Customer Service & the Fire Service: Results of a Firefighter Nation Survey

Service Makes the Difference
Reactions to & recommendations from a survey on fire department
customer service

By Dean Pedrotti

Editor's Note: In April, FireRescue conducted a survey on Firefighter Nation, asking readers to weigh in on customer service in fire and EMS. In this article, Captain Dean Pedrotti of the Phoenix Fire Department (PFD), who wrote the survey and was involved in conducting a similar one in his department, shares some of the results and the reactions from FireRescue editorial board members. For complete results: results.pdf

When you respond to a call, do you have the resources and support you need to go above and beyond, to truly serve the customer? Do you even think of patients as customers? And does your internal department culture reflect that service is a shared value?

These are some of the questions we were seeking answers to in a recent survey on customer service in fire and EMS. Some of what we found, such as the effects of the economic recession on department resources, weren’t surprising. But others illuminated the current struggle with customer service in fire departments across the country.

The Rumor Mill
Because what goes on internally in departments has a direct impact on the service firefighters provide, we began by asking some questions about internal customer service.

There’s a common joke that says when you want to get the word out, “Telegraph, telephone, and tell-a-fireman.” According to the survey, there may be some truth to that. Almost three out of four respondents (73 percent) said they agreed or strongly agreed that their “coworkers frequently participate in the rumor mill.” FireRescue editorial board members thought the results would be even higher. Deputy Chief Ray Gayk of the Ontario (Calif.) Fire Department and Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department said they expected results around 90 percent. “With Internet, texting and chat rooms, we only perpetuate [the rumor mill],” Goldfeder says.

FireRescue Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach, who is currently the fire service accreditation/ISO coordinator for the North Las Vegas Fire Department, stressed that departments where budget cutbacks are threatening firefighter jobs have even more problems with the rumor mill. “Right now, guessing what deals are being struck and who’s lying to whom is rampant,” he says. “There’s always room for personal interpretation of documents and rumors.”

Communication Is Key
So how do departments keep a handle on rumors? “We do ‘PCBs,’ or paycheck briefings, so that every time someone gets their paycheck they get an organizational briefing,” Sendelbach says. Captain Jeff Ellis of the Murray (Utah) Fire Department proposed another idea: “After our staff meetings, we send an email out to everyone, not just captains. We’re not taking the captain out of the loop, but we let everyone know what’s going on so they know they’re getting the whole story.”

Indeed, all the editorial board members who reacted to the survey stressed the importance of communication. “In a department I previously worked for,” Goldfeder says, “I used to send out an e-mail called ‘What’s Up?’ in which I just let the troops know what’s going on. It was very simple and informal, but it answered most of the questions. In the department I currently service with, and have for the past 10 years, our chief of department, Otto Huber, regularly schedules lunch with the companies, again in a genuine effort to help manage truth vs. fiction.”

Chief Brian Crawford of the Shreveport (La.) Fire Department believes “management by walking around” can alleviate some of the rumors. “I try to hit a couple stations a week, just drop in for a visit. That face-to-face time with a fire chief, there’s almost nothing that can replace that.”

Other board members agreed, stressing that email and memos allow for interpretation that can lead to rumors. “Personal face time dispels a lot of rumors,” Sendelbach says. “Not only does it give a personal touch, but it lets them ask secondary questions immediately. The more we deal with the facts in front of us, up front, the fewer problems we have.”

Workplace Hostility
Another question that yielded surprising results regarded workplace hostility: More than 45 percent of respondents said they’re witnessed workplace hostility in the last 12 months.

Many board members believe that most workplace hostility stems from ethnic and gender diversity in the fire service. “Seldom do I see complaints between members of the same race or gender,” Crawford says. “It’s a difficult subject to breach, but as fire chiefs, we must.”

Ellis, whose department is extremely homogenous, supports that view. “The workplace hostility I read about in other places wouldn’t even be tolerated here,” he says. “What we call ‘hostility’ here is really just bad management.”

Although the survey didn’t ask about public hostility toward firefighters, several board members stressed that communities where the fire department has lost support could be affecting internal hostilities as well. “External influences are huge now. Just follow the media attention on high or excessive firefighter salaries,” Goldfeder says. “People are fed up and asking, why am I paying for it?”

Las Vegas is one of the cities where firefighters are experiencing the most criticism. “How do we address public scrutiny?” Sendelbach says. “How do we deal with it when the public, as in Las Vegas, speaks out by throwing eggs on fire trucks and threatening to key cars with firefighter plates?”

