Home Opinion Choosing the Right Performance Metrics for Fire Services
Choosing the Right Performance Metrics for Fire Services

Choosing the Right Performance Metrics for Fire Services

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

The fire department is treated more as a business each day. Any successful business identifies important performance metrics and then monitors those metrics to ensure the business performs as shareholders desire.

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In the fire service, the shareholders are the public. There are certain performance metrics that matter to the public, such as the response time to a fire. But that overall successful performance only occurs because of internal metrics that we measure, such as training hours and set-up time at the scene.

To make our organizations more effective, we must first identify those metrics which we desire to measure. Then, we can develop reports or performance dashboards that allow monitoring for given intervals.

Performance Metrics Vary Based on the Organization

Most communities would agree that the performance metric of response time (the time from picking up the phone to call 9-1-1 until the fire department arrives at the emergency) is of the utmost importance. However, a response time often has many elements, depending on the organization.

In an urban location such as Manhattan, New York, a firehouse needs to be on nearly every corner due to most of the response time involving fires situated well above ground level, rather than horizontal travel. However, rural fire departments must include the time needed for volunteers to respond and travel to the fire station.

The public actually does not care about what factors are involved in performance metrics, but is more interested in the end results. As firefighters, it is our job to determine segments and make adjustments that are acceptable to the public. But these tasks vary by community and can change in a community over time.

In a consulting project I completed in western Massachusetts, for instance, the volunteer fire and EMS service and the longer response times were acceptable for many years. However, when those Massachusetts communities became a vacation/second home destination for people from New York City, the acceptable response time for service changed. The response time in metropolitan cities is vastly different than rural areas, due to the number of people and tax dollars available to fund the fire service.

A community’s demographic composition affects performance metrics as well. In a community that has a significant elderly population, for example, the EMS response time may matter more to community residents than the fire response time (at least that is what the community will state until a house is on fire). Consequently, the unit utilization percentages and the out-of-district responses by backup ambulances may be important to measure, as an increase in these numbers may mean the need for additional ambulances on duty.

Organizations May Need to Monitor Personnel to Accommodate Metrics

Some organizations may be at a decision point where on-duty crews are asked to conduct numerous activities by different bureaus, while the call volume continues to rise. However, the on-duty personnel are taxed and feel overworked. However, each bureau commander feels that activities related to their division are of the utmost importance to fire safety and community response.

This type of situation requires a constant monitoring of the personnel hours spent each day on each activity. It is also necessary to calculate the sum of personnel hours in relation to the total personnel hours available, based on on-duty staffing.

Other organizations may be at a point where they need to convert their personnel from volunteers to part-time employees. This type of organization will need to determine response times and volunteer turnout, as well as how these metrics vary by time of the day and the day of the week. Additionally, these organizations must know the benchmarks other departments utilize before making the choice to convert their staffing model.

On the opposite end, it is also necessary for the organization to consider if the community’s resources have diminished through residential and business tax dollar loss. This type of organization may monitor metrics that relate to consolidating stations, reducing units and decreasing on-duty personnel.

This last type of transition is often the most contentious, and it will need many performance metrics to be monitored simultaneously. The phased approach is often best in this case. This situation may involve reducing the availability of an ambulance or a person on one engine company to determine if service is affected beyond an acceptable point. As the stakeholders will ultimately decide what they want to pay, keeping them informed through this type of transition is best.

The Need for Real-Time Reporting and Monitoring Performance Metrics

Nearly every fire department now has at least one computer utilized to capture call data. Nearly all states require this information to be submitted electronically.

The biggest area of deficiency as a whole for the fire service is the extraction and utilization of the data for performance metrics. I have been in some departments that could only print every fire call, including response times and call type narrative. They would hand us a stack of papers with data that had to be put into a data processing program such as Microsoft Excel, so that we could make sense of the information we received.

I have been to other fire departments that utilize their Records Management System (RMS) to print consolidated data reports, based on parameters provided by canned reports offered by the RMS vendor. I have yet to visit a fire department where I could walk in, ask, “What is the turnout time for A Shift from Station 1?” and have the fire officer look at a constant monitoring program to instantly provide me with an answer. I find this situation very sad.

Creating Better Performance Metrics Starts with Understanding Community Needs

To create better performance metrics, we must first understand what is important to the citizens we cover. Next, we must translate that information into performance metrics that deliver the desired service to area residents and business owners. Finally, we should know how to quickly extract that data or better yet, work with an IT professional to ensure that we have real-time monitoring of performance metrics.

Randall Hanifen Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.