The Fixers


How can we help you today?

Are you a fire department or are you an EMS service?  Do you do both?  The knee-jerk reaction I sometimes get was one coined by a previous chief, “We are an EMS agency providing fire service”.  In fact, it sounds so clever that there are a vocal few who like to throw that out there time and time again, like they were the ones who originally came up with the concept (they’re paramedics, so they’re a little biased, I’m sure).

Something I said in a much earlier blog bears repeating:  customer relations are essential for any department operating in this day and age.  There are those who continue to disagree with the use of the word “customer” when referring to those who use our service.  Respectfully, I also continue to insist that just because they don’t walk into your shop and buy something doesn’t mean they don’t have a choice in using your service.  Taxpayers may not be able to change providers, but with enough votes, they can radically change your organization.

The world can change overnight.  If you think the current model of how we provide service is going to last another 200 years, think again.  As our customers become more educated and expect more innovation from government, look for them to insist on ways we can do things better.  We need to continuously and constantly evaluate our direction and possibly even reinvent  our concepts in order to stay out front.  Good customer service revolves around recognizing the needs of our customers and using our skills, abilities and past experience to improve service quality and to provide excellent service.

As has happened over really the last thirty years, our industry has evolved into one that defies definition, one that more and more reflects all-hazard response.  I’m going to go on record to say that I’m even confused as to what to call us anymore.  There’s a famous paragraph in Report From Engine 82 (Dennis Smith) that I’ll paraphrase, because I can’t remember it exactly.

In this city, when you turn on a wall switch, you may or may not get a light.  When you turn a faucet, you may or may not get water.  If you pick up a phone, you may or may not get a dial tone.  But everybody knows that if you pull the handle on that red box, you WILL get a fire truck.

The purpose of my poorly remembered paraphrasing of that statement was to illustrate that times have not changed from when the book was published in 1972; just substitute “call 9-1-1” for “pull the handle on that red box”.  But what we have become has, as we become EMTs and HAZMAT Technicians and Water Rescue Technicians and etc., etc.  I read “Report” cover to cover when it first came out (I was eight- I’m a good reader) and the context of that paragraph has stuck with me forever.  Dennis Smith points out in his story how the fire department was used to handle plumbing issues, to handle overdoses, and to handle pretty much anything up to and including, things that happen to be burning.

So back to customer service; what is our mission?  Why do we exist?  If your answer is, “To protect people from fire” or “To help the sick and injured”, I’d suggest that maybe you should reconsider all of those calls that don’t meet that definition as distracting you from that mission.  If you’re anything like me and the organization I work for, I’d say that not handling those calls is probably counter to the needs of your community.  And what your mission should really be, is defined by those needs.

When someone dials 9-1-1 (or whatever they dial in your community), they do so because they have a problem they can’t handle themselves (or should I say they don’t know how to handle), they don’t have the resources to handle the problem, and they don’t have anywhere to turn for an answer.  Obviously, you are saying, “Well, if my pipes are leaking, why wouldn’t I call the plumber?”  Again, think about the ENTIRE situation.  Maybe they can’t afford a plumber.  Maybe they can’t find a plumber to come out.  Maybe they are totally freaked out by the situation and not thinking clearly.  There are many answers to the question, but the long and short of it is, they trust YOU to help them solve the problem and YOU are the people they call.

So what I’m telling you is that our job REALLY is to respond to a request for help, gather facts about the problem, analyze the options, apply a solution, and ultimately, stabilize the situation.  We may not FIX the problem, but when we leave, things should at least be stable.  We really don’t need doctor-wannabes or adrenaline junkies for our job, what we need are people who can look at any situation and understand the situation, then apply creativity using the resources at hand (either on site or on that BRT you brought) to stabilize their situation.  And further along that line, we’re not asking these individuals to rebuild the house, we’re asking them to stop the forward progress of the damaging element (or disease process or whatever it is) and return some means of order to chaos.  We’re not building a piano here, we’re improvising and hopefully we’ll come out with something that can at least pass for a musical instrument of some sort.