Defining Service
How you assess your Department’s external customer service depends in part on how you define it, so we asked a few questions to help flesh out what good customer service means. Following are the options respondents selected to complete the statement, “To me, good customer service involves…”:

1. Courtesy to patient and victim no matter what (92%)
2. Safe response (89%)
3. Solve the problem called for (84%)
4. Going above and beyond (83%)
5. Fast response (74%)

Plenty of respondents also wrote in additional choices, which often included variations on the words “respect,” “teamwork,” “efficient” and “competent.” Some highlights included:

· Non-discriminatory
· Having a service-oriented attitude
· Don’t judge 911 dispatch validity
· Go outside the box to help someone
· Leave the people knowing that you cared

Perhaps most striking, respondents’ written comments revealed polar opposite opinions about whether the fire department is a customer-service business. “This is the kind of stuff that’s destroying the fire service,” one respondent wrote. “These people are not customers, they are victims! No one went ‘shopping’ for the right service; it’s us or no-one. Get real!” Numerous other respondents echoed that attitude.

But equally passionate were respondents who believe the fate of many departments lies in their ability to serve. “Departments that don’t focus on customer service will not have support when budget cuts come,” one respondent wrote. “We have to prove our worth to keep what we have.” Another respondent noted, “Great customer service has to be a core value of emergency services. We have more opportunities to be nice to people than to save their lives—many [firefighters] don’t realize that.”

Dealing with System Abusers
A frustration voiced by some firefighters on the PFD customer service survey was the challenge to provide a high level of customer service to “system abusers” and/or “frequent flyers.” So I wanted to determine whether firefighters across the country share the same frustration.

Although almost 75 percent strongly agreed or agreed with the phrase, “My crew treats ‘frequent flyers’ with care and compassion,” more than half also identified system abusers as one of the types of external customers to which they find it difficult to deliver a high level of customer service.

The PFD survey yielded similar results. More than 46 percent of PFD respondents strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “We go on too many social welfare calls.” Almost 8 in 10 picked “system abusers” and over half picked “those who feel entitled to services” as categories of patients they have difficulty serving (multiple answers were allowed).

Who exactly is the system abuser? Is it the person who feels entitled to service? Or is it the mentally ill patient in crisis, the alcoholic laying in the street in front of a bus stop or the person who’s just overdosed on drugs? Although undefined in the survey, it appears that it might be a bit of each—calls that are non-emergency in nature and that first responders perhaps feel are unwarranted or they don’t have easy access to the resources that would help solve a customer’s problem.

“Our people aren’t trained to go to Mrs. Jones 50 times,” Goldfeder says. “In those types of cases, after a point, we go to the district chief, who reviews the case, and then goes to social services. We try not to lose touch with the fact that they are all customers, but we are here primarily for emergencies.”

Running calls on repeat customers, such as the mentally ill or homeless, can generate high levels of frustration in firefighters who are action-oriented individuals, but unable to solve the underlying issues contributing to social problems like homelessness, depression or substance addiction. “When we respond to people who can’t take care of themselves but they don’t know what else to do, you have to look at your resources to see what you can do for them,” Gayk says. “If you can’t do anything, you’ll be responding to them a lot.”

To deal with the frustration caused by non-emergent dispatches, Crawford suggests that recruits be adequately prepared. “At my department, we bring in guys who give a two-day lecture to our recruits telling them what it’s really like out there,” he says.

Another approach is to provide increased resources to help firefighters deal with difficult calls. Numerous agencies in central Arizona have followed the PFD’s lead and created “crisis teams” manned by social workers and EMTs who assist on social welfare calls. These teams receive training so that they know the social welfare system and can access resources to help vulnerable individuals. In addition, PFD Dispatch now has mental health specialists work directly with incoming crisis calls.

We also need to better train firefighters to deal with such calls. This was one conclusion drawn in the PFD after we conducted our survey, and was echoed in the written comments in the survey. “At times we’re asked to be field social workers, even though we have no training in this area,” one respondent noted. “So we must train ourselves or seek out this training to understand and gain better tools to provide quality service.” This observation is reflected in many ALS training programs that deliver limited information about behavioral health during initial paramedic training. And while mental health/crisis training is critical in dealing with social welfare calls, how many paramedic CE classes on behavioral health are loathed because they’re dry, boring and unrelated to field experience? That said, we only need to look to our police brethren to see the need for change.

In contrast, the Phoenix Police Department has spearheaded a radical effort over the last 5 years to train more than 1,000 Valley police officers in a 40-hour program on those suffering mental illness or facing homelessness (or both). Such training is helping officers understand how to recognize dangerous situations, de-escalate potentially threatening situations, and improve their interaction skills when dealing with this very challenging population.

The Bottom Line
This customer service survey certainly reveals some of the challenges involved in providing good service. But regardless of the differences in opinion, the respondents’ comments also reveal the strong foundation from which the fire service will engage in this struggle—that firefighters are professionals responding to help those in need. Or as one respondent put it, “People need to remember why we’re here. It should be an honor to provide the service we do.”

Dean Pedrotti. CEP, AAS, BS, MBA, is a captain/paramedic with the Phoenix Fire Department and is currently assigned to the Special Hazards Unit. He has spent most of his 28-year career working on busy downtown and mid-city fire stations.

For More Info
For information on the Phoenix Fire Department’s Professional Standards Guide, go to:

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