An ambulance may be a far cry from a fast-food restaurant, but county fire and rescue officials want citizens to expect the same results from both -- namely, that service be fast, friendly and considerate.
Starting this week, most people who ride in a county ambulance will be given a questionnaire similar to those in food and motel franchises that ask customers their impressions of the business.
The questionnaire asks: "Were you served in a timely manner?"
"How do you rate our overall service?"
"How do you feel our service can be improved?"
And, after you have been treated at Howard County General Hospital, you may drop the questionnaire in the box provided.
"We want to start calling people our customers, and not just call them victims," said Lt. Michael W. Gearhart of the county fire and rescue services, who teaches a "customer service" course required of approximately 300 firefighters and paramedics.
The evaluation coupons will be given to fire and rescue services customers as they are transported in the ambulance. If the customer is incapacitated or severely injured, the coupon will be given to a family member.
"We obviously would use some discretion. We're only going to give the card to people who appear to be in the right frame of mind to get the card," Gearhart said. "But we think it's important to let people know that we have an obligation to be conscious of our image."
Questionnaire return boxes will be available at Howard County General, GreaterLaurel-Beltsville Hospital, all branches of the county library and each county fire station.
The customer service program, created this summer by new director Darl R. McBride, is one of a handful being undertaken by fire departments across the country.
Gearhart, who isin charge of brainstorming customer service ideas, said he has read several books on the subject in recent weeks and hopes to infuse the rescue services with a Japanese-style business mentality.
"One of the reasons the Japanese have been so successful in business is that they have developed an image and maintained it," Gearhart said.
"They let citizens know that they will provide quality services, which is exactly what we have to let people know."
The idea, fire services officials readily admit, goes beyond the accepted goal of a fire and rescue service, which is simply to provide emergency care and fireprevention.
An injured person on the way to the hospital has a "minimal expectation to arrive at the hospital alive," a Fire Department customer service manual says. But along with that, customers also want understanding, empathy, respect, and someone to listen to them, the manual said.
The manual also encourages fire service employees to read customer-service books and to study some of private industry's most successful companies.
"I think it's a very good idea. I haven't heard any complaints from anyone," said M. Sean Kelly, who headsthe local firefighters union. "We work for the public, so we should want to know what they think of us and how we can better try to servethem."
Customer service has become such a priority within the department that individual officers now have "Customer Service PersonnelFiles" to detail how the officer went out of his way for the public.
For instance, one local firefighter recently had to cut down a citizen's barbed wire fence to get to a brush fire near the property. Afterward, the firefighter stayed to help the citizen reconstruct the fence, Gearhart said.
McBride, who took over as director April 8, said the idea represents a new perspective on Fire Department community relations. "We're very pleased with the idea so far," he said. "Wethink we're sending the right message out to the community."