rewards, which are not exactly equal in proportion. Yet when the rewards come, they often outweigh the challenges tenfold.
By Tom DeSorcy
Meeting as many fire fighters as I do in my travels, I continue to learn that no matter the size, how many paid members or how many calls are done each year, every department has the same challenges. I was reminded of one of those challenges this summer and that’s the matter of brand management.
A fire department is like a business. We treat those we deal with as customers, although our customers don’t have much choice as consumers. We wear crests on our sleeves or t-shirts and for many, that is who we are. A brand however, is not your logo. A brand is your personality, your identity, and, in our world, the brand is firefighter. What you do represents not only your department but each and every one of us who answers the call.
The key to this discussion is how we carry ourselves both on and off duty — is there such a thing as off duty in our world? It’s hard to believe but yes there is, and it’s these off-duty times when chiefs tend to worry. We have to be wary of how firefighters carry themselves in public because in a small community, everyone knows who the members are.
It can be a tough pill to swallow and every person I’ve brought into the department gets the same warning. I say to them, “Your life is about to change, not only will you eat, sleep and breathe fire, you will become recognized as one of us wherever you go in our community.” I also emphasize that by “us” I mean the fire service. From here on in, “you represent them, you represent me.” If that’s not pressure, I don’t know what is.
As I said earlier, we don’t have competition and we are not selling anything, but any inappropriate public act has the potential to thrust this organization into a bad light that will overshadow the good work we do and the services we provide. Every firefighter is in a position of trust, and that carries a huge amount of responsibility.
The fire service has been on a good run as it were, and with each young child who enters the world, a new breed of hero worshiper is born. Kids love fire trucks and firefighters. We’re written up in books and seen on TV, not entirely with the greatest amount of accuracy, but it’s something about which we need to be reminded – so let’s not blow it by damaging our brand.
Do we have to remind our members how to behave in public, and, more specifically, on-line and on social media? I think we do. Social media is no longer new but too many people fail to associate their on-line presence with that of their public image; it’s for this reason I believe new members need reminding that what they say, what they “share” or what they “like” reflects not only on them, but also on the fire department.
The next generation of firefighters may or may not share our current ideals. When you were growing up, what was your impression of a firefighter? Now ask yourself, has that image changed? As a firefighter today, have you lived up to that preconceived notion and, are we projecting that image to the next generation? Consider as well the fact that as a long-serving member, you are largely responsible for our image today – the way you’ve acted, the way you’ve carried yourself in the community all these years shows in the next generation of firefighters.
Let’s be sure to remind this new generation that as a brand, the fire service is not new. We’ve been well established for years and we owe it to those who came before us to protect the brand. It doesn’t matter what number you have on your helmet or the name on your turnout coat. We work for one company, one business, and one organization.
Branding has come a long way since ranchers first started putting unique marks on their cattle for identification. Today we identify ourselves with pride from a t-shirt, license plate, hat or a coin from our pocket. To everyone I say this: Keep on teaching tradition, keep instilling pride in the organization, and most of all, remind yourself that what we do is who we are. The eyes are upon us more than ever before and our members simply can’t forget this.
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. Email Tom at TDeSorcy@hope.ca and follow him on Twitter at @HopeFireDept