Improving Organizational Performance: One Great Example

Periodically, we see a fire department conduct a management process that deserves a standing ovation. An excellent example of this can be found in the Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue Services. An organization well known for excellence, it has gone above and beyond what many fire departments would have been willing to do in a similar situation.

Tom Carr, the Montgomery County fire chief, became concerned about some things that had taken place at emergency incidents over a several month period in late 2005. Two of the incidents could have resulted in firefighter deaths had luck not been on their side. Carr is a strong and compassionate leader who was committed to responding in a positive and productive way with the goal of minimizing these situations in the future by improving the organization's overall performance.

Carr assigned an internal Incident Review Panel (IRP) facilitated and led by an outside authority to conduct an in-depth review of various aspects of their leadership and management processes. This "organizational autopsy" was thorough, timely and intense. It did not simply focus on the specific incidents that had occurred, but instead reviewed the standard operating procedures and compliance with these SOPs, staffing, departmental policies, equipment, apparatus, command structure, accountability, other management processes, leadership and supervision. The planning categories that were considered by the IRP included:

  • Fire prevention and public education (including occupant behavior)
  • Pre-planning efforts
  • Command and control (system, roles, supervision, etc.)
  • Strategy and tactics (including initial and ongoing size-up)
  • Accountability and crew integrity at emergency scenes
  • Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and communications
  • Compliance with SOPs
  • Firefighter rehabilitation at emergency scenes
  • Staffing of units
  • Use of equipment
  • Use and placement of apparatus
  • Emergency scene safety
  • Staging of response units
  • Water supply management

After many interviews and significant review, the IRP, along with an analysis group and other members of the fire department, developed a plan that addresses 12 departmental initiatives over a two-year period (2006 and 2007). Following are those initiatives:

  1. Require that initial company operations provide for a coordinated fire attack, adherence to applicable standard operating procedures, and the ability for the incident commander to develop and update the incident action plan as required.
  2. Refine the incident command system to reduce radio traffic, improve span of control, and assure the proper assumption, transfer and development of command.
  3. Reinforce the importance of accountability and crew integrity at all incidents and embrace tactics and concepts that enhance the level of overall safety.
  4. Review and improve the call-processing time for dispatch and the effectiveness of the CAD and communications system overall.
  5. Strive to ensure that units are staffed with qualified personnel who are familiar with their response areas.
  6. Achieve four-person minimum staffing levels on engines, trucks and rescue squads to improve firefighter safety and system performance.
  7. Review the organizational focus to meet the challenges posed by the many priorities and services that are facing the department.
  8. Place more emphasis on enhancing discipline throughout the department in an effort to improve performance.
  9. Implement training programs that achieve excellence in day-to-day operations and continually help people perform better in their positions.
  10. Consider the development and dissemination of an operational doctrine that exceeds the level of standard operating procedures and allows for justifiable deviation from the procedures.
  11. Display the commitment of the departmental leadership to the practices established in the department.
  12. Review and enhance fire prevention and public education programs.

Each initiative has an "ambassador" assigned to it. The ambassador is a high-level chief officer who has the authority to be responsible for implementing change as required. An action plan was created for each initiative to guide the work over a specified period. Another important aspect of this process involves periodic briefings to the members of the department, quarterly briefings to the fire chief by the ambassadors on progress made in each initiative, and an annual review of progress with the outside authority who facilitated and led the process of developing the initiatives and action plans.

The variable that will make the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services successful is the quality of its fire officers and other members of the organization. From Carr throughout the department, they are a class act and have committed themselves to continually improving their systems and their overall performance.

I encourage other fire departments to conduct a similar management, leadership, and performance analysis in their organizations, and - like Montgomery County - do it before a firefighter fatality drives the process. It takes strong leadership and courage to do this, and it's a lot of work. We should all thank Montgomery County for providing a template and setting such a good example. We owe them a standing ovation and let's wish them the best as members continue to work through their plan.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When In Doubt, Lead! series, Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, as well as many other articles and publications. He is also the co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services and is a national executive advisor and advocate for the fire service, homeland security and other organizations. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and assistant fire chief in Phoenix, where he served for 27 years. He is past chair of the executive board of the International Fire Service Training Association, past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee, vice chair of the board of directors of the Home Safety Council and serves on the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation board of directors.