|(1) Lion uses a number of methods to extract feedback about its PPE from firefighters, including its Web site, warranty comments, social media, and electronic polls. (Photo courtesy of Lion.)|
|(2) Firefighters from the Mansfield (OH) Fire Department participate in a live fire drill to do wear testing on Fire-Dex bunker gear. (Photo courtesy of Bill Adams.)|
|(3) Fire-Dex turnout gear was recently put through a wear test by the Byram (NJ) Fire Department. (Photo courtesy of Jacq Pellekr.)|
Manufacturers of personal protective equipment (PPE) use a number of methods to improve their products, from forms-driven surveys to electronic feedback to field testing and evaluation. The common element to the various methods used, PPE makers say, is deriving firefighter-based comments and criticisms so turnout gear and equipment can be made safer, more comfortable, and easier to use.
Voice of the Customer
Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Manufacturing Inc., says customer feedback is what makes it possible to build turnout gear that satisfies end users' needs.
Mordecai says Globe, which is celebrating its 125th year in business in 2012, uses two processes-iterative and creative-when developing new PPE or reformulating existing lines. "In the iterative development process, we take information from our end users, assess it, and use it to make a better product," Mordecai says. "In our creative process, we take our experienced development team and allow it to look at new ways to solve the problem presented. But the first step starts with feedback from the customer."
Mordecai says that Globe Manufacturing also uses a "voice-of-the-customer" method, a process developed by the management training group Center for Quality Management, to reach out to customers, find out what they like and don't like about their turnout gear, and ask what they would suggest to make it better. "We have a team of people with a broad range of experience who come from different parts of the business, whose task it is to listen to customers," Mordecai says. "They validate the information from customers about where we should be going in the future."
Tony Wyman, vice president of marketing for Honeywell First Responder Products, says his company also uses the voice-of-the-customer method to derive information from firefighters about their PPE. "Our marketing and engineering team members do one-on-one interviews with firefighters, officers, and decision makers in the fire service," Wyman says. "For example, with tracking and locating firefighters inside a building, we might ask them what process they currently use in structural firefighting, what some of the problems are when using their methods, and how we can help them be more successful." Wyman notes that the team conducts between 15 and 20 interviews for each voice-of-the-customer session it conducts.
User and Dealer Feedback
Honeywell also gets feedback about its products from a Dealer Advisory Council and a User Advisory Council. "Our User Advisory Council has about 60 firefighters from different fire departments around the country, all with different lengths of service," Wyman says. "When they meet, they'll spend a 12-hour day talking about various products, the issues happening in the fire service, and the things that need to be changed in the fire service."
Wyman says Honeywell presents the council with information about its products and asks "what they think of it; how they would employ, clean, and store the product; and how it could be made better." He says the presenters often have samples of the product with them for council members to view and handle. "The ideas we get from them through their feedback, along with that from our similar Dealer Advisory Council, are put with the voice-of-the-customer information, which then leads us in a certain direction."
Wyman says suggested product modifications are put on a rolling action item list (RAIL), where each product manager is tasked with coming up with a response to the users and dealers for the next generation of that product. "Sometimes we think we have a good idea, but we need to validate it with our fire service customers," Wyman observes. "It's been a good process for us so far."
Connecting Through the Web
Karen Lehtonen, director of products for Lion, says her company uses several different methods for getting feedback from firefighters. "Our Web site has a section called Lion Connect where we offer a 'Try It Out' area," Lehtonen says. "We offer them the ability to register to try out gear, turnouts, boots, or station wear in return for feedback on the gear that we can use in design and marketing. Based on the information we receive, we might decide to make an innovation in an existing product or conduct a wear trial on a new piece of gear."
For wear trials, Lion moves around the country, working with various fire departments on both new and existing products. "We want to know from firefighters how the product worked operationally and, with gear, how it felt from a comfort standpoint," she says.
Lehtonen notes that as part of Lion's warranty registration process, customers can comment about Lion's products electronically. The company also generates feedback through the comments section of its Web site, as well as receiving e-mails directly from end users.
"We also do polls on Lion Connect where we might put out an idea for a new piece of gear and see if it's something the people in the fire service want," Lehtonen notes. Social media also plays a part in getting feedback from Lion product users, Lehtonen says, especially Facebook and Twitter. "Electronics are the way people respond these days," she says. "They will take the time to respond to a quick poll or survey instead of filling out handwritten forms."
Abby Lehman, marketing coordinator for Fire-Dex, says her company also uses several avenues to gather feedback from firefighters. "We have a presence on Facebook where it's open all the time for people to comment about our products," she says. "People post there regularly, and we never remove any of their criticisms."
Field Testing Pays
Lehman says Fire-Dex also conducts surveys after the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) after firefighters try on turnout gear in the Fire-Dex exhibit booth. "The survey asks what features the person likes the most and any elements that need to be improved," she says. "It's a face-to-face survey in the booth, and people are encouraged to participate by having the chance to win a new set of gear, boots, or cash prizes twice a day."
Lehman points out that for each new product, Fire-Dex conducts wear trials where it issues five sets of gear to a fire department to test and evaluate. "We've used fire departments around the country for wear testing to get well-rounded opinions," she says.
After it launches a new product, Fire-Dex continues to test the product in the field to get full feedback on it, Lehman adds. Wear testing feedback is through paper surveys, Lehman notes. Fire-Dex regional managers also do face-to-face surveys with fire departments that test products in their area. "Because we're a smaller company, we're able to take comments or criticisms and make changes to gear more quickly," Lehman says. "Everything we do is based on field testing, so if a strap or clip needs to be moved, or we notice some wear in a pants liner, we're able to make the changes come about very fast. And, we're constantly open to feedback so we can continually improve our products."
Wyman notes that his company also does a great deal of field testing, moving around the country and working with different fire departments. "We want diverse opinions and want to reach into different communities around the country," he points out. "The opinions of firefighters in one area may not be the same as those in another area of the country, so it's best to move around."
Wyman says departments conducting field trials of Honeywell products have ranged from large to smaller departments across the United States. "We ask those firefighters to field test our products and put them through the ringer," he says. "We try to get several years of use in a short period of time by having firefighters beat the daylights out of our products. It turns out to be a great way to get feedback about our products for the market."
Customer Feedback Is Key
Honeywell also conducts technology symposiums in various geographic areas where it brings all the high-tech products it's working on, describes them, shows how they work, and then gets feedback from firefighters on how the products would work for them operationally. "We want to know if we can add something to a product to make it better or modify it in some way to make it more functional," Wyman says. "The feedback we get has been invaluable. Using these processes, we released more than 80 new products last year, the most in company history, and the feedback program speeds up the process."
Mordecai sums up the process of involving customers in product development. "Customer feedback is a fundamental building block," he says, "that's then added to a creative spark to innovate solutions to the problem. So, it's important to have the customer pinpointing the heart of a problem, then engineer a solution that can be manufactured and get the product to market."
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.