Every fire department should strive to provide the best possible service it can. We all know that people don’t have a choice as to which fire department will arrive, and as some people have said, “There is no 912!!”. If this is the case, then everyone’s goal should be to be the “A” team, that is to say that they are at the top of their class and have exceeded the minimums regarding performance. Over the course of many years I have had the vast majority of fire service personnel tell me that they have a great fire department. That is good, and they should brag about their organization. But unfortunately for many there is no clear-cut measure of overall capabilities and effectiveness. There are some measurements, but they have their flaws, and there is difficulty in gaining consensus as to what is the best and fairest way to evaluate the final grade.
Before I get into some concepts on evaluation and metrics, we first need to look at response times. While by itself response time is not a great measurement, it is an important consideration. Regardless of a department’s capabilities, if it does not arrive in the moments that matter—that is when the outcomes will be affected—it does not matter how good they are. Even if you have superhuman powers, arriving late to save the day will not be of benefit. Also, response time is not drive time. Good organizations consider the entire response system to include call processing, dispatching, turn-out time, response time (drive time), and setup time (getting in position to deliver service.) This is the real standard that should be measured. I realize some departments have no control over their dispatch function, but that is a discussion for another time. But if you want to be a really good service provider, you must arrive when you can do the most good. To put it another way, you can have the best sports team ever but if you are late to the game, you forfeit and cannot prove your talents.
Another consideration of performance is staffing. You need enough hands to do the job. I have had members of understaffed departments tell me how good they are. There is no doubt that they give good effort and have great people. But if you don’t have adequate staffing for the job at hand, you cannot get to peak performance. You probably would not agree to heart surgery if the surgical team was understaffed no matter how good the doctor was. Even if you have nine talented football players, you will not be able to compete with 11 in the same league. I think you get the point. I cannot concede that an understaffed department is an A-team regardless of how great the individuals are.
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So, if we have a good response time and proper staffing, how would we know if we could “walk the talk?” There must be some type of fair measurement or metrics that assess meaningful performance. It shouldn’t be too hard to develop a list of individual and team skills that are essential in delivering service. Members should be able to don PPE and SCBA within a specific timeframe. Even prior to that, they should have a standard turnout time that is met consistently and requires effort to meet. Individuals must have a level of competence with individual tool usage and must also be in the right physical condition to do the job. Not only must these skills be performed, but they must be done within an acceptable time that indicates that there is speed to match competence. There will also be team skill performance that is required with the same need for speed and competence. This would include jobs such as establishing a continuous water supply, stretching hose, placing ladders, performing searches, and the like.
Departments that want to prove they have “A-team” capabilities will set performance goals that require effort, practice, and repetition. They will include measurements that show proper performance and time limits within the skills must be performed. There also needs to be continual evaluation to make sure that performance is maintained. Having been successful two years ago does not guarantee that the same level of competence can be delivered today.
Regular and routine appraisal is needed. Departments that think they are really good should be able to demonstrate it often. They should meet competency standards within stringent timeframes. If someone wants to say he is of championship caliber, he must do more than talk about it. He needs to perform at a high level consistently.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). 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 and Fire Engineering 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 a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.