Fireball!: Part 2 - Defining a Win, Tie and Loss to Track Fire Service Quality

If we are ever going to significantly increase the quality of our teams and decrease the death and injuries to our members, the fire service needs to emulate sports teams and keep track of quality indicators such as runs, hits and errors that ultimately define our wins, losses and ties. To do this, we must first come to an understanding and agreement of what defines a win, tie or loss.

Consider this definition: A win is obtaining the "under-control" benchmark time and/or the rescue of a customer within 10 minutes after arrival of the first fire company. Ties are incidents where the "under-control" benchmark is obtained in over the 10-minute time limit, under 30 minutes and/or a firefighter(s) or customer(s) is injured. It is a tie because both the customer and the fire department have sustained extended losses. Incidents where the "under-control" time is accomplished in more than 30 minutes and/or produce dead firefighter(s) or customer(s) are losses. These are "real" losses because people and property has been lost.

A Win

Wins are incidents where the under-control benchmark is achieved within 10 minutes of the arrival of the first fire department member. Any definition of a win must include a time frame. The time limit for a win is important because it measures our ability to mobilize our teams (get in the game) and execute our plays (score runs). Further investigation into play execution determines the value of the plays themselves and identifies practices and plays that may be outdated and ineffective.

Plays that take over 10 minutes to execute might have worked on the structures of the past, but in today's lightweight construction we don't find ourselves with this same time luxury. Neither do our customers. Customers who are unable to exit structures without assistance total well over 3,000 deaths annually. The fire behavior and toxicity of today's burning structures do not allow many of our customers who are unable to exit without assistance to survive even a 10-minute window. In fact, a burn experiment conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Testing (NIST) and the Phoenix, AZ, Fire Department documented unsurvivable carbon monoxide (CO) levels of over 30,000 ppm in only four minutes and a peak reading of 42,000 ppm in just six minutes from time of ignition. The only fuel used for this fire was wood pallets; no measurement of other gases, including cyanide, was done. (See The Phoenix Project 2004, Videotape 2, "Fire Behavior in Commercial Buildings.")

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 standard details the fire propagation curve with flashover occurring in less than 10 minutes after ignition. Flashovers produce unsurvivable atmospheres for anyone unfortunate enough to experience them.

A Tie

Ties are achieved for incidents that are brought in control within a 10- to 30-minute window after the arrival of the first in resource. This is because after 10 minutes, fires extend beyond their room of origin, resulting in substantially more damage and deaths (NFPA 1710 fire propagation curve A. A tie reflects the fact that both our customers and our members have sustained extended losses. Incidents that are not brought under control in a short time destroy the structure and most (if not all) of our customer's personal belongings. So, while almost all fires eventually go out, what difference does it make when at the end of the game there is little to nothing saved? Hardly a win from anyone's perspective. Additionally, every time a customer or a firefighter is injured, both of us sustain losses, demonstrating that we have only managed to match the incident resulting in a tie rating.

A Loss

A loss occurs when the "under-control" benchmark is not achieved within 30 minutes after the arrival of the first in fire resource. Based on the realities of today's lightweight construction, offensive fire operations that approach 30 minutes or more do not come close to any risk-vs.-benefit analysis or meet the definition of an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) atmosphere (escape with your life in 30 minutes, the impetus for our two-in/two-out rule).

A loss occurs when we or our customers lose more than just the game; we lose each other. Incidents that result in dead customers and/or firefighters deserve to be labeled as the losses that they are. Incidents that produce dead people are a result of many system failures. All losses should be investigated and reported on how and why they occurred. Communities with fire departments that had losing records may be motivated to look deeper than just an annual report that details how many fires occurred, what caused them and where they occurred. They may want to look at how their fire department actually fights fire.

While it is not possible to win all fire service events, it does not mean that all is lost. Making a decision not to fight in a losing situation may not be a win by definition, but it does qualify as a moral victory. Deciding not to go in when the risk is not worthy of the reward may one of the toughest decisions that you will make; however, it proves that the intelligent team is smarter than our unintelligent enemy, the fire.

Keeping score of wins, losses and ties is one way to look at firefighting more objectively, but what is even more important is to measure and keep statistics of what we have the most control over -- ourselves. While it is possible to win games even with a high number of errors, they are often referred to as "not being very pretty" wins. Errors on the fireground go straight past pretty and into ugly very quickly (there is nothing pretty about fire deaths, damage and disease). Keeping track of runs, hits and errors will provide the data and most importantly the reason of why we win, lose or tie.

