Knowledge: Case Studies

Fire services and charities may not be the most obvious choice when thinking about customer experience but recognising the human impact of their work can be crucial in boosting performance.

Nobody wants to be visited by the Fire and Rescue Service. Losing your home and possessions to a fire can have a devastating impact on your life.

But if a tragedy does arise then being treated in the most respectful, understanding and professional way can lessen the impact.

It is why Kent Fire and Rescue Service (KFRS) has taken a pioneering approach in adopting a ‘customer model’.

“People don’t want or plan to be our customers. But you may be, and you don’t know when,” explains David Wales, customer experience manager at KFRS – the only such position in the country. “If they do then we need to understand as much as possible about them in order to give them the dignity and service they need at such a distressing time.”

This way of thinking began in 2009 when KFRS launched a research project to determine why the public did not behave as expected or advised in the event of a house fire. “Our advice was stark – get out in the event of a fire, call the services and then stay out,” explains Wales. “But we were seeing a disproportionate number of injuries because people were not doing as they were told and trying to save possessions. We wanted to take a deeper look at fire behaviour.”

KFRS initially interviewed 10 people who had been injured in a house fire with Wales explaining that their responses were quite ‘unexpected’. He says: “I thought I understood fires but until then I didn’t quite realise the emotional impact on people both before we had arrived on scene and after we left. Our advice had been to avoid harm and leave it to the professionals, but we hadn’t recognised what was important to people such as saving their pets and possessions in a fire. They didn’t understand, and we didn’t explain why we were breaking down this door or that. Our advice was too arrogant and paternalistic, and our language was negative. We were seeing fires on our terms and not theirs.”

The study grew, through funding from the University of Greenwich into a national research partnership involving 26 fire services. It garnered the experiences of 500 people involved in house fires and created a behavioural database.

In turn this generated six key insights, one of which identified the need to reassess the relation with, role and needs of the public as customers. It was clear that fire services had to understand and work with, rather than against, human behaviour in a fire and afterwards.

Case study – Kent Fire, David Wales