What's at stake with advertising on fire trucks? [Editorial]

"Brought to you by ..."

We're all familiar with that advertising slogan, which is followed by the sponsor's name. We get the connection. Something we want or enjoy is being underwritten by a firm with a product or service to promote.


The underwriter could be anything from a soft drink manufacturer to an insurance company. The thing being underwritten could be anything from a free ballpoint pen with a logo on it to a sports stadium that sells its naming rights. We are media-savvy enough to recognize revenue from advertising offsets costs to us, a trade-off that makes sense when we grab that free pen to write a grocery list or buy a ticket to a Ravens game at M&T Bank Stadium.

But what about when we call the fire department? Should emergency services come with advertising?

That question comes up with the news that, here in Baltimore County, a Middle River Volunteer Fire Company fire truck carries a banner ad for Carroll Home Services, a heating, cooling and plumbing company.

We are accustomed to advertising in the arena of public service, such as ads on the sides of transit buses. Commuters looking at those ads probably do not attach any special importance to the commercial message because they are reading it on a bus. When we read "Need a lawyer?" followed by a phone number, we don't imagine the bus company itself is suggesting we call this particular law firm.

But do we feel the same when reading an ad on the side of an emergency vehicle that is frequently used in life-or-death emergencies or catastrophes? Is there an implicit gravitas that comes with the message?

As private commerce encroaches more into public service, we are likely to see more of this. Our opinion that this seems a bit tacky may matter little in light of the benefit to the public of a fire truck in service. Now that the firefighters in Middle River have broken the ice, the county's other volunteer firefighters, for whom fundraising is a constant demand, may start looking for sponsors to ease the financial burden.

Many, if not most, will offer no argument when someone else is willing to help pay for something we want in exchange for a plug.

But where is this leading? Is the next step ambulances promoting prescription drugs? Could you imagine a police cruiser with a rooftop sign advertising a bail bondsman?

We're not sure where the line should be drawn. But we think we should be careful that the stature earned on the job by emergency service workers who sometimes risk their lives should not become a commodity.