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 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.

For example, one service some departments provide is hazardous materials response. Demand may be infrequent at best, yet the fire department has a fully trained and fully equipped hazmat team. In one example, this service has been provided by a department for 20 years at an average annual cost of $25,000. This cost covers normal expenditures associated with providing hazmat response services, including personnel, training, vehicle allocation and equipment. In the 20 years of operation, the department has experienced a downturn in the number of members interested in serving on the team, due mostly to the infrequency of actual hazmat emergencies. At the team’s inception, 20 members signed on and received the initial training. Today, the team struggles to maintain 15 members and it is anticipated that five members will retire within three years. Since budgets are tight and the demand for the service is low, the city administrator is questioning the need to replace the retiring members. The circumstances make this service ripe for an evaluation and may create an opportunity to discontinue providing it.

In some states, funding has been provided to establish strategically located hazmat teams. Such a system may provide a tiered response where the deployment of resources is based on the complexity of the incident. Response costs are recovered through billing the responsible party. In this scenario, fire department leaders could analyze the role hazmat services play in the organization’s core mission and priorities.

Looking at the cost to operate the team, the frequency of the team’s use, the interest of personnel to participate and risk of providing a service so infrequently, it may be appropriate to contract the service to a statewide team or neighboring jurisdiction. The fire department could continue to provide operations-level service and use another team for more serious (and less frequent) incidents.

Data-driven decisions

Making data-driven decisions is a sound strategy when matching available resources to service demands. The fire department should look critically at every service and ask whether the service needs to be provided and, if so, to what level. Business as usual is no longer an option. In addition to benchmarking the department’s operations to best practices within the industry, leaders may benefit from looking at best practices for service delivery outside the fire service.If a private provider states it can deliver the same or better service at a lower cost – and can prove it – what can the fire department learn about how it can do it? It may be possible to adopt practices based on private-industry models that make the fire department more efficient.

Benchmark and compare key metrics with other fire departments. Be sure to make apples-to-apples comparisons when evaluating communities with different demographics. For example, cost per call is not a fair comparison across communities that provide different services. The cost per call for a department that provides fire and EMS services is going to be lower than the cost per call for a department that provides fire services only. Also, the incremental cost of an EMS call is far less than for a fire call. For example, responding to a false medical call is far cheaper than responding to a false fire call. Responding to a chest-pains call is far cheaper than responding to a house fire.

The goal is to compare efficiencies and seek ways to become more efficient.