Richard A. Mueller reviews how the fire service should continually measure the quality of performance, identifying what works, what doesn't, who is contributing and who is not - like a winning team. "No runs, no hits and no errors." I heard this phrase at shift change from one firefighter who...
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It has been my experience that most fire departments would have great difficulty even agreeing on the definition of what constitutes a win, loss or tie. This lack of definition and "keeping score" is my opinion of why many fire departments do not field winning teams.
While we all have skillful, dedicated and capable team members, we all do not have well-planned, well-coached and well-practiced plays that foster measurable teamwork. In fact, the fire service's only real measurement is who lost and we can't even agree on that number. In 2006, like many years before it, the fire service lost more than 100 of its firefighters (players) and over 3,000 of its customers (fans). We need to stop running in circles (bases) and slow down to examine why we cannot reduce our own destruction. This article is about how to get on base, score runs and win more fire service incidents (games). It is about defining fire service wins and the importance of measuring, analyzing and evaluating how wins are obtained.
So What Is a Win?
When I ask fire service members this seemingly simple question, almost all hesitate and contemplate before they respond. Most tell me that a win is "putting the fire out" while others have a hard time coming up with any answer at all. I believe this occurs because most of us never think about our profession in this way. While "putting the fire out" seems like a logical response, it implies that we would win all of our games because all fires eventually go out.
"Putting the fire out" lacks quality indicators like runs, hits and errors that define how the win was obtained. As an example, is it still a win when a similar incident (game) lasts for two hours in one community and only 10 minutes in another? And is it still a win if firefighters are injured or killed during the game? Even the greatest of fires such as the "Great Chicago Fire" went out, so don't we win all of our games eventually? A little research will show that this is not true, as some below-ground mine fires have been burning for many years and will continue to burn for many to come. Furthermore, to send firefighters into these fires would be the equivalent of playing a baseball game in a lightning storm. It just isn't worth the risk.
So, can deciding not to fight at all be considered a win? Some say yes, while others have said no. If you agree that this is true, then you would have to agree that the way we fight fires has to be part of any definition of what a win looks like. In the case of the fires like the Chicago conflagration, where the fire burned for days, destroying 17,500 buildings, causing over $222 million in property damage, killing between 200 and 300 people and leaving another 100,000 homeless, one would find it difficult to classify this as a fire service win.
As a fire service professional and a student who studied for a couple of years at the Chicago fire academy (on the very spot where the Great Chicago Fire started), I am keenly aware of this fire and the losses that were sustained as a result. Examples like this illustrate that a fire service win needs further definition than just simply extinguishment. I believe that if the fire service defined our wins, losses and ties, we would have a mechanism to identify who our winning teams are so that they could be used as models for others to learn from.
Some may be quick to say that fire service teams are not like sports teams because our teams consists of varying number of players and we all don't play by the same set of rules. I agree and would argue that that is exactly why we need to measure how and what we do on the fireground if we are ever going to improve it. We need information about why some of us succeed while others fail. Maybe the data could be used to differentiate fire departments like sports teams where everyone can identify the difference between professional, collegiate, high school and sandlot teams.
If a community thought that its tax dollars were funding a professional fire department, but found out that it played more like a high school team, I believe this would provide the impetus and motivation for change. But what kind of change? How about a change in the number of annual deaths and injuries of firefighters and customers and the number of installed sprinkler systems in our fire service "ballparks" (residential structures).