By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer
Many of us in the fire service first became acquainted with the subject through Chief Alan Brunacini’s anecdotes about the fictional Mrs. Smith and her “interactions” with the Phoenix Fire Department.
I know I first heard of Mrs. Smith in the mid-1980’s when I first began “cutting my teeth” as an officer with the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department (CFEMS) as our leadership quickly took on the mantel of becoming a customer-service driven organization like the Lift & Shift’, a philosophy that continues to this day. That philosophy has earned that organization good standing with the citizens it serves and local government officials.
How do I “gauge” that level of support? Two examples from my 26-year career with the department have always stuck in my mind when this topic comes up for discussion.
The citizens of Chesterfield County always provided overwhelming support over the years to bond initiatives on the local ballot to support public safety, particularly CFEMS projects that included: new fire stations and a new state-of-the-art outdoor fire training facility. We always believed that such support was earned through the hard work and customer-focused service delivery by our firefighters and officers on a daily basis, not just when a bond initiative was on the upcoming ballot.
The second “keeper” for me was the support that our department had from the officials of our local government, from the Board of Supervisors (the county’s governing authority) to County Administrator (the County’s chief executive officer) and throughout Chesterfield County government. Regardless of the issue, we more often than not had the support of those folks and our peer departments, e.g., Police Department, Human Resource Management, Budget Management, etc., because we were viewed as being more “givers” than “takers”.
This support really “played out” in the during a real fiscal crunch in the mid-1990’s when county tax revenues were severely depressed as was state and federal funding. We had embarked on creating an Officer Development Program (ODP) for our upcoming junior officers in the late 1980’s and that program had been so successful that we were working to expand the program to address the need to develop future leaders for chief officer positions.
We had only hired our first career firefighters in 1969 and beginning in the mid-1990’s our “first generation” of firefighters (those hired between 1969 and roughly 1979) would be eligible to retire (Chesterfield County employees are covered under the Virginia Retirement System; firefighters are eligible to retire when they reach age 50 and have 25 years of service). Members of that first generation held the majority of middle management positions (battalion chiefs) and executive management positions (deputy chiefs and the fire chief) in the department.
Our department’s Fire Chief at the time, Steve Elswick, was successful in influencing the County Administrator and County staff that it was critical for CFEMS to, not only maintain the ODP that it already had, but expand it to prepare for the first “retirement wave” that was coming. He was successful in those efforts because of that solid customer service reputation that our department had earned, particularly with the county’s citizens (CFEMS consistently earned top marks from the county’s citizens during regularly Customer Satisfaction Surveys conducted by the County).
The ODP expansion did take place, despite the challenging economic conditions faced by CFEMS and all county departments. Chief Elswick’s vision, a vision shared by many others in the department’s middle and executive management, proved to be “spot on”. Those retirements started taking place in earnest in the early 2000’s and there was “new blood” from within the organization ready to step up and provide continued leadership and direction for the organization.
I’ve read many good articles and books on the subject of delivering good customer service, from both the fire service perspective and that of other private and public sector organizations and I’ve learned a great deal from many of them. One of the most recent was a post on LinkedIn, The 5 Fatal Mistakes of Customer Service.
So what’s today’s “take away” from this article? Delivering outstanding customer service is not a “nicety” for your department; it’s the key to its survival. The successes I just described did not occur overnight or in a “vacuum”; they were earned one customer interaction at a time. Those “customer service opportunities” took place with citizens on emergency calls for service, our participation in community events, and daily interactions with our colleagues in the County’s other 53 departments.
What’s your department doing to build a good customer service Fire and EMS organization?