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February 2009

Marketing to Volunteers Who Don't Get Paid

1st Responder Correspondant

Fire companies have more marketing tools than they realize. Adopting ways to make your municipality's volunteers' contributions more visible and their value more clear requires a concerted public relations effort that can pay big dividends. Parsippany District #5 uses its services and equipment effectively to win support.

When firefighters at District #5 in Parsippany spotted a fire in progress across the street from their fire house, they went quickly into action, putting out the fire in minutes with only minimal damage to the business. The grateful owner was amazed to learn that the firefighters who showed up to help in his moment of need are all volunteers. He exclaimed to Fire Chief Dave Cavaliere, "You mean you guys don't get paid!?" He recognized the risks that they had taken to help him and to his credit, he has become a booster of the fire company.

Parsippany-Troy Hills is a big township, covering roughly 25 square miles. Though the population is a little more than 50,000 people, it is a crossroads in Morris County with over a million people passing through the town during the average work week. That's partly because Routes 80 and 287 meet in Parsippany, but also because there are numerous hotels, industrial parks and corporate headquarters. Nabisco, Prudential Insurance and State Farm Insurance all make their homes in this lovely part of the state.

"The town is divided into six fire districts, each of which is served by it's own Board of Fire Commissioners. Elected at special elections in February, they oversee the collection and administration of the tax monies collected by the town specifically to fund the fire service", explains Fire Commissioner Ken Lambert [who also serves as Assistant Chief.] It is an all volunteer crew. For most people in town, it operates efficiently without their even noticing. The idea that there might not be enough people or equipment to respond to the highway, apartment and business fires is not one that has occurred to them.

The 35 volunteers of District #5 have made them almost too comfortable, responding to about 230 calls a year with about a dozen being working fires. There are more apartment and car fires than house fires. The volunteers universally commend the Parsippany Township Fire Prevention Bureau which sets up and enforces a strict fire code that saves many lives and dollars. The six Fire Districts have friendly rivalries and a spirit of cooperation at the same time. They lend each other tools and their chiefs meet regularly to share information , procedures and familiarize each other with equipment.

As part of its performance and visibility campaign, Parsippany District #5 [officially Rockaway Neck Volunteer Fire Company District #5] completely refurbished their 1988 Hahn pumper, Engine #656 at Valtek, "The" Truckbody Shop in Paterson, NJ. They wanted to upgrade the twelve year old by repairing some corrosion, replacing leaking gaskets and giving it a black over red color scheme with new gold decals. Valtek won the bid to do the work by competitively pricing the superior Axalta Imron paint color and clear coats and the quality labor that make this job a success. Valtek was also able to turn it around in sixty days.

Originally bought in a hurry when the original Engine #656 was disabled in an accident, the Hahn has turned out to be one of the most dependable and versatile units on duty. As the last rig on the lot, it could have bee n a lemon, but it has been one of the most valued members of District #5's fire fighting team. In fact, it is so beloved that Captain Brandon Schweizer visited at Valtek regularly during its make over.

Like most volunteer companies, Parsippany District #5 would like to attract more volunteers. They've instituted a Junior program to start kids early; they send fliers out to local schools to encourage participation and they have started a LOSAP [Length of Service Annuity Program], to encourage volunteers to join and stay active in the fire company.

The refurbishment of Engine #656 is part of this increasingly sophisticated marketing plan to the public. In addition to the general repairs and maintenance needed after twelve years of responding to fires, Parsippany District #5 is trying to build its brand by developing a corporate identity as any business would do. Chief Cavaliere, Commissioner Lambert and Captain Schweizer say they'd like all their vehicles to have the same "look" which includes a black o ver red color scheme with a uniform gold leaf decal scheme. In addition, refinishing the existing truck controls costs for the Fire District by savings in new equipment and retraining.

The new decal scheme emphasizes Parsippany and de-emphasizes Rockaway Neck though the firefighters still recall fondly the days when their fire company was known as "Rockaway Neck" or "Rocky Neck". They hope to reduce confusion to new residents of the town who mistake the nickname "Rockaway Neck" for the town of Rockaway. It refers to a peninsula nearby in the Whippany River. The Parsippany volunteers recommend that all fire companies develop a campaign to increase visibility and awareness of the pride and effort expended by volunteer fire fighters.They want the local citizens to know and appreciate that it is their own Parsippany neighbors who care enough to volunteer at local fire scenes.

1st Responder NewspaperReprinted by permission.