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. 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.

It is a common misconception that part-time employees are far less expensive than full-time employees. In some cases, that may be true. In other cases, however, it is grossly inaccurate. Following best practices and solid principles, the cost to recruit, hire, train and outfit a firefighter (volunteer or career) should be the same – and it is expensive, easily ranging from $8,000 to $15,000. A high turnover of part-time or volunteer members can be very costly. Also, in a system where part-time or volunteer members are paid on a per-call basis, the cost per call can be significant if the number of personnel responding to each call is not controlled. If the department dispatches an “all-call” (everyone who is available can respond) for a car fire, it might find itself paying 30 to 40 responders for a call that required a crew of three or four. That may be a sign of response inefficiency.

While the number of full-time employees working in Smithburg is higher, the payroll cost per call for service is significantly lower. Again, this is a measure of efficiency. The explanation for this may be that in Smithburg the on-duty personnel respond to fire alarm activations during the workday and do not call additional responders in from home unless the dispatcher receives additional calls or gets a confirmation of a fire on a callback to the premise. In Jonesville, the same fire alarm activation is an “all-call” and 30 to 40 members respond to the station (and are paid) for a call that may have only required one person to reset an accidental alarm. Again, it’s a testimony to the efficient use of resources.

Generating revenue

While municipal fire departments are not-for-profit agencies, the revenue generated by a fire department can be an important component of the overall budget. This is especially true during a challenging economy where budget dollars are tight and elected officials are reluctant to raise taxes. In Smithburg, the fire department has three programs that generate revenue: emergency medical services, extrication services and fire safety inspections. In Jonesville, there are no programs to generate revenue. Thus, if you look at the revenue generation per FTE, Smithburg is in a better position to justify staffing levels because they are, in part, paying for themselves through revenue generating activities.

Twenty percent of Smithburg’s annual budget is derived from fee income while Jonesville’s entire budget comes from taxes. Some may argue that fees for services are just another form of taxation by government. Others may opine that taxes provide a basic level of services (e.g., response to a structure fire) at no cost to the resident. All other services are above and beyond the basic level and are, therefore, fee eligible. Fees may or may not be palatable in your community. That is a discussion to have with elected officials, especially in this tight economy.

The final measure in this example is response times. You will notice that for Smithburg the average response time is 9.2 minutes, but the average response time to critical calls is 5.9 minutes. In Jonesville, both numbers are the same, 7.1 minutes. Why? In Smithburg, the response times for critical calls for service are separated from the response times to non-critical calls. This is a more accurate measure of response performance where it means the most (i.e., the critical calls).

Additionally, in Smithburg, the measure for average response time begins at the receipt of the 911 call. In Jonesville, the response time measure begins when the first fire apparatus responds. This is a huge difference and if the question is not asked, the comparison will not be accurate. Average response times can be measured many ways. Here are just a few examples:

1. From start of the 911 call.

2. From the time the fire department is toned out.

3. From the time the first unit responds.

4. Until the first fire department member (whoever that is) arrives on the scene.

5. Until the first staffed fire apparatus arrives on the scene.

Average response time numbers can be “fudged” as well. We knew an agency that announced “arriving” while the first unit was still blocks from the scene. There may be a variety of reasons for this. Regardless of the reason, the arrival times are not completely accurate. We also knew of one agency where on-duty personnel would call themselves “responding from the station” as soon as they received the dispatch tones (before they even went to the apparatus bay to put on their gear). Again, we’re not judging, just sharing observations about how response times can vary so widely across agencies.

Where to start

Once you decide to seek comparisons, it is important to know which data points you want to capture and it is vital that you understand how other fire department(s) operate in comparison to your own operations. Don’t be surprised if some departments do not measure the data you are seeking. However, many progressive departments track their statistical performance measurements and benchmark themselves against others.

One place you are likely to find departments that will have complete and accurate performance measures is the list of fire departments accredited through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (http://publicsafetyexcellence.org/). Among the host of criteria essential for accreditation is the need to develop and maintain accurate measures of performance.

If you can find accredited departments of similar size and consistency, it’s a sure bet they are progressively measuring their performance. Contact an accredited department and ask them for its data.


Richard Gasaway, Ph.D., will present “Fireground Safety: Common Mistakes & Best Practices” at Firehouse Expo 2012, July 17-21 in Baltimore, MD. Gasaway and Richard C. Kline will present “Leader’s Toolbox for Volunteers.”