Fireball!: Part 1 - Does Your Fire Department Post More Wins, Losses or Ties?

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 was being relieved by another. The firehouse context of the phrase was that there was no information to pass along because the member's company did not respond to any alarms or deliver any service during its shift.

The phrase "No runs, no hits and no errors" comes from baseball, a sport that has been called "a game of statistics." Runs, hits and errors are measurements of the performance and quality of the team members that is often heard at baseballs' "shift change," called an inning. Runs, hits and errors represent a synopsis of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the performance of the team.

These and other statistics tell the story of why one team won and the other team lost the game. More often than not, the team with the most hits and the fewest errors will be the team that scores the most runs to win the game. In professional sports, the win-and-loss record is arguably the most important performance and quality indicator of each team's success. Teams with the highest win totals are regarded as winners while the ones with more losses are considered losing teams.

Winning teams generate a lot of attention from the media, their fans and even other teams. Other teams study them to try to find out their secret or secrets so that they may be the winning teams in the future. Although I am not a sports fanatic, I am fascinated by the dynamics of winning teams. My reading of sports teams and of other winning teams has not revealed any secret formulas or magic that produced these winning teams' success. While occasionally a winning team will have a star athlete who contributes more than their fair share and maybe even score the winning run occasionally, the stars never win games by themselves.

What I have read, seen and learned about winning teams is that individual team members do a better job of playing together like a team than the other teams. Their attitudes, behaviors and commitment demonstrate higher levels of teamwork that produces more wins than the other teams. You might even say that they want to win more than they want to lose and they prove it. Together, they find a way to win.

Many references have been written comparing firefighting and fire departments to sports teams. Our teams, however, differ from sports teams in some critical ways. A closer look at these differences may tell the secret of why some of us are more successful than others.

What Defines Success?

Sports teams share the common goal of winning games. Sports teams compete against other teams in an effort to win games. The fire service, on the other hand, does not share this common goal. Rather than competing against the fire and time, fire companies often actively compete against each other. This can occur while responding to and when operating on emergency scenes. While competition in itself can help to foster effective teamwork, when one team's victory is another team's loss, it hurts the organization, its members and sometimes our customers. Two fire apparatus colliding at a controlled intersection or a fire company assigning itself to the fire floor when command assigned it somewhere else are examples of competition taken to an unreasonable/unsafe level.

Anyone who has played baseball knows who won the game at the conclusion of the 9th inning because they keep score. They keep track of the runs and whoever accumulates the most by the end of the game wins. But what defines a fire service win? The point of this baseball analogy is that baseball and other teams measure the quality of their performances. They identify what works, what doesn't, who is contributing and who is not. Winning teams know why they won. Baseball teams track a variety of quantitative information, some of which include the number of home runs, hits, runs batted in, on base percentage, batting average (against both right- and left-handed pitchers) and, yes, even the number of errors in a game. The fire service does not track its runs, hits or errors, much less our wins, losses or ties.

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).

My next article will look at this issue in more detail.

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