Yardstick for Success

By Ronny J. Coleman

Every year since 2000, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has put out a document on how well the nation's education system is delivering services to its constituency. They are putting out a "report card" of sorts. They conduct a poll of the profession and then report the findings. Their annual report almost always results in some form of discussion and debate about educational policy at the national political level.

At the local level there are thousands of fire departments that have published an annual report trying to tell their story regarding how well the fire protection system is performing in protecting the local community. You may have authored one yourself. And they seldom receive any reaction, except at the local level. The only time some of these local report cards ever get reviewed is when a major budget struggle is underway. This article is for a publication that is focused on the volunteer fire service, and I anticipate that many volunteer departments have a need to publish their last year’s contributions to the community because next year there is going to be a need for community support.

In between these two scenarios there is a huge gap. The public's understanding of how the education system works is of national concern. Opinions on how the education system works are saturated with dissension from the right and the left. But the way the fire service works is typically subject to one of two perspectives by local government. One is the apathetic approach. The other is the critical approach. If there are financial or operational issues brought to the forefront, both of these perspectives can be problematic. This is a serious issue for all fire organizations, but especially for volunteer fire departments. Simply stated, there is no such thing as free fire protection. Managing a modern fire department – whether paid, combination, or volunteer – requires community support.

It's not as if the fire service hasn't tried to come up with various ways to explain ourselves. At a very basic level most fire departments are seen through the lens of the public as a result of two things: budget battles and/or catastrophic fires. In many cases, public opinion is absent from any discussion of whether or not the local department is doing the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way to protect the community interests.

One of the guidance documents that has been used to explain our activity is the Insurance Services Office (IS0) grading schedule. Another is the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) and the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. Both of these systems of measurement can be researched easily on their web sites. But that's not what I'm talking about in this article.

The question I'm posing is simply this: How do we measure up in our communities as being worthy of adequate financial support? Therefore, what is your fire department’s best yardstick for success?

Imagine yourself presenting at a local council meeting. You are standing in front of the elected officials of your community. The room is full of individuals who fall into two categories. The first of these are your allies and advocates that are here to support the fire department. The other group consists of angry adversaries that want something to change, even if their criticism lacks any indication that they have a better game plan designed. In the next 45 minutes you are going to have to explain your department in a manner that will retain the support of your allies and will either neutralize or reverse the opinion of your adversaries. What kind of story are you going to tell?

To continue the visual image, you're going to be able to take a toolbox to the dais to help you explain why your fire department deserves the community's support. There's an old saying: If every problem looks like a nail, the only tool you need to hammer. Do you have a toolkit?

You have to make some decisions about what tools you will bring to the table. Let’s start with the basics.

Facts trump fiction. While that may seem like a relatively simplistic statement, it is at the heart of developing the story you're going to tell about how you measure the performance of your fire department. The more facts that you have about the community and the inherent risks in the community, the better off you're going to be. What is the fire service tool to help you with this? I would recommend that your department look into a Community Risk Reduction (CRR) program. Go to the Vision 20/20 web site and look into the tools and techniques that this organization has developed for your use. It is one of the best places to start.

The next tool you might want to consider is NFPA Standard 1720. That standard provides you with an opportunity to make a declaration of your deployment capability based on local conditions.

My last recommendation is that you review the self-assessment process being advocated by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.

In this article I'm not going to recommend that you seek accreditation per se. I'm a strong advocate of it of course, but we're talking about survival and sustainability here, not accreditation. Remember you're still standing in front of your elected officials in a room full of potential enemies and friends. How are you going to organize your story?
My suggestion is that you look at the categories identified in this system. If you visit their web site you'll see that there are 10 categories for performance evaluation. Those same categories apply to the way you operate on a day-to-day basis.

The categories are:

  • Assessment and planning
  • Essential resources
  • External system relationships
  • Financial resources
  • Goals and objectives
  • Governance administration
  • Human resources
  • Physical resources
  • Programs
  • Training and competency

Each of these categories is a possible measuring device that can help you explain in terms of specific facts how you're doing things locally. Remember you only have 45 minutes to explain yourself. You can't spend all 45 minutes on any one category. You should be adequately prepared to answer any question that your allies or adversaries can ask.

Let me use an example from this system. Let's talk about financial resources. What are the facts that you need to know to tell your story? Among them might be the simplistic reference to the total amount of expense to run your department. That's your budget. There are other facts that may be equally important. What is your per capita fire cost? That's a number that is derived from the population and the budget that gives some degree of insight into community support.

Let's try another example. What about your physical resources? It's not enough to merely say you have five pieces of apparatus. You may have to explain that four of those pieces of apparatus have more than 25 years of service and are in dire need of replacement.

At the risk of redundancy, facts trump fiction. The time and energy you put into self evaluation of how you are providing a level of service to your community is essential to obtaining community support. The worst possible condition that you can find yourself in as a Fire Chief is to be taken for granted by the elected officials and abandoned by those who are providing your financial support. The focus in this article is on volunteer fire departments because they are the most vulnerable to inadequate support if the story is not well told.

In our hypothetical scenario the mayor or chairman is about ready to bang his/her gavel to start the public hearing on the fire department. So what is your story going to look like? Is it going to be emotional? Is it going to be supported by your allies? Is it going to be criticized by your adversaries? Hopefully if you've done your homework it won't be a fairytale – it will be a triumph of logic and well-reasoned, coherent, well thought out process. Aren't you proud!

Ronny J. Coleman is the retired State Fire Marshal for the State of California. Among his many roles in the fire service, he currently serves as Chairman of the Volunteer Committee for the California State Firefighters Association, President of the National Fire Heritage Center, and a California Board Member on the National Volunteer Fire Council.