20 Tough Questions For the Fire Chief: Are You Prepared To Answer Them? Question 16

The wording of this question may immediately lead the reader to presume that privatizing fire services will improve efficiencies. While privatization may produce improvements in service, it is not a guarantee. We would propose structuring fire services in...


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The wording of this question may immediately lead the reader to presume that privatizing fire services will improve efficiencies. While privatization may produce improvements in service, it is not a guarantee. We would propose structuring fire services in a fashion that optimizes productivity and efficiency.

The downturn in the economy has profoundly impacted municipal budgets. Elected and appointed leaders are under pressure to do more with less and to maintain, if not reduce, spending. This has led to greater scrutiny of all municipal spending, including fire protection. And while residents expect a reduction in spending, they do not hold an equal expectation for a reduction in services. While these expectations may be unrealistic, they are nonetheless present and pressuring fire service leaders to do more with the same or fewer resources. All the while, municipal fire departments will find themselves facing more competition from large, well-funded, for-profit (private) corporations that can make proposals for providing fire protection appear as though they can provide equal (or better) service more efficiently.

Finding new ways to increase productivity and efficiency starts with an examination of existing operations and challenging paradigms. Improving performance by modernizing the fire department makes sense to better protect the public, produce economic benefits and capitalize on existing resources. You may benefit from asking yourself these two questions:

• Are we using our resources in the most cost-effective manner and producing sustainable results?

• Are we strategically positioned to capitalize on the changing landscape of emergency services?

When considering efficiencies in your service delivery model, first determine what you are trying to fix or in what areas you feel you could provide improved productivity (e.g., workforce deployment or reducing duplication.). Evaluate how changes could increase or reduce costs. In nearly every fire department, it is possible to improve efficiencies, reduce costs, use personnel more effectively and provide better service without turning the entire department upside down.

It is fair to acknowledge that efforts to improve use of assets in some organizations will be painful. The organization’s culture will play a role in how resilient the members will be to fundamental shifts in design. If your department has a history of continuous self-improvement through critical self-evaluation, it is far more likely that innovative change will be taken in stride. For organizations stuck in traditional models and mindsets, improving efficiency will be more challenging.

Defining your core mission

No doubt, fire service leaders will continue to be forced to make difficult decisions. However, the process for improving efficiency can be made more palatable. Defining your organization’s core mission is essential. Establish your priorities based on community expectations and the fire department mission. For example, it may not fit the community expectations or fire department mission to implement EMS transportation services. While it is a given that the infirm expect quick and caring service, it should not be assumed that fire-based transport services is their expectation. Perhaps the fire department’s role is better suited to providing first-responder EMS.

Efficiencies may be gained by changing how resources are used. For example:

• Staffing with a mix of volunteers and full-time personnel to improve efficiency; responding to emergency calls in smaller vehicles

• Partnering with neighboring communities to share staffing and apparatus

The key is justifying changes with quantifiable data.

Mission-based priorities

After establishing the mission, the next step is to evaluate and prioritize existing services based on the mission. Focus on ensuring that core services get the attention they deserve. Evaluate how the department invests its time, energy and money. This should be an analytical evaluation, not an emotional evaluation.

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