What Customer Service Skills Does a Firefighter Need?

By:  Robert Avsec

“There are certain customer service skills that every employee must master if they are forward-facing with customers.”

That’s the opening from a piece I found on-line by Gregory Ciotti entitled, 15 Customer Service Skills that Every Employee NeedsI guess it was early in my career, circa 1985, when customer service became part of the fire service lexicon.  Since then, many departments have created customer service programs, conducted customer service surveys in their communities, etc.

CUSTOMER SERVICE-NECESSARY IN THE FIRE DEPARTMENT?  (An Applied Research Paper from National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program).

But in 2013, how many of our organizations are training their people from Day #1 to be their “face of customer service”?   I’m not saying that the firefighting curriculum that constitutes the majority of entry level training is not pertinent, it is.  I am saying that now, more than ever before, 24/7/365 organizations only have one chance to make a good impression…and in most cases we don’t get to choose who makes that customer contact.

Let’s take a look at how Gregory’s 15 Customer Service…matches up with our business environment.

#1. Patience

For the most part, we are faced with people who are dealing with one of the worst days of their lives.  For those individuals the world is moving way too fast, in a direction they’re not familiar with, and they are not in control of the outcome.

This is not a position that any of us would like to find ourselves in.  Yes, we are the professionals and we are there to help, and our first obligation should be to, in the words of the late Stephan Covey:

“Seek first to understand rather than to be understood.”

Exercising patience is the best way to convey to our customer that they are important, their problem is important, and that we are there to help.

#2. Attentiveness

Attentiveness is more than just listening; it’s paying close attention to what a person is communicating with both their verbal and non-verbal cues.  The Fire & EMS business in the USA is still very much staffed by men…and as a man I feel confident when I say that this is not one of our strong points.

We (men) listen for the purposes of getting just enough information to select a solution to the problem so that we can implement the solution and move on.  Our women colleagues for the most part have an “edge” on us when it comes to “catching” those verbal and non-verbal that help understand the problem.  Ever hear the adage, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”?

#3. Clear Communication Skills

I’ll narrow this one down a bit and say that our people need to have and use clear verbal communication skills.  How many of us know how to verbally communicate in a manner that doesn’t put the receiver of that communication on the “defensive”?  Three words that can put most people on the “defensive”?  You need to…

The language of our business is chock full of jargon, slang, acronyms, etc.  Our people need to be “bi-lingual”, that is, go from speaking to each other around the fire station (“fire speak”) to talking to Mrs. Smith who’s having a heart attack so that she understands what’s happened, what’s continuing to happen, and what’s going to happen (real person-speak).

#4. Knowledge of the Product

On the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour, there are 25 rookies who join the Tour every year after earning their LPGA card on the Symetra Tour (The LPGA’s player development tour).  Before the season starts, those rookies all must attend a three-day seminar where they learn everything there is to know about the organization that they’ve become a part of.


They learn about tour operations, marketing, building relationships with fans and sponsors, how to use social media, etc.  Revenues from television contracts provide a substantial amount of the LPGA’s operating revenue each year; each rookie must accumulate eight hours of “internship” time learning what it takes to successfully broadcast an LPGA event.  Those rookies learn from Day #1 as a professional golfer on the LPGA tour that the continued success and growth of their tour is a shared responsibility.

From the perspective of the public at large, I think they view every firefighter they see in public as “the chief”, i.e., representative of the department as a whole.  How much do your firefighters and officers know about their department and the services you deliver?

Related: Customer Service is Everyone’s Duty

#5. Ability to Use “Positive Language”

Language is a very important part of persuasion, and people (especially customers) create perceptions about you and your company based off of the language that you use.

Here’s an example: Let’s say a customer contacts one of your fire stations and asks to speak with, “the person in charge.”  Your Company Officer for that shift, Lt. Canyon, comes to the phone.  The caller describes a call that took place the day before and she’s got some questions she wants to get answered.  Today (Wednesday) “C” Shift is on duty; the call was handled by Lt. Avatar and her firefighters on “A” Shift.

Without positive language: “Lt. Avatar and her shift handled your call and she won’t be back to work until tomorrow.  You need to call back then and speak to her.”

With positive language: “Lt. Avatar is the officer who responded to your call and she will be able to better answer your questions.  She’s not working today, but will be here tomorrow.  Can I get your phone number and have her contact you tomorrow?  What’s a good time for her to call you tomorrow?

Which message would you rather hear if you’re this caller?  A small change, yes, but one that can greatly influence how the customer hears your response…

Don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough for this session!  How about you come back and see me in a couple of days when Numbers 6-10 “see the light of day”?  I’ll see you then 🙂

Related Posts

It’s time to embrace 360 customer service

Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service (Book by Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini


About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].