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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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.