In Some American Towns, The Billboards Will Have Sirens

Some fire departments are putting ads on fire trucks in order to bring in extra revenue. While it may help with ailing finances, Mike Moen of WNIJ reports, some worry it will create an image problem.

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When you spot a fire truck racing to the scene of a fire, the last thing you'd expect to see on the side of the truck is an ad for a local pizza restaurant. But that could be coming soon in some areas.

Mike Moen, of member station WNIJ in DeKalb, Illinois, reports on a small fire department that's embracing advertising to help fund emergency services.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

MIKE MOEN, BYLINE: On a recent morning, a fire truck belonging to the Palatine rural fire protection district is weaving through traffic. This department serves 17,000 people in a suburb about 30 miles west of Chicago. The truck is headed back to the station when an emergency call comes in.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible)

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

MOEN: The truck races to the scene, but a neighboring department is already there, prompting this crew to head back to the fire station. Officials with the Palatine District hope that, soon, those extra miles traveled will gain some extra exposure - not necessarily for the firefighters but for local businesses. Property tax revenue for the department is a challenge, so it's now working with a company that will help sell ads on their emergency vehicles.

The company, Public Safety Advertising, says it's doing the same thing for about a dozen other departments across the country, including several in Arizona and one in California. Local Fire Chief Hank Clemmenson says they're currently operating on a deficit of about $300,000, forcing them to cut back on overtime and delay key capital purchases.

HANK CLEMMENSON: You know, I have staff vehicles and utility vehicles that, you know, are 20 years old and well over 100,000 miles on them.

MOEN: With voters rejecting higher taxes, Clemmenson says they have few options left other than using commercial advertising on their trucks. He says they'll make sure it's done tastefully and that the ads will be limited to certain spaces on their two fire engines, along with the department's lone ambulance.

CLEMMENSON: Now, this is on the ambulance we're just looking for about a 22-inch square. That would put the advertising right about here.

MOEN: Clemmenson is pointing to an open spot near the back of the ambulance. His enthusiasm, though, isn't shared by everyone in the department. Firefighter Billy Eisner worries the trucks will look unprofessional.

BILLY EISNER: The fire service is so rich in history and tradition and, you know, there's so much thought into the aesthetic of the rigs that now we're kind of ignoring that for, you know, financial reasons.

MOEN: Eisner also worries about their rigs will look less like fire trucks and more like race cars. Eva Seidelman, who's with Public Citizen's Commercial Alert, shares those concerns.

EVA SEIDELMAN: Say, for example, there is a KFC ad on a public fire truck, then the city is essentially endorsing fast food. These are not necessarily great things for the public health.

MOEN: In fact, KFC has placed ads on fire hydrants in cities in Indiana. But Chad Dragos of Public Safety Advertising says the departments he's working with understand there's a gray area they want to avoid.

CHAD DRAGOS: The fire department is very family-based. You know, they're at schools. They do a lot of things. So, having the appropriate advertising on there that matches the fire department's mission statement and is family friendly is really important.

MOEN: Dragos also says businesses will see the benefit of this advertising model. These trucks don't just sit in the firehouse all day. Outside of emergency calls, they transport firefighters to training exercises and do grocery runs on a daily basis. Dragos hopes that will convince enough businesses to pay for ads on what could essentially become rolling emergency vehicle billboards. For NPR News, I'm Mike Moen in DeKalb, Illinois.

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