20 Tough Questions For the Fire Chief: Are You Prepared To Answer Them? Question 9

These questions get to the heart of the fire department’s efficiency. Set aside for a moment that it is extremely difficult to predict when an emergency will occur. On-duty staffing serves, in some respects, as an insurance policy for businesses...


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These questions get to the heart of the fire department’s efficiency. Set aside for a moment that it is extremely difficult to predict when an emergency will occur. On-duty staffing serves, in some respects, as an insurance policy for businesses, citizens and visitors to your town.

And while many businesses and individuals pay for insurance, few think they are ever going to actually use the benefits contained in their policy. They are, however, very happy to know the policy is there to protect them when a loss occurs.

The fire department is very similar to an insurance policy in the minds of some citizens and elected officials. They don’t like paying for first responders to be on duty and appearing to be non-productive (not handling emergency calls). In some respects, this is understandable. All employers want productive employees and they surely don’t want employees who can sit idle for extended periods, cook and eat on company time – even sleep on company time. And citizens don’t want their hard-earned tax dollars being spent for workers to sit idle. This can lead to some fire departments being criticized for having seemingly large amounts of idle time and the seemingly non-productive use of that idle time.

On-duty fire and EMS personnel are on-duty for a reason – to provide a quick response to critical emergencies in hopes of keeping a bad situation from becoming worse or to prevent an unfortunate event from becoming a tragedy. The decision to have on-duty personnel is one made by elected officials as they are charged with being the stewards of their community’s public funds. If, in their wisdom, the funds are wisely spent having ready responders on duty, then fire and EMS are funded to ensure so.

On-duty first responders in some communities are very busy – answering 15 to 20 emergency calls (or more) in a 24-hour period. Others are not so busy – answering three to five emergency calls (or fewer) in a 24-hour period. The question is how much down time do the on-duty responders have and what is the right size for the response force?

Down time

The down-time component of the question is easier to answer than the right size of the response force. The amount of time committed to emergency calls, house duties, training, administrative duties, prevention, fitness, resting, etc., can, and should, be tracked. The only way to know how busy you are is to measure it. And not just your committed time, but what your personnel are doing during their committed time. This data can help paint a clear picture of efficiency.

The results of tracking and measuring productive time can be complimentary of the department’s efficiency or it can point out some opportunities for improvement. For example, if the committed time to all activities averaged eight to 12 hours during a 24-hour shift, then one could make a reasonable argument that the personnel are being used efficiently, with consideration for time for breaks, meals and rest. If, however, the committed time averaged three to six hours in a 24-hour operational period, then one could surmise there are opportunities for greater utilization of staff time in productive activities that advance the mission of the fire department or in support of the mission of other departments in the city.

Measuring productive time is no less important for those volunteer agencies that use a duty-schedule-type program for their volunteer firefighters. These programs will typically allow members of the volunteer workforce to schedule their own time to work on-call (on-shift) duties. This satisfies the commitment requirement of the volunteer while ensuring a predictable response. The chart at right illustrates a “typical” day for a volunteer firefighter-staffed station program.

If you do an efficiency study, it is important the records are accurate and realistic. Listing five hours per day for training every shift may not be realistic nor accurately reflect what is happening. Two hours a day to clean the station isn’t realistic either, unless you have a massive station or very messy people.

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