What should our business be called?  What is it that we do?  How can we possibly have meaning in our life if we don’t have a label or title for our life’s ambition?  When I hear of the trash guy being called a “Sanitation Technician”  or a dog-walker a “Pet Care Specialist”, I wonder what title really defines what it is we do.  What it really comes down to is that everyone recognizes the title for your job more than you could ever know.  When someone asks me what I do for a living, I answer, “I’m a Firefighter”.  The knowing look on their faces and the subsequent questions about my job, my worst call, my most stupid call, etc. confirm for me that most everyone understands what our job is really all about.  Now the bigger goal is to get those of us who do it to understand that as well.


  • Bill Carey says:

    Years ago a mid-Atlantic fire department began referring to its employees as ‘Emergency Response Technicians’. The bureaucratic euphemism was to incorporate all that firefighter/EMTs and firefighter/paramedics do and present it by way of slogan/brand name recognition to a taxpaying public that had no capacity to give it understanding. Instead of developing the idea farther and explaining it, it was simply a give-take action. The employer gave it and the employee had no choice but to take it. A well-known fire service instructor took that slogan and used it as part of his instruction at FDIC one year, stating “What kid want’s to grow up and become an ERT?” when talking about certain values and philosophy. I’ve always believed that the fire service, nationally, does a poor job of marketing itself; if we were a business, we’d be broke. We seem to believe that the ability to market our customer service only comes about when, 1. people need us, 2. one of us dies, and 3. every October. We need to first have our members define themselves, before they try and do it in front of the public. It’s not so much the ‘title’ as it is being able to explain what we do in the simplest ways possible. This is hard, even for some PIOs and chief officers. When John Doe’s house id burning, he really doesn’t care that we also do hazmat, tech rescue, conspace, inspections, emergency transports and service calls. He’s not flipping through the yellow pages looking for the one with the interior attack advertisement. He, like everyone else who pulls th handle or dials 911, is looking for one thing only. Somedays its to put out a fire, other days its to find out why the apartment upstairs is flooded. The more we focus on being comfortable with out identity, and limitations, the better we;ll be able to explain what it is exactly that we do.

  • truck6alpha says:


    Thanks for your comments; I am certainly in agreement. I have pointed out on many occasions that we do a lousy job of positively marketing ourselves. Of course, when it comes to negative publicity, we excel.

    I think part of the problem is so many viewpoints on how to provide service as well as our willingness to try to help solve every problem that comes along. The dichotomy is that those same independent organizational identities and the same willingness to solve problems regardless of the resources (or lack thereof) are what people see as positives as well. I’ve said before that if you gave a truckie a coat hanger, a roll of duct tape and a TV remote, they could build a super-computer.

    “Firefighter” obviously doesn’t describe all it is we do. I’d bet that if you asked the public what it is firefighters do (other than sit in rocking chairs and play checkers), they’d say “fight fires” and that would be about it. Of course, these are the same people who call us at 0400 for a water emergency, so I guess my question would be, if you answered that all we do is firefighting, why are you calling us?

    Realistically, if you were to pin someone down and force them to answer what it is we do, they could recite a half a dozen items because they’ve seen us do these things for their neighbors or have had to use our services themselves.

    Years ago, I learned that the most effective advertisement is the one that captures the full essence of the product in the fewest words. If you have a detergent and you want to shill it on a billboard, you don’t want three paragraphs on what it does, you want to see “CLEANS GREAT”. The fire service can’t stop its internal fighting long enough to agree on “CLEANS GREAT” vs. “CLEANS BETTER”.

    So really, you captured the jist of the article when we need to figure out just what it is we do and to do it as simply as possible. We’ve got probably some of the smartest people in the business reading this blog (or so I like to think). What say you?

    Thanks again,


  • FIREhat says:

    Let me ruffle some feathers: Our biggest failures are attributable to our historical and cultural lack of emphasis on academic education. Our people cannot strategically communicate what it is we do because they, by and large, lack the communication skills needed to articulate a real mission statement. Because that is the foundation on which we base our arguments for what we need, we are crippled at the outset. Until the fire service gets over its historical view of itself as a refuge for people who “just don’t like school” we will continue to fall further and further behind in communicating our mission and needs. Fire chiefs with technical certificates from community colleges or bachelor’s degrees from internet colleges that give credit for “life experience” won’t hack it in the competitive evolving marketplace. As much as we want to act NIMSy and warm and fuzzy, we are in a competition with a whole lot of other fields, organizations, and actors. If we don’t evolve we will be left behind by the sophisticated and demanding public noted above.

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