The complicated issues surrounding what you need to do the job
Todayâ€™s fire service is under constant scrutiny, from both print and electronic media to city and town halls all over America as well as the general public. There will come a time where someone or some organization will call for a â€œstudyâ€ of the fire department in order to make it â€œmore efficientâ€.
How can we define efficiency? Ask any firefighter, and the answers will be pretty much the same across the board; responding to an alarm within the NFPA 1710/1720 guidelines with adequate staffing, effective training and a good fire prevention and inspection program. This efficiency can be measured not by the dollar amount of the damages caused by fire, but in the value of the property saved.
Todayâ€™s fire service is tasked with much more than responding to fires and alarms; we do EMS, technical rescue, hazmat response, public fire education and a myriad of other duties that fall under our umbrella. Often the mandates put forth by the community are unfunded and most stretch the fire protection dollar even thinner.
Here is where the â€œneed for the studyâ€ comes in. Sometimes it happens when a fire chief retires, sometimes after a major incident, and sometimes after an economic boom or downturn. After coming up with a dollar figure allotted to conduct the study, bids for doing the work will be solicited, a consulting firm will be hired and representatives of the company will come to the community and assess the fire department by speaking with the chief of department and the command staff as well as the rank and file. They will also conduct an analysis of the departmentâ€™s NFIRS reports, communications and computer systems, apparatus maintenance records as well as inspect the rigs and conditions of the fire stations. After gathering their data, they will compile a list of recommendations for changes and herein is the problem. Most of the things that the study comes up with are things that fire chiefs, fire officers and the firefighters themselves have been telling the community for years, yet the recommendations by the professionals who actually do the job are largely ignored
While some of the changes can be relatively little or no coat, such as updating SOPs and SOGs, most of them require that the community spend a lot of money to implement, something that most communities are reluctant to do. Of course, there are some politicians who will use the study as a â€œbully pulpitâ€ to slam the fire department, either the rank and file the command staff or both. These politicians try to use their â€œbusiness modelâ€ as a template of how the fire department should be operated, without ever asking the firefighters themselves what the job is and what it entails. They also refuse the offers to do ride-alongs or attend training sessions as observers.
In most cases, the community will take the findings of the study â€œunder advisement” and anything that costs money will be ignored.
A fire department I am familiar with recently underwent one of these studies; the impetus was the upcoming retirement of the fire chief. The city spent $30,000 on the study (which was taken out of the fire departmentâ€™s operating budget). The company hired did everything that was aforementioned above and came out with a 222 page report.
The company doing the study was made up of active and retired fire chiefs. The report in itself showed the strengths that the department has as well as cited areas that can use improvement. Some of the recommendations they cited made me wonder if they did the same things in the fire departments they are or were in charge of. Most of the report consisted of needs and situations that the firefighters and command staff have been telling the City for years if the city fathers had only listened, the taxpayers would be ahead of the game.
One of the recommendations was to bring in a chief from outside of the department (the department presently has an interim chief hired from the outside until a new chief can be hired) and drastically change the command structure by eliminating one command rank through attrition and creating a new rank, bringing in people from the outside to fill the positions.
Further on in the study, they contradicted themselves by stating that the fire department should be grooming the line officers to establish a â€œline of successionâ€ to fill the command ranks. It cost money to send people to seminars and other training sessions, yet when the funds to do so were requested at budget time, those funds were one of the first things cut. One of the city councilors even made the statement that those who aspire to further themselves should take their own time and money and pay to do so. The community already went through one fire chief hired from the outside despite the fact that the three public safety professionals in the search committee told the mayor flat out â€œdo not hire this individualâ€. The department was sent into turmoil that it is still recovering from.
The study did propose increasing the minimum staffing level by two firefighters per shift, but that also included changes in working conditions that would need to be negotiated.
A lot of the recommendations will also require the community to spend a lot of money in upgrades to equipment (the report recommended new computer systems and programs, etc) and infrastructure. They recommended closing the oldest station after building a new one to replace it west of Route 495. The report made the station sound like it was literally falling down, the community spent over $100,000 to renovate it in the early 1990s. A little bit of TLC is all that is needed.
That station is in a congested area and they get plenty of incidents generated from the area. Back in 1981, there was a study that stated the city should have a fourth fire station, located west of Route 495. The fourth station was a hot button topic in the communityâ€™s last mayoral and city council elections, with most of the City Council in favor or conducting yet another study. After the election the issue â€œdisappearedâ€. Two large apartment complexes and a new hotel are in the process of being built
Another issue with studies and reports is that while we go out and preach about fire safety, that fire alarm and sprinkler systems are required in every new commercial building and new residential construction should have a sprinkler system (and not just for the lawn), many of our firehouses do not have these. As FDNY Lieutenant Ray McCormick recently stated in one of his blog posts, we are like the shoemakerâ€™s children, who go barefoot. Once again, it comes down to the dollar. Many of the older cities have fire stations built in the 1800s that are still active and house apparatus worth millions. It is time for us to practice what we preach and keep on the city and town fathers and mothers to step up and protect us who protect them and the community.
Photo courtesy of Lloyd Mitchell Photography used with permission