20 Tough Questions For the Fire Chief: Are You Prepared To Answer Them?

Before answering this question, it may be beneficial to work with your city administrator and elected officials to determine which performance benchmarks are important to them. As the chief fire executive, you can surely make recommendations to them...


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Before answering this question, it may be beneficial to work with your city administrator and elected officials to determine which performance benchmarks are important to them. As the chief fire executive, you can surely make recommendations to them. However, it may be unrealistic to assume the benchmarks valued by a town administrator will align with those valued by the fire chief.

This is a good discussion to have. It will improve everyone’s understanding of perspectives and priorities. It may also help prevent expending efforts to gather performance and cost data that are not valued by the town administrator or elected officials. Agreeing on the list in advance will improve the efficiency of your time.

The next challenge is to gather information from departments that are similar in size, staffing, call volume and community demographics. Finding organizations whose parameters closely match yours can be a challenge. When using comparisons, it may be helpful to articulate how the comparison departments and communities are similar and different. This adds perspective.

Ideally, it would be best if your comparison organizations were in your geographic region or within your state. Elected officials can get uneasy about making comparisons in regions they are unfamiliar with. As you cross state lines there can also be laws or programs that impact how towns are funded that makes the playing field uneven. Neither you nor your elected officials may be aware of these laws and programs. This can contribute to a proverbial “apples to oranges” comparison of agencies and communities.

When comparing your agency to others, it is a best practice to use statistics that even the playing field. For example, let’s look at the demographics and basic budget information for two sample communities:

Looking at the raw data, you can draw some inferences about each community. Comparing them using a measurement that evens the playing field reveals a more telling story:

Here are some explanations for what the second data set reveals. This new way of looking at the numbers reveals a different perspective of the two communities.

Smithburg has a smaller population, but it is more densely populated. The transient (daytime) population statistic reveals Smithburg’s population swells during the day. Something is causing Smithburg to attract people during the weekday. Perhaps people are coming to Smithburg for retail, education, medical, industrial, professional, recreation or a variety of other reasons. Regardless of the cause, the potential demand for services rises as the daytime population rises. Jonesville, on the other hand, sees a sharp decline in daytime population. This indicates that more people are leaving Jonesville during the daytime hours than coming. Jonesville is the classic “bedroom community.”

While Smithburg’s budget is higher than Jonesville’s, the cost per call for service is lower in Smithburg. This can be an indication of organizational efficiency. It can also be related to the type of calls each community responds to. For example, an EMS call should be less expensive to respond to than a structure fire.

Smithburg has four times the number of full-time employees as Jonesville. This is true. But Jonesville has three times the number of full-time equivalent employees (FTE) as Smithburg. For the sake of this example, an FTE is how many part-time employees it takes to equal the workload (and cost) of one full-time employee. We use the ratio of 3:1, which is not written into law anywhere, but is a commonly referenced benchmark. This means every three part-time employees count as one full-time employee.

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