Training – The often overlooked aspect of Customer Service

Recognition on a national level of Customer Service in the Fire Service undoubtedly began with Chief Brunacini (Ret. Fire Chief,City of Phoenix,Arizona) and his books and lectures on the subject.  Many catch phrases came from the introduction of this subject including, “Be Nice”.  We all agree many things have changed in the fire service since the introduction of this idea, from the type of incidents, to what we do on our time in between calls for service and, yes, even how we treat member of the public who stop by the station has changed in the last 20 years.  Responsibilities for firefighters have increased on scene as well as around the station and in the community.

Chief Brunacini identifies customers in two categories; internal and external.  Internal being ourselves, the employees of the Fire District or City; and external as the residents of our fire district (tax payers), employees of companies located in our jurisdiction and those vacationing in or traveling through our jurisdiction who may be receive service from our department.

So what comes to mind when I say customer service?

Is it simply the way we treat people?  Is it the manner in which we conduct ourselves when we are out in the public view?  Is it looking up an address in our map book for a lost motorist?  How about an elderly lady who calls the fire station about something that isn’t in our scope or “isn’t our problem”?  Do we explain that to her, help her get in touch with the proper department or agency and then follow up to make sure she was taken care of?  Of course these are all great examples of customer service and I hope these interactions with the public are happening everyday in fire stations across America.

I recently traveled about an half an hour away from where I live to a small community. As I was trying to look for an address that my GPS couldn’t find, I found myself passing a Fire House several times.  It was about 17:30 hours and thinking that was a “safe” place to stop, I dropped in to ask for help locating the street.  I entered with great deal of respect as I always do when visiting a house; I apologized for disturbing them, I even knocked on the front door (even though the bay door was open and someone was out back).  Let’s just say I was greeted in a less than professional manner.  You would have thought I was an intruder. I wasn’t dressed in fire department garb nor did I identify myself as being on the job, but that doesn’t matter.   So ask yourself, what is my impression of that department now?  How would a general member of the voting public have taken that interaction?

So with regard to the above, I’m sure in theory we all agree with the examples of good customer service, and in practice we are doing the best we can day to day. However, I would also like to address an often overlooked aspect of customer service; and that aspect is training.  Since we don’t deliver a tangible item our “product” to our customers is a service.  And just like any factory or manufacturer we should have a quality control procedure in place.   This should be occurring at a company level (at the most basic) as well as on a broader scope.  Officers, begin to look at this; evaluate the simple things: response times, response routes, crew cohesiveness and crew effectiveness.

We are required by our departments (as well as NFPA recommendations) to meet a certain number of hours per month, quarter and year; and if we meet those requirements, our names aren’t on the “bad boy” list, and the Training Chief leaves alone.  But is this enough?  Do we train only to appease the “powers that be” or are we using training as a learning and evaluation tool?

Side note: ISO drills are not relevant and they do not accurately evaluate the abilities or effectiveness of a department.

Think back to a drill where (we have all had them) when you were done the consensus was, “that was horrible”.  Then after that was said, all discouraged and brow beaten, everyone chipped in and rolled hose and went back to their stations.  Why? Why didn’t anyone say lets do that again?  If your drill didn’t go well, do it again or consider breaking it down into simpler task level skills and then build on those to complete the objectives.  Too many today are satisfied with delivering second rate customer service because in all reality we have no competition and the customers can’t go somewhere else for our “product”.   Remember poor customer service affects not just our external customers but our internal as well.  Train as if your life depends on it, because it does!

The difference in water on the fire in 2 ½ minutes versus 5 minutes after arrival can mean the difference in saving a house or it contents; or even its occupants.  Getting the ladder up and getting 2 to the roof can not only make conditions safer for our interior division but also have positive effects on fire behavior (if done correctly).

Alternative techniques such as; back up fireman, nozzle forward, vent enter search and vent for life should all be considered and evaluated as options for delivering a better level of service.  Not only has what we do changed in the last 20 years, but how we do it should be progressing as well. 

Practice the basics until your company performs like a well oiled machine, then do it again and try to improve even more.  This not only has positive effects on our service but can keep us safe and other members from our department or mutual aid departments.  Like a quality control department in any corporation; Company Officers, constantly evaluate the product you are delivering. Firefighters and Engineers evaluate yourself and be honest with yourself and your crew with regard to weaknesses.  We all have weaknesses and failure on the drill ground is much better than on the fire ground.

So how do you define customer service now?