Chiefs and firefighters worth their salt do not strive for mediocrity. They know that the public requires outstanding performance every time. They are also a competitive bunch who want to be the best. Given a choice of earning an A, B, or C grade for their service, they choose A as the obvious answer. When providing service, there is an expectation that those responding are really good at what they do. But as we should have learned in school, attaining an A takes work.
There are many elements necessary to provide quality service. It obviously takes talented, properly trained, and supervised people. In addition, it takes the right apparatus and equipment. One would not expect a performer at Carnegie Hall to use an inferior instrument. World-class athletes use the best equipment available. NASCAR drivers don’t race around a track without a finely tuned machine. Hence, any organization that strives to be the best can only do so with the proper apparatus and equipment.
Departments must evaluate their needs. They must know the expected service levels and the types of emergencies they are likely to encounter. They must know the hazards and risks present in their communities. The policymakers must be clear in their expectations, and the employees must know the level of performance expected of them. If everyone is on the same page, it becomes easier to justify the need for the right equipment and apparatus.
Too often, especially in today’s world, cost is the driving factor when selecting apparatus and equipment. It also comes into play when evaluating preventive maintenance and repairs. However, departments must understand the risks they take when the proper equipment is not available and reliable. There is a difference between doing something to an average level and doing something outstanding. If an organization is not willing to provide the quality necessary to deliver grade A service, then it should not be a surprise if the end product is not up to the expected standards.
Departments must establish a reasonable replacement schedule for all equipment and apparatus based on their normal life expectancy, not on how long they can continue making repairs. There is a reliability factor, and at some point the risks of a breakdown are too great. Also, equipment and apparatus that are in the shop more than they should be are not available to respond.
More Than Cost to Consider
When evaluating apparatus and equipment, consider advances that improve their capabilities. Changes can make the apparatus or equipment more versatile, more efficient, and more effective. There is also the issue of compliance with recognized standards. Replacement must be about more than the cost. Service levels and capabilities must get equal treatment in the discussion. After all factors have been weighed, if a department or community decides not to make the investment, then at least it should have been informed of the risks and potential effects on service levels.
Maintenance and repairs are equally important in ensuring the highest possible reliability. Read the owner’s manuals and see what the recommended schedules are for routine maintenance. Keep your equipment and apparatus up to the manufacturer’s standards so you can be confident in their reliability. There are many more tools from which to choose, and many are more technically complicated. This requires effort to maintain the apparatus and equipment to their peak condition for optimal performance. Your organization cannot earn an A if vital equipment fails at the scene of an emergency.
Specialized apparatus and equipment with specialized components require special knowledge to perform repairs properly. Departments have a few choices: rely on specialists from the manufacturer, use a specialty repair shop, or train personnel with that responsibility. Just as many “backyard mechanics” can no longer work on their newer cars, firefighters without specific training cannot complete repairs on newer equipment and apparatus. If you choose to continue using your staff for maintenance and repairs, you will need to invest in their training. As the old adage goes, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” Using personnel who are not prepared for the latest versions is just asking for trouble.
Quality Is Essential
Obtaining the best to provide grade A service is not just about getting the most expensive. To meet your needs, you will need to do some research. It is not just about what sounds the best or what might appear to be the latest technology. It is just as important to consider reliability. Sometimes newer technology can promise to expand your capabilities. But without reliability, it may not be available when you need it. Unfortunately, emergency services have not figured out a way to schedule emergencies. The incidents, especially the most challenging, have a tendency to occur at the most inopportune times. Keeping apparatus and equipment in service is probably more important than having additional options if reliability is compromised to the point that the risk is too great.
I often hear that fire departments are forced to extend the service life of equipment or apparatus beyond what is reasonable. This is always the result of a lack of funding. At some point, departments must realize that the risks being taken are unacceptable. Those that appropriate funds must understand that there is a cost of doing business, especially if they wish to deliver high-quality service. Think about what would happen if the construction industry operated with outdated tools. Not only would projects take much longer to complete, but their quality would most likely suffer. Comparing that to emergency work, one might ask how efficient and effective a fire department would be at auto extrication if it only had hand tools. Eventually, you could extricate the patient, but the results would not be what you wanted.
Quality tools, equipment, and apparatus are absolutely essential if the goal of your organization is to provide grade A or A+ service. We would not expect professional musicians to play world-class music without world-class instruments. Neither should we expect our firefighters to provide super service without commensurate tools to do the job, regardless of their talents and preparation. I would not expect a golfer to show up at Augusta National for the Master’s Tournament with 1980s vintage clubs and golf balls. There is zero chance he would make the cut, let alone win.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.