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Spontaneous Combustion: January 2011

I trudged along the icy sidewalk, shielding my face with a mittened hand. My free arm clutched five boxes of chocolates, which I was required to sell to someone – anyone. A hostile wind whistled down the street and stabbed at my clothes as if to say, “Go back! Your mission is futile!” Door-to-door salesmanship was an impossible enterprise to my eight-year-old mind. My best efforts had produced nothing more than a street full of closed doors.

January 5, 2011
By Tim Beebe

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I trudged along the icy sidewalk, shielding my face with a mittened hand. My free arm clutched five boxes of chocolates, which I was required to sell to someone – anyone. A hostile wind whistled down the street and stabbed at my clothes as if to say, “Go back! Your mission is futile!” Door-to-door salesmanship was an impossible enterprise to my eight-year-old mind. My best efforts had produced nothing more than a street full of closed doors.

One house remained. I trudged up the cold, concrete stairway and timidly rapped on the door. An elderly woman appeared. Her unsmiling eyes scrutinized both me and the boxes in my hand.

I took a deep breath. “Sorry to bother you ma’am. Would you like to buy some chocolate? It’s for a school fundraiser.”

She frowned, and my heart sank. Then she muttered, “Maybe I’ll buy one box.”

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I stared at my feet in awkward silence as she disappeared to find her purse. When she returned, she handed me a gnarled fist full of cash.

“I’ll take them all,” she said, without even a hint of a smile.

In the decades since that dreary day, I’ve tried huckstering numerous times. Having lost my childish, woebegone expression – which was my only asset – the result has always been dismal failure. Smooth talking persuasiveness is not my style, nor is it the style of most firefighters I know. We’ve never felt the need to cultivate the art of merchandising. Our services are essential, so why should we have to bamboozle anyone for support? But like it or not, the fire service has entered a wintry era in which we must sell ourselves and our services if we want to survive.

Firefighters live solution-driven lives. We are programmed to hit the floor at 2 a.m. in response to a buzzing pager that demands we instantly respond to Armageddon with our squirt guns and handyman tool kits. When we arrive at the scene, we must slay the dragon of disaster – or at least hold him at bay until he dies of old age. The bottom line: we don’t go home until the situation is resolved…which is a keen incentive to find solutions. Reason dictates that we be given the resources to implement those solutions. If the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way, perhaps we should change our marketing strategy.

This strange, unfriendly world of self-advertising makes me feel like a blindfolded recruit crawling through a smoked-up training maze. My most recent mercantile escapade was a calendar sales partnership with two other departments. The goals of the project were to raise a little money for equipment and a lot of awareness for recruiting. Our mission was noble, our product good. When we set up at the local Canadian Tire store in Thunder Bay, Ont., I expected the calendars to sell like hotcakes to hungry lumberjacks. However, success in marketing requires a certain brassy boldness that I don’t possess. If I had done this project alone, the sales pitch would have sounded something like this:

“Excuse me sir,” (as a man whisks by without making eye contact “You wouldn’t want to have pity on a poor fish-out-of-water like me and buy one of these nice calendars, would you? Pretty-please with sugar on top?” Then, (to the back of the guy’s head as he vanishes into the parking lot) “I didn’t think so. Twenty bucks does seem like rip off for a measly calendar…but when you consider the good cause…Excuse me ma’am, you wouldn’t want to have pity on a poor fish…” Fortunately, my partner was a skilled huckster – I mean, salesman – and the day was modestly successful.

We can’t all be talented marketers, but we can at least enlist the help of those who are. On that note, I recently expanded my horizons and conceded (albeit grudgingly) that elected officials could also play a productive role. I had always viewed politicians as the snake oil-selling swindlers in the carnival of society. But hucksters or helpers, they are the ones we democratically selected to make the big decisions; like who gets funded and how much. And if they were skilled enough to peddle their personalities into office, they should have the competence to promote our interests as well.

Armed with this not-so-new revelation, I arranged meetings between local chiefs and our members of Parliament, both federal and provincial. The agenda was simple: Canada can’t afford to sideline the fire service any longer. We didn’t use slick salesmanship or flowery phrases; we merely stated the ice cold facts about aging apparatuses, dwindling recruits and training shortfalls. We ended with a simple request for our government to develop a strategy to help us. While we didn’t walk out with signed cheques, we did persuade them to pitch our case, which is at least a start.

Our chiefs associations and firefighter associations have known this stuff for years, and regularly advocate on our behalf. Maybe you’ve known this stuff for years too, but if you are a slow learner like I am, it’s time to get with the program. We are skilled at harnessing politicians and the media into spreading the word about fire safety. We just need to broaden our message.

The hostile adversity I faced as a child salesman only foreshadowed the economic and political climate we face today. Canada’s deficit has soared past the moon and is now orbiting Mars. The Chinese allegedly own our economy. Competition for funds has reached Olympic levels. A woebegone, save-our-department approach won’t gain us a share of the market.

Our product is worthy of support. It’s time to bundle up, face the north wind and climb the cold concrete stairway to where our customers – Joe and Jane Public – are frowning with tightly closed purses. The prospect is dismal but you never know – they might surprise us yet.


Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. Contact him at upsalafd@tbaytel.net and check out his blog at www.beebewitzblog.blogspot.com.


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