20 Tough Questions For the Fire Chief: Question 7

Many of the installments of this series refer to the new challenges that have been placed upon the fire service and, more specifically, how to pay for those services. Many government agencies – federal, state and local – are critically examining their...


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Many of the installments of this series refer to the new challenges that have been placed upon the fire service and, more specifically, how to pay for those services. Many government agencies – federal, state and local – are critically examining their expenditures and making attempts to balance budgets while managing rising service expectations.

This is compounded by the reality of reduced revenue streams to support the many government services delivered. To a large extent, the easy budget cuts have all been made. Fire departments are now being asked to examine several long-held beliefs on how services are delivered. Question 7 speaks directly to examining one of these traditional beliefs – response protocols. Is it appropriate to respond to all calls for services with an engine or ladder apparatus?

 

Organizational efficiency

At the heart of this question is organizational efficiency. Are you using your limited resources in the most cost-effective manner to provide service? Looking through the lens of elected officials, the view equates efficiency to budget dollars expended. And to a large degree they are correct in that efficiencies are often directly related to expenditures; in this case, driven by how we use our resources. Staffing and equipment equate to budget dollars spent. City leaders expect their department managers to demonstrate efficiencies in their operations. In the new economy, efficiency is no longer optional. It’s a requirement.

City administrators often turn their sights on the efficient use of staff. They question our perceived need to have four (or more) firefighters responding to non-life-threatening EMS calls. They also question the staffing for the perceived minor calls for service. In terms of the efficient use of resources, we are being asked to justify why we perceive the need to send four firefighters on an apparatus that is very expensive to purchase and maintain.

 

Be ready to answer

Whether we like it or not, these are fair questions and anyone in a position to steward public money should have the right to ask them and be provided with good answers. In jurisdictions where the public safety response to a medical emergency or minor fire call also includes the dispatch of police officers and, in some jurisdictions, a third-party EMS provider, it should be easy to see why city officials may question the need for so many resources to respond. The essence of the question may be paraphrased this way: Do you really need four highly trained firefighters, riding in an expensive taxi, to deliver a service that in all probability only requires two responders in a much smaller and more efficient vehicle?

Looking at this issue purely from the viewpoint of resource expenditures to outcomes, responding in smaller vehicles with fewer people makes sense. The goal of fire service leaders should be to ensure the response model reflects an efficient use of resources while maintaining quality service that accounts for the safety of the firefighters. Is it possible to reshape our response protocol without sacrificing service while achieving a reduction in operating costs?

The response protocols for many U.S. fire departments are based on a model designed around responses to structure fires. This means there are some jurisdictions providing services using a decades-old delivery model despite a reduction in structure fires in recent years. And while fire responses have been declining, the demand for EMS has risen steadily.

Arguably, the core business of the fire department will remain – extinguishing fires and rescuing people from predicaments. However, the time to reevaluate our response to minor emergencies is upon us. Sending large fire apparatus with more staffing than is needed to minor calls is not efficient.

 

Defend your position

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