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Ads Seek to Light a Match Under Would-Be Volunteers

(6/4/12 – New York Times)


The next time a cop asks, “O.K., buddy, where’s the fire?” the answer ought to be, according to a new campaign, “Why, within me, officer.”

The campaign, which is beginning on Monday, seeks to encourage residents of New York State, particularly those ages 18 to 35, to join volunteer fire departments. The campaign asks, “Is there a fire in you?”

The theme evokes ads from Gatorade that ask, “Is it in you?” — not to mention other phrases like the expression “Fire in the belly” and even the Cole Porter lyric from “Night and Day” about “a hungry yearning burning inside of me.”

The campaign features two volunteer firefighters, who responded to an online video casting call. In the ads, which urge, “Become a volunteer firefighter today,” they seek to rebut the reasons people most commonly give for not joining volunteer fire departments.

The campaign includes commercials to run on television, online and in movie theaters; radio spots; a Web site, fireinyou.org; digital and outdoor ads; and a presence in social media like Facebook and Twitter.

The campaign, with a budget of $2.1 million, is planned to run for three years. The money comes from a grant of $4.2 million from the federal Department of Homeland Security under a program called Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — a name that gives the program the acronym Safer.

The grant was awarded last year to the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, known as Fasny, which also has information about the campaign on its Web site, fasny.com.

The association hired two agencies to work on the campaign. On board for the creative duties is the ABC Creative Group in Syracuse, which is also the longtime creative agency of record for Fasny.

The media duties for the campaign are being handled by Rueckert Advertising and Public Relations in Colonie, an Albany suburb, where two senior executives, Dean Rueckert and Tim Nerney, are volunteer firefighters.

There is also a public relations initiative promoting the campaign, handled by DKC Public Relations, Marketing and Government Affairs in New York.

The campaign is aimed at reversing a trend of many years in New York State as fewer men and women join volunteer fire departments. The goal is to recruit 15,000 additional volunteer firefighters in four years from the receipt of the grant.

“There has been a noticeable decline” of late, says John D’Alessandro, deputy volunteer programs coordinator for Fasny in Albany.

There were 100,000 to 110,000 10 or 12 years ago, and 85,000 to 88,000 now, he adds.

“We decided we would be proactive in addressing this before it reached crisis proportions,” Mr. D’Alessandro says. “We have our work cut out for us, but we feel we’re up to the task.”

The initial steps include efforts like “a Recruit New York weekend, asking all houses to open the same weekend,” he adds, and almost 500 fire departments around the state took part in the 2012 weekend, in April, compared with about 150 last year.

Receiving the Safer grant was “a turning point,” Mr. D’Alessandro says, “and we are using all that money for recruitment and retention activities statewide.” The “Is there a fire in you?” theme was tested with two focus groups composed of 18- to 35-year-olds, he adds: one of people who have been volunteer firefighters for under three years and one of people who have some volunteering in their backgrounds but no connection to volunteer fire departments.

“We validated a lot of things we believe we knew,” Mr. D’Alessandro says, among them that “people say, ‘I don’t have the time,’ ‘I don’t have the training’ and ‘It’s not me; I’m not the guy running to the problem.’ ”

So “part of the campaign is broadening the understanding of what it takes” to be a volunteer firefighter, he adds. “There’s a saying, ‘There’s a job for everyone.’ ”

“We have people running into buildings with hoses,” Mr. D’Alessandro says, “and we could also use you to bring water and food out to those fighting the fire or for cleaning the trucks, helping with fund-raising, doing the bookkeeping.”

“And you can gear what you do to the time you have available,” he adds.

How the campaign addresses the concerns of potential volunteers is demonstrated in the commercials featuring the actual volunteer firefighters.

One spot, with Jessie Roland-Bystrak of East Aurora, N.Y., a recent college graduate, shows her on a campus. A female voice is heard, delivering an interior monologue.

“I never thought I could be brave enough,” the voice says, adding: “I’m not trained to do that kind of stuff. But I decided to take the first step.”

The scene segues from the campus setting into a vignette depicting Ms. Roland-Bystrak at the scene of a fire, in her gear, where another volunteer pats her on the shoulder.

“Is there a fire in you?” an announcer asks. “Volunteer at www.fireinyou.org.”

The other commercial, with Jeff Burkhart of Oriskany, N.Y., takes the same approach. He is first seen driving in a car as a male voice is heard, delivering an interior monologue.

“I’m not trained to do that kind of stuff,” the voice says, continuing: “I never thought I had it in me. I didn’t think I had the time. But then I took the first step.”

At that point, there is a segue to a scene of Mr. Burkhart, in his gear, at the scene of a fire, also engaged in camaraderie with other volunteers. The second spot ends with the same words from the announcer.

“We show them in their everyday lives,” Travis Bort, the owner and creative director at the ABC Creative Group, says of the pair, “and we show them in transition” to their stints as volunteer firefighters.

The goal is to demonstrate that “everybody’s got it in them, anybody could do this,” he adds, and tell would-be volunteers this: “Yes, we understand the concerns, the hurdles to overcome. On the other side is amazing things you get if you volunteer.”

The campaign also seeks to play up the local nature of being a volunteer firefighter, Mr. Bort says, in that “this is a way to volunteer and affect your neighborhood, the people next door to you.”

And at the same time you protect them, he adds, “somebody has your back.”

There are plans to add to the campaign elements like “long-form videos,” Mr. Bort says, which would offer viewers “interviews with firefighters, talking about what drives them.”

Asked if the ABC Creative Group is like Rueckert Advertising and Public Relations in having staff members who belong to volunteer fire departments, Mr. Bort replies, “Not at this time,” adding that, in his instance, “you’d have to call my wife and explain” to her the case for his volunteering.

“That’s one of things we should add to the campaign,” he says.