Fire Service Runs & Hits

Fire service hits consist of performing the actions that keep us moving forward and rounding the bases. Some behaviors, wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), could be considered a base hit. Other behaviors that have deeper meaning, such as maintaining crew integrity and situational assessment, could be considered a double or maybe even a triple. The more hits obtained -- wearing a seatbelt, stopping on red, being dressed properly (safely), carrying tools, using hoselines, communicating effectively and maintaining crew integrity -- would result in more firefighters scoring runs and coming back to our clubhouse (the firehouse).

Errors are both physical and mental. In the fire service, wearing PPE could be considered a hit and not wearing PPE properly would constitute an error because even the most expensive PPE in the world will not protect you if it is not worn properly. The same can be said of not maintaining crew integrity (togetherness). Baseball, like other sports, tracks these in a scorebook, where it is clear to all what is a hit and what is an error. The fire service not only does not track these, it does not even agree on what is right (a hit) and what is wrong (an error). Something as simple as not wearing a seatbelt or even stopping on red is not considered an error by too many of us! And one wonders how a firefighter makes it to the roof without a breathing apparatus.

How can the fire service become more standardized and similar to sports team references where quality and excellence is measurable and attainable? There are fire service professionals who have been keeping score for many years. One, like Assistant Chief Brian Crandell of the Central Valley Fire District in Gallatin County, MT, does it with fire certification programs in that state. His work with the Montana State University Fire Service Certification Program measures the ability of firefighters to behave as a team. They measure their hits, called "immediate recall skills," in a time standard to obtain certification. These immediate recall skills are organized into tactics, or plays, that closely resemble the fireground. The tactics are evaluated in steps that clearly identify hits and errors. Runs consist of accomplishing all of the immediate recall skills included in the steps of the tactics. Errors are identified when immediate recall skills are not accomplished.

Another person who has taken the time and effort to define and measure service is retired Chief Joe Starnes, formerly of the Sandy Hill, NC, Fire Department. His work on self-management and the development tools to measure ourselves is truly fire service Total Quality Management (TQM) at its best. Starnes uses measuring tools that firefighters who were part of the incident response use to evaluate themselves. A quick checklist, or scorecard, filled out after returning to the station determines whether they hit the ball and got on base during the response (game.) These checklists include all of the steps or skills that team members should have accomplished. The data on these sheets is then totaled, which gives everyone feedback. His work on this self-management evaluation not only identifies which pitches to swing at, but if they are hitting the ball.

These people have defined the work of firefighting and firefighting teams that permit an "apples-to-apples" evaluation of an individual's ability and a team's ability to deliver fire services. They are holistic, realistic and obtainable by those who are willing to commit to the team and the importance of practice. Practice in itself is a major indication of a team's commitment to winning. How successful would a professional baseball team be without its commitment to practice? Yet, in the fire service, it is not uncommon for a fire department to go weeks if not months without a practice session.

How It Works

After studying, implementing and practicing the coaching strategies of both of these fire service leaders, I have personally experienced my own winning teams and winning seasons. When I learned how to measure teams and plays, I found a secret to winning teams: "If you can measure them, you can improve them." In 2006, my fire department responded to more than 8,000 incidents. Of those, we stretched hoselines inside burning structures 19 times. Applying my win, loss and tie definition resulted in record of 10-3-4 (for two incidents had insufficient data). We won 10 times, tied three and lost four. Working with other organizations has produced similar results for them.

The winning record produced by our teams was the result of a commitment to excellence that I call "Fire Company Four," an incident operating system that defines and measures daily firefighting performance. This system has been and can be applied by other fire departments. Additionally, by defining quality and striving for excellence, this system severely reduced the number of errors committed by our members. In fact, after system implementation, we realized a 72% reduction in our injury rates! This was a direct result of defining and measuring our runs, our hits and our errors.

As a profession, we struggle with ways to reduce our injury and death rates. We can create winning teams and teamwork if we are willing to keep score -- a score that does not just memorialize errors, but defines and measures success. Without defined data that clearly shows whether we are winning, losing or tying, the fire service will continue to field teams where no one knows who the winners are, only the ones who have lost.

RICHARD A. MUELLER is a battalion chief with the City of West Allis, WI, Fire Department and a fire service veteran of 30 years. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University. Mueller is a member of The Wisconsin FLAME Group LLC ("Fire Leadership And Management Excellence"), a group that recognizes, supports and provides fire service leadership and management excellence. He can be reached at