Marketing the Fire Service with Data: Telling the Story

By Ben May

“Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.”–H.G. Wells

Some years ago, when I was fire commissioner in the suburbs of Seattle, one of the necessary tasks we required after any call was to input the basic call information in the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) database. It was the last thing a firefighter wanted to do, and it was not easy to enforce. Today we are learning, especially with a new generation of firefighters raised on technology, that data is becoming the life blood of our service. When I say “life blood,” I mean just that, as in “existence.”

Today, we can tell many stories with statistics. The question we need to ask is: How is our data contributing to the mission of the fire service, and is it moving that mission forward? Is it being used in a targeted way to deal with specific problems in the community? Often, with data and statistics, we can get stuck in the minutiae and lose sight of the horizon. We need to link both to the mission. What I’m saying is that now that the fire service has embraced the use of data internally, let’s make sure we have data externally to tell the public what we’re doing so we can keep doing it.

Recently, it seems we look at our ability to receive much more accurate data, slicing and dicing it as if it were a new toy: “Look what I can do, daddy and mommy.” We know we’ve shaken off that old saw: “300 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” Honestly, I never understood that one. We have plenty of innovation in our history, and that innovation will become even more necessary as we progress. The way we have welcomed and embraced the use of data is a major step forward–a success story itself. So, what does all this data have to do with our existence?

Everything. Over the past 20 years, I wrote in fire service publications that if we didn’t market ourselves, we wouldn’t be in existence in a way that gives us pride in our mission. In other words, we might not be a public service but a private one. While the idea of brand and marketing in the fire service is much more prevalent today, we need to couple the marketing with the intelligent use of data. The recent 21st Century Fire and Emergency Services White Paper speaks directly to this issue–robust use of data–as well as seven more key pillars to move us forward to embrace our future. 

Note to Ourselves: We Still Have a Fire Problem!

Years ago, America Burning; America Burning Revisited; and, most recently, a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report on the U.S. fire problem, Fire Safety in the U.S. Since 1980, noted the clear and present fact that we still have a “fire problem.” Over the past 10-15 years, we constantly hear and read that fire suppression is only 5-7% of our activities. The 21St Century White Paper attempts to address this as “Re Identification” because of this statistic.

From a marketing and brand perspective, we should keep the name: Fire. The other parts of that nomenclature can reflect so many other services from EMS to rescue to hazmat to mass shootings. I’ve always liked “Fire and Life Safety,”but that’s a topic for another conversation. Naturally, this fire problem depends on geography and socioeconomics. I receive a Google Alert every day detailing multiple fires in the United States. Let me repeat that: every day.  

Recent Data Points

Speaking of data, here are a few points. According to the NFPA and the U.S. Fire Administration, the statistics in 2019 detail the problem:

  • Local fire departments responded to 1,291,500 fires in 2019. These fires caused roughly 3,700 civilian deaths, 16,600 civilian injuries, and $14.8 billion in property damage.
  • Every 24 seconds, a fire department in the United States responds to a fire somewhere in the nation.
  • A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 65 seconds, and a home fire occurs every 93 seconds. 
  • Seventy-five percent of all fire deaths and 73 percent of all injuries were caused by home fires. Sixty-five percent of all fire deaths resulted from fires in one- or two-family homes and 10 percent were caused by fires in apartments or other multifamily housing.

When we factor in wildfires, the costs are $150 billion (California alone in 2018) in damage with a loss of 10,488 structures and 31 fatalities. This number is only for CalFire and documents 4.2 million acres burned–more than the past three years combined and the most since records have been kept. 

If You Don’t Think We Still Have a Fire Problem You’re Not Living in America 

This is especially true if you are a member of the fire service. Compared to other Western and Asian economies, we have one hell of a fire problem! Regardless of how we’ve done in the past for downward trends, we’ve still got a problem. Turn on the local TV news in any city in the United States during the week. Almost certainly you’re going to see a house fire. Guess what? This “norm” for us is “not normal” in those other countries. Now, if we do add EMS in the time of COVID, our plates are breaking. We may think we don’t need to bring these facts to our civic leaders and the public we serve. Guess what: We do. Jeh Johnson, former head of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration, said: “Anticipate the next crisis. Don’t plan for the last one.” This should be a mantra for fire and emergency services today.

Telling Your Story Through Community Risk Reduction

We need to tell our story with data that show our constituencies as well as our community executives the nature of the problem and how we are dealing with it in detail. This should be more than a one-time annual report, rather an ongoing dialogue. This gives us the opportunity to gain citizen participation in their own protection–social marketing–through community risk reduction, which includes a good dose of fire prevention targeted where needed. So, while the fire problem is prevalent throughout the United States, it is still about 4% of our workload nationally with the majority EMS calls at 64%. EMS provides a very broad palette of issues from falls to vehicle accidents to overdoses–all kinds of health issues (heart disease, intoxication, and breathing problems, among many others). One of the emerging opportunities is the confluence of the pandemic and the more generalized acceptance of the need for emotional/mental health needs. Mesa, Arizona, is one of the leading departments in this area with a separate liaison dedicated to mental health needs with a social services division. Folks, this is just one part of our future; embrace it! Let the communities give us a hug while we take care of them.

Our Story Can Be a National Success Story … for Any Organization or Service

Recently, I sat in on an international roundtable on community engagement for fire and emergency services. There were more than 500 participants. Although data was one of the prevalent areas of discussion, it was the thoughtful use and application of the data that were so impressive. Yes, we have much work to do, but the days of hiding behind the firehouse doors have gone the way of the fire horse. Our embrace of community risk reduction is taking us to the road of service perpetuation and increased protection of our citizens. This is the result of building the most trusted brand in the world: the global brotherhood and sisterhood of the fire service. Take a bow, and keep up the good work!  


Ben May is a board director of the Center for Excellence in Public Safety and recently retired global director of corporate alliances for the Walt Disney Company. He worked with Disney to create seven-figure, interactive, social marketing experiences dedicated to the betterment of society–specifically fire protection and prevention–as well as international alliances, most recently as a global senior leader based in Paris over the past two years. A graduate from the Montgomery Maryland Public Service Training Academy, he has been a firefighter for Hillandale (MD) Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for Woodinville (WA) Fire and Rescue. He has been a marketing consultant to Fire Service Publications (IFSTA) of Oklahoma State University’s School of Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology, the U.S. Fire Administration, and metro fire departments across the country in the creation of strategic marketing communications plans.

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