Organizing A Community Fire Defense Plan

We have spent a great deal of time on gathering fire risk data, as well as its analysis. What has been covered to this point? We have identified risk as a concern; one which is measurable. Data analysis has determined that a fire problem may well exist. The potential causes for the problem should have been identified and grouped into areas suitable for joint effort solutions.

Because of these actions, alternative solutions have been recognized and developed. What then is the next step? At this point, you must choose the best solution, then develop a mechanism for putting it into place. This is the crucial step where the tough usually get going. Someone must choose the appropriate solution to the problem at hand. And then when the choice is made, DO IT! Don't sit around thinking the problem to death.

For a decision to be properly implemented, the organization performing this analytical task must operate in a responsible, capable manner to do what is asked of it in a timely and efficient manner.

Consider the manner in which any fire department might perform a given task. Good management policy dictates that fire departments be developed along well-organized guidelines. They need to have a common thread of thought and direction from top to bottom. Unless a fire department has been structured to meet the legal, financial and demographic constraints of ITS community, every effort has a high probability of failure.

Look at one way in which to develop a municipal fire organization. Effective fire department management requires the development of a mission statement to outline the reasons for its existence.

All players on the fire protection team must be operating according to the same game plan. In this way, they can move forward in a coordinated effort to provide a proper level of fire protection to their municipality.

Goal statements must be developed for each of the program areas to be addressed. This is done to insure fire department personnel know what is going to happen in the course of daily department events. A goal statement is a broad statement of areas of intended action or involvement by the organization, which spells out a desired outcome. It tells people what should be happening.

Bear in mind that a goal is also a broad statement which provides additional information on the areas and responsibilities with which the organization is involved. While goals are not measurable, they provide guidance for the operational personnel in charge of the various divisions in the fire department.

Goals give a reading as to the direction in which an administrator might wish to take the organization. People who know their operational parameters and are free to operate will work to maximum effect.

At some point, the local fire administrator will have to become very specific as to just how the department will operate. At this point, a fire department will find the development of objectives to be an indispensable aid.

An objective defines the ongoing service levels a community desires or can afford to maintain. Objectives state the risk a community chooses to accept in terms of life, property and consequences of fire. However, unless a fire risk analysis is conducted to determine the actual requirements for fire protection, any attempt to develop objectives will just be an exercise in futility.

The best mission statements, goals and objectives evolve as a part of the risk analysis. Unless people are intimately involved in the study of their community, they will not be able to develop the necessary, tailor-made type of municipal fire protection program essential for success.

Once a course of action for solving problems has been selected, estimate what it will cost to implement this decision, then turn it into a working fire department program. A valid cost estimate which takes into consideration the whole range resources which will be needed is basic to the success of any new program.

To sell any idea to the town fathers charged with funding fire department operations, the whole range of costs associated with the fire department's requirements must be understood. A project can be won or lost based upon the budget hearings.

Stumbling along, not knowing why various items or costs are in the budgetary message, gives little chance of winning the budgetary battle. We can remember a particular case in which a training budget was defeated because the person speaking for the fire department could not counter a resident's claim that "the fire department wanted a big-screen television to show X-rated movies." The attack was pure bunk but the person speaking for the fire department did not know the real reason for the request, so he looked foolish.

The request was ultimately yanked from the budget. The fire department lost the benefit of an essential training tool due to poor preparation for the budgetary process. It took years to correct this error. Remember, fire administrators are considered to be the experts within their communities. People will be looking to them for the facts. Any show of ignorance or any attempt at deceit will be and long remembered by governmental leaders.

To arrive at the precise cost of a given program, you must dissect the chosen solution to the identified problem. This is done by using a techniques known as resource analysis.

Resource analysis requires the identification of and specification for needed resources to complete a particular task. Then develop a breakdown of costs to cover all of the identified resources, i.e., people, equipment and money. It also requires an understanding of the effects of the program or project in question. Explore both the positive and negative effects of any solution being posed to a community fire protection problem.

Personnel costs form the major element of any project undertaken by a career fire department. Even in the volunteer sector, restraints imposed by a lack of daytime personnel can add personnel costs to any future endeavor. Too often, fire managers do not look for solutions beyond spending more tax dollars for additional personnel. This lack of imagination leads many critics to accuse the fire service of poor administrative techniques. While the addition of personnel may often seem like the correct solution to a particular problem, a redistribution of existing personnel might be a better, more cost-effective solution.

Let us use the example of the private school dormitory discussed in our June 1997 column. Suppose a fire department chooses to proceed with an educational program for the building tenants and school personnel. Which of the following would be the cheapest alternative?

  • Appoint a public education specialist.
  • Train fire company personnel to perform public education duties.
  • Seek the assistance of a member of the school's staff to learn how to train staff members in fire safety techniques
  • Hire an off-duty member of the department, on an overtime basis, to perform this additional duty.

It might seem that the use of the school staff member is least expensive; however, there would be a longer training period for indoctrinating someone outside of the fire service. And who would be liable for the salary of that person during training?

Hiring an off-duty member would involve overtime payments for that member while learning public education duties. The continuing expenditure of overtime funds to cover the cost of delivering training would then become an ongoing obligation.

Hiring a new member for public education would entail the total expense package of training, salary, pension and fringe benefits. While training on-duty company members might involve some form of overtime payment during the training period, once trained, these people would be providing the training as an additional on-duty service. This may well be the most cost effective of all of the listed methods.

Each community's response must be correct for its situation. However, this is another important aspect of the tailor-made municipal fire protection program which will be essential for managerial success in the next century. You will need to develop an "action plan." This will involve a series of tasks which ought to be developed as part of community resource analysis, which, when completed, meets the requirements for each specified objective. A formal display of these tasks, in their proper order, with the cost of each step and the time necessary for completion forms the basis for your sales pitch to government.

Through the use of an action plan the total effort required to implement any new programs, for which approval is being sought, can be displayed in chart form. The use of a time line, with tasks, times and responsibilities is critical. In this way, you will be able to use the action plan as the reference map in explaining the new proposal. By thinking things through ahead of time, an administrator is better prepared to answer questions and better able to defend each individual segment. Further, once approval has been gained for expenditure of funds, the action plan serves as a road map to success.

Each step is taken at the appropriate time, by the proper person under the predetermined approval and authority as set forth by the document. If things begin to go wrong, mid-course corrections can be made. Since an action plan shows people what will be done by whom and when (at whatever expense), they can determine how far afield they are and return to the predetermined course.

Remember, it is normally citizens in a community, acting through their elected representatives, who determine what share of the municipal budget the fire department will receive. Expend every effort to use their hard-earned dollars wisely.

Your key to success involves the implementation of a series of well-thought-out financial alternatives. Each of these should be designed around a core of tight fiscal planning. In this manner, a community can select and provide fire protection at the most reasonable cost possible. It will have a plan to take it to the future. And it will be able to use this plan as a road map on the way to future success.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a battalion chief with the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and past chief of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company.