Fight Fire, Win Pizza

April 11, 2002

Customers expect their pizza to be hot when delivered, but even the most demanding patrons would be shocked if firemen brought it to the door.

That's the scene a few times each Friday night, when the Watertown, N.Y., Fire Dept. delivers pizzas as a part of its Safe at Home fire prevention program.

The goal, according to Fire Chief Dan Gaumont, is to check smoke detectors at residences where a pizza is being delivered. If the customer's detectors work, their pizza is free. If the detectors aren't working, the firemen will charge them for the pizza, and then either install new batteries or a new detector.

"On a particular night of the week, Crescent Pizza pulls one of its residential deliveries within Watertown," said Gaumont. "Sometimes they bring it to the fire station or we pick it up, and with a truck and on-duty firefighters, we do a residential delivery. We activate our lights and sirens when we come, too."

Acting Fire Captain Mark Kellar and firefighter Rollie Edmonds reward the Hodge family with a pizza.

According to Charles Chalk, fire marshal at the Hudson, N.H., Fire Dept., approximately 50 percent of all residential smoke detectors either don't work, have dead batteries, or no batteries at all.

The resulting devastation, he said, motivated his department to model the Watertown department's promotion. Hudson will launch its own "Did You Check?" program in mid-April.

"We think it will really help the (pizza) shops that participate," said Chalk. "And we know it'll help us get the word out about smoke detectors."

The idea isn't a Watertown original, said Gaumont, though his department has run its program for three years. In 1999, a Watertown firefighter heard about the idea and shared it with the other firefighters, who agreed to give it a try.

It wasn't until this March, however, that the smoke detector and pizza programs began to receive much media attention.

"We did a PR push, and it hit the AP wire service," Chalk said. "We were in stories on, and A local TV station will also ride with us on the first night we deliver."

Chalk said multiple fire departments, even one in California, have called for information about starting similar efforts. But both he and Gaumont believe there are only a few other U.S. fire departments currently running such programs.

A Little Help, Please

Chalk said he's received verbal commitments from about 10 pizzeria operators who want to work with the Hudson department. But since the inception of Watertown's Safe at Home program, Crescent Pizza has been its sole donor.

Owner Debbie Crescent said that while her restaurant may have received some favorable PR in the community, she didn't get involved to gain attention. Instead, the loss of several Watertown homes to fire made her recognize a larger need.

"It just started out as a really good idea, just a good thing to do for people," said Crescent. "Those people didn't have smoke detectors, and some got hurt, some even died."

A Crescent Pizza employee said it was difficult to tell whether the company's customers call more often on Fridays, in hopes their order will be selected for delivery by the firemen. Business is already good, so additional calls go unnoticed.

And so does the cost of participation in Safe at Home, Crescent said; the cost averages less than $75 a week, a sum she called negligible considering the potential benefit to customers and the fire department.

Additionally, cash collected from customers who have to pay for their pizza goes back to buying more smoke detectors and batteries, not into Crescent's till.

"It's a win-win situation, because they get free fire equipment or free food," she said.

Customers especially like the fire truck deliveries, she added. During one visit, Crescent said the screaming of several kids running out the door of their home to greet the firemen caught neighbors' attention.

When it was clear that the family's working smoke detector earned them a free dinner, one neighbor asked the firemen if she could get in on the action.

"She was an older lady, and she came out of her house and said, 'Can you check mine, too?' " Crescent said.

Where Credit is Due

Last August, the Watertown Fire Dept. received a national award of merit for its work with Safe at Home. Gaumont traveled to New Orleans to the annual meeting of the International Association of Fire Chiefs to accept the 1- by 2-foot plaque.

But what would top even that award, Gaumont said, would be a nationwide pizzeria and fire department partnership program that every city could model, and that a couple of corporate powerhouses could back.

"I'd like to see a big chain like Pizza Hut or Domino's team up with Energizer batteries to do this," Gaumont said. "I think that would be a positive match and everyone would benefit from it."

Topics: Independent Operation , Marketing

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