The Orange County Fire Authority spoke about its program to harness the knowledge and innovation of its own workforce to improve the department’s performance on Thursday at Fire-Rescue International.
Do you have a workforce that feels empowered, and a culture of innovation, asked OCFA Chief Keith Richter? How often does a good idea get set aside or hit a roadblock because someone doesn’t move it up the chain?
Richter and Div. Chief Bryan Brice discussed the formal program they have structured for employees to think through and submit ideas, so that good ideas do move up the chain as appropriate.
“We need a way for anybody in the organization to try to make their workplace more efficient, safer and cost effective,” Richter said.
With a formal program in place, “Everybody has not only an opportunity but a responsibility to participate in making a better organization,” Richter said. He added, if the workforce doesn’t feel like they’re part of the solution, they become part of the problem.
As an example, Richter discussed vehicle maintenance. He knows nothing about it or how to do it better, but he has a staff that does, “and I need that conduit,” he said.
The Orange County Fire Authority is a regional fire department comprised of 71 stations and 1125 personnel, located between L.A. and San Diego counties. “We’re used to change,” Richter noted, as a department that has been through a few rounds of evolution before becoming the system it is today.
What’s Occurring Outside
Richter noted several issues affecting fire departments in the current cultural and economic climate:
- Decrease in tax revenue
- Change in public expectations
- 9/11 heroism pendulum has swung back
- Transparency in government
- Access to data and information
“It’s fair to say we are operating in a changing environment which is in some ways negative,” Richter said. “We have to learn to live within our means and address criticism.”
The ‘Optimal Outcome’ Process
The department’s process involves a formal logic flow to follow and an online submission form. The submitter must think through the optimal outcome of the proposal; what assumptions they are making about the circumstances; things they will need; who will be involved; what actions will be necessary; and how they can determine whether the change is worthwhile.
The submitter must also include information such as budget, how broad the impact will be, and any liability or safety risks
Examples of Innovation in Orange County
The chiefs discussed some of the changes they have underway that they tie back to this optimal outcome process, in the areas of fleet maintenance, wildland dispatch and training.
Previously, vehicles were scheduled for oil changes every 3,000 miles, but a mechanic noticed that they were routinely disposing of a large quantity of good oil. He went to his supervisor to talk about switching to synthetic oil and extending the time between oil changes.
With departmental approval, they have bumped the time up to 5,000 and then 7,000 miles between oil changes, with independent testing showing that the oil is still ok. They’re hearing that some agencies have tested up to 20,000 miles with their oil still OK.
Not only does this save oil and money, but it keeps vehicles in service more often.
Changes to wildland dispatch follow similar principles. Data showed that their previous level of response was excessive, and that when a large response is required, they should call in those resources as necessary.
“There are going to be times you need more but they’re the rarity and it makes no difference in the first few minutes,” Brice said.
“We don’t want to launch resources ‘just because’ anymore, but for purpose and reason.”
This minimized approach also increases traffic safety to staff and the public, and keeps more vehicles available for other emergencies, Brice said.
Regarding training, a member of the department’s Training and Safety section noticed that they had lost a number of their most experienced Truck firefighters and that there was an overall decrease in skill level. So, the department did a “Truck Academy” at a cost of $67,000 that they reallocated from other budgets and justified by the increase in performance.
Among the lessons learned in adopting their “Optimal Outcome” process, the chiefs said, were to formalize the concept; design tools to help; get labor buy-in; provide a good introduction of the concept; be thoughtful with the pace of changes made; and to realize that even with all these efforts you will at times get the wrong outcome.
However, as Richter noted, the best way to get good ideas is to have a lot of ideas.
For more information, the chiefs can be reached at: