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The goal of every fire department is to provide the very best service for its community. Is your department using the best information available to ensure quality service?
Photo credit: Photo by Jay K. Bradish/IFPA
et’s break this question down into two fundamental issues. We will tackle the issue of where information comes from first, then take a brief look at best practices. Information or data can hurt you or help you, often depending on where it comes from and how it is applied. Two concerns come to mind: Is the information from a reputable source and is the information accurate and based on the current environment?
We will start with determining a reputable and reliable source. This is perhaps the easier part of the question; the more complex issue is whether the information, though from a reputable source, is the type of data that should be applied to our organization. We often overlook the second element of data application – is it applicable to us? We have seen many organizations try to force-fit standards, meaning they take standards, policies and procedures that were established for a different-style organization and apply them to theirs. Essentially, they find that not all standards were created for blanket or comprehensive application and are rudely awakened when they are not compliant with the adopted standard. Think of the analogy of trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
Compare apples to apples
In our opinion, the adoption of standards, policy and procedure is a local choice, based on local criteria such as organizational model, the economic and political environment and local expectations of service. Identifying comparable organizations is one place to begin when seeking a reliable and reputable source. When seeking comparable organizations, you must compare apples to apples. For example, it makes no sense for a small rural fire department to seek comparable data from a large urban organization. It is not that the information is not useful, because it can be if applied in a prudent manner. However, the data being reviewed should be examined with a question: Is it practical and realistic for us to adopt this information (policy or procedure) for our use? What are the implications if we do apply this information to our agency?
It would not be wise to apply the response metrics of a large urban fire department, which can place 16 response personnel on scene in six minutes to structure fires, in comparison to a small rural department that does not have the response capacity of the larger organization. If we want to compare apples to apples, where do we look for that comparable agency? A first stop is through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE), which identifies agencies that have successfully completed its accreditation program. The accreditation process identifies departments that have evaluated their services through a demanding self-analysis. In this manner, using comparable departments from the CPSE that have undergone the accreditation process provides for reliable, accurate and comparable data.
Part two of our answer involves data. Is the information accurate and based on the current environment? Collecting data can be tricky. We first must begin with the end in mind. In other words, what are we attempting to demonstrate (prove, support, disprove, etc.)? We use a four-step process to collect our data:
1. Clarify your goal. Again, why are we collecting the data? For example, what problem are you trying to understand or solve by collecting this data? Be specific and focus on a single issue. Do not try to gain insight of a systemic (organizational) problem by collecting only one data point. For example, if your goal is to reduce response times, it is best to collect data from various data points, not just one. There is much more to response and response times than the one measure of time (how long it takes us to arrive on scene).
2. Develop measurement definitions and procedures. Here, we must be very clear as to what we are measuring, how it is to be measured and who is to measure it. Define the sampling period; how long are we collecting data. Be specific on exactly what is to be measured and define limitations or parameters to the collection. For example, to learn differences in daytime and nighttime response times, first define “response time,” then determine the periods you want to look at and if you will be collecting data from all responses or just a certain type. Finally, agree on an overall measurement period of time.
3. Begin data collection. Once the data requirements have been identified and we know that the data exists and is available, now is the time to begin assembling the information. Data from existing records is best collected most efficiently by department personnel. The people who handle the records on a day-to-day basis are acquainted with the data, know where to get it and can help separate and interpret the information. Using knowledgeable department personnel to perform the time-demanding work of data collection can also free those analyzing the data to be involved in other projects.
4. Verify and evaluate data. A frequent look at the information collected is essential to ensure we are still measuring the data in the same way that was initially identified. Do not lose sight of what you are trying to show; stay on track. Evaluating the information should be done objectively, leaving out the emotional response of subjectivity.
We are not all the same
Not all agencies measure and track their performance the same, or they may “data mine” (maintain a statistical database) differently than your organization. It will be important to recognize these differences. Even though many progressive departments track their performance and benchmark themselves in a standardized manner, we are not all the same.
“Times have changed, it’s not the fireground of your grandfather” is a commonly heard statement referring to the need to stay abreast of current thought and technologies that affect our service. When we speak to “best practices,” we are referring to policies, procedures or practices based on current technologies and philosophies that are available to the fire service. As our above statement refers, progressive departments with best practices adopted their operational guidelines based on both the current environment and predicting future trends. A word of caution for the faint-of-heart leader: The adoption of practices that reflect current and anticipated influences may be often seen as a heretic move, especially when a practice questions long-held beliefs. Often, the move to a best practice that reflects current and anticipated factors can be unpopular within the organization.
When looking for best practices, take the time to research some of the hot topics in the fire service. For example, recent Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) tests provide us with new data suggesting changes in traditional structure fire growth and behavior models. This scientific data suggests that we consider changes to the way we approach fireground tactics. For reference, videos can easily be found on YouTube using the search terms “NIST fire behavior modeling video” or “UL fire modeling video.”
The goal of every fire department is to provide the very best service for its community. The adoption of industry best practices based on researched and validated data is one measure of a professional organization. n