Perhaps the most important trait for any organization is consistent performance in every aspect of its operation. I cannot think of a single agency that doesn't want to be consistent in how it functions and delivers services or products to its customers.
The American fire-rescue service is no different. A comment that a fire chief hates to hear is several or even many fire departments are operating under the banner of his or her agency. For example, seven battalions times three shifts could equal 21 small departments within one agency. Some outfits devote a lot of time to achieving and measuring their performance to ensure that they are consistent in all that they do. Other departments place little or no emphasis on consistent performance.
Consistency must include the ability to perform correctly and effectively. We in the fire-rescue service must strive for consistently good or even consistently great performance because lives depend on our abilities. A department's strategic vision should call for consistently great performance by all members and companies all of the time and provide a way to measure the results. This organizational goal is simple to recite and understand, but it is difficult for any agency to achieve, much less one that must work under demanding constraints all of the time.
If standard operating procedures (SOPs) or even the style of hose loads are based on the shift that is working that day, true consistent performance will be difficult to impossible to reach. In some places, core operations change in measurable and visible ways from one platoon to another. If there is a void in operational procedures, if training to support the procedures is not sustainable and in place, or if an agency's policies are not enforced, the outfit will never attain consistently good performance. All of these elements must be in place, described officially and supported organizationally all of the time if the agency is to achieve this highly desirable outcome. In fact, a reward system must be established around attainment of consistency. If the leadership of the agency fails to set standards and provide the needed resources and incentives, the department is destined to varying results and varying community satisfaction levels.
To underscore the importance of this organizational goal, let's talk about an American institution that exudes consistency in products and performance. Many years ago, when Ray Kroc and his McDonald's team put forth the concept of a fast-food hamburger restaurant, the core value would become consistency. Think about the last time you visited a McDonald's restaurant near your home. Then, think about the last time you visited a McDonald's more than 100 miles from your home. What was that experience like? I would be willing to guess that the visit was just like the one at your home-based McDonald's.
I would submit that you enjoy the same tastes, flavors and textures at the remote location. I would further venture to say that the restaurant was reasonably clean with customer service that you have grown to expect from this giant corporation. I am thinking that the pricing was roughly the same, as were the shape and size of the parking lot.
Early into this great economic venture, the management structure figured out that consistency was the way that McDonald's would be a highly profitable corporation. About five decades later, the company is thriving and is a model for consistent performance. The company spends a great deal of time and energy to ensure that a customer's dining experience is a controlled and expected one. We could learn a lot from the model that this fast-food outlet provides for us.
The consistency journey should start with the development of clear, concise and well-written policies. Some organizations are reluctant to place their policies into a written format due to the legal concerns. The arguments stem around the belief that if policies, procedures or protocols are committed to paper, the agency could be held accountable for substandard performance in a court of law. In fact, there is an element of fire chiefs who think that the documents need to be described as "guidelines," not procedures. Regardless of the name selected for the organizational directives, they will have to be memorialized in print and available for frequent reference.
Next, there must be a formal way of learning and sustaining the information by the members of the department who will be delivering services to the public. Often, organizations develop an initial officer training program and the follow-up retention is left up to chance. The best systems that focus on consistent process incorporate an ongoing training component that makes sure that the mission-critical information is renewed and reviewed on a regular basis.
The last step that helps to ensure consistent performance is a follow-up enforcement component. The best position that the chief could hope for would be that the follow-up/enforcement element is figuring out a reward system because the members follow the policies, procedures and protocols every time and need only positive reinforcement. The reality, however, is that sometimes we must be guided toward compliance. A standard, clear, transparent, fair and equitable follow-up system should be developed and implemented to keep the agency focused on consistently high-quality and correct performance.
When I discuss consistency, I must include a comment about using job aides to ensure that we get the task at hand completed correctly the first, every time. The District of Columbia Fire & EMS Department has just implemented a structural fire and special operations "Job Aide" that lets responding companies complete a quick reference while responding to a specific type of alarm. The concept is that an officer can complete a last-minute check to ensure that all elements of a particular pre-determined assignment are handled correctly on every single response (consistent behavior/performance). The DCFD Job Aide will soon be added to every officer's riding position on engines, trucks and rescue squads. If you are interested in an electronic copy of this document, please e-mail us at www.dc.gov/FEMS.
Advanced life support/basic life support (ALS/BLS) medical protocols are in a final review by several outside agencies to ensure that they meet best practice and legal sufficiency. As they are completed and placed into service, a comprehensive training program will be delivered to all pre-hospital care providers and a Job Aide developed with a copy to be carried on every ambulance. This action item should be completed by the end of this calendar year, so if you are interested in that material as well, stay tuned and please let us know of your interest.
We use several checklists during emergency events that keep us focused like a laser during immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) operations. After several rounds of Mayday training evolutions, a useful and effective Mayday checklist was finalized and added to the resources that the incident commander has at his or her disposal at the command post. Finally, a "mini" operational critique is conducted after each working incident, while still on location and before the units are allowed to return to service, to discuss whether we followed our policies at each significant event. This procedure, developed by our operations commander, Chief Lawrence Schultz, has had amazing impact and results to help us ensure constantly perfect operational performance.
DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.