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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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.