Customer service has become part of fire protection in Howard County.
Under a program begun this summer, fire victims are being asked to rate the timeliness, attitude, professionalism and overall service of the county's firefighters.
If a business can survey its consumers, why can't the county fire and rescue service find out from its "customers" how good its service is, reasoned Darl R. McBride, its director.
Recently, one homeowner expressed a common complaint: Firefighters broke out windows putting out a fire at her house, Mr. McBride said. In response, the county fire service explained that smoke and heat builds up inside the house and that ventilating the house will permit the firefighters to enter to extinguish the blaze.
One recent satisfied customer was Joseph F. McHale, an Ellicott City resident. He praised the quick response to his recent car fire.
"It [the citizen survey form] is good because it will show up some guys who are not hep on the job and just go through the actions, as well as provide an opportunity for citizens to praise those who give extra effort," said Mr. McHale.
Howard County plans to extend the program to its ambulance operations, said Lt. Michael W. Gearhart, who manages the fire and rescue customer-services program.
All of the citizens' reactions are reviewed by Mr. McBride and by the fire chiefs at the stations responding to emergency calls. "If we make a mistake, the director will call for a critique of the incident, and we will follow up the complaint by visiting the citizens and let them know how we responded to the problem," said Lieutenant Gearhart.
"We have made no apologies yet, but we absolutely would, if we erred. We want to know how effectively our services are being delivered," said Lieutenant Gearhart. "We are selling the product of life safety, and we want to do our very best in delivering the services."
Along with a survey sheet rating the job of the firefighters, the property owners receive a pamphlet that gives them a range of advice on what to do in the aftermath of a fire: tips on finding emergency housing and counseling as well as what to do about perishable items and lingering smoke odors. A guide to essential phone numbers, such as the power company, the American Red Cross, the Food Bank and a thrift shop, is included.
Taking a customer-service approach to the public sector "makes good sense," said Mr. McBride, who joined the county fire service April 8 after retiring as acting fire marshal with the Washington Fire Department.
He said he got the idea from books and newspaper articles about the latest techniques emphasizing "excellence" in business practices.
"We have been trained to save lives and protect property as firefighters, and over the years it becomes a mind-set," said Mr. McBride.
He added, "However, quite often we fail to take an interest in the homeowner whom we serve. They are customers of the county government. So we are trying to apply the business perspective to a public agency's job description, and we think it works. We are marketing ourselves to the public."
The concept of having citizens rate the performance of firefighters is fairly unique to the profession, said Mr. McBride.
The 1,200-member fire department in Phoenix began a customer-service program nearly two years ago. Like Howard County's fire service, the Phoenix department hands out after-the-fire brochures to assist victims of fire, and citizens receive a rating card to evaluate the service, said Heidi Peacock, the Phoenix fire service's customer relations manager.
Ms. Peacock said the fire service there emphasizes training to correct problems reported by citizens. So far, the customer-service approach "is a pretty progressive move and is not catching on nationally in the fire service," she said.
The United States Fire Administration, based in Emmitsburg, has promoted the idea of giving helpful hints to fire victims, said Ken Kuntz, fire studies specialist with the federal agency.
Mr. Kuntz said that several large urban departments send a "courtesy officer" to fire scenes, but he was not aware of many fire departments issuing surveys to citizens to rate the emergency services.
Mr. Kuntz said that he was not sure if citizens would "understand the complexity of fire suppression to know whether a sloppy or well-done job occurred. The customer-service approach, however, does put a warm fuzzy on what would be a negative scenario and has some PR value."
For the past five years, the Baltimore Fire Department has left cards with victims of fires giving helpful hints on what to do next, such as contacting an insurance agent or firms that salvage residences.
But Baltimore Deputy Chief Herbert Catterton said the city fire department has not asked victims of fires to make judgments about the quality of fire service.
He said that the Howard County initiative has raised so much interest that the city department wants to learn more about the program and its effectiveness.