How good is my Fire Service? Without getting a genuinely independent assessment or being able to travel the world and research how other services operate, it’s a hard question for Chiefs or City Managers to answer, because despite fires and rescues being universal, no two Services do their job in exactly the same way.
When we arrive at a Fire Department to conduct a review, we are sometimes met by personnel who look at us sceptically with arms folded and doubt we can improve what they already do.
By the end of each project we have always established mutual respect and firm friendships because the primary objective is to make first responders and the public they serve, safer. The process confirms the good, identifies areas where change could benefit and always results in something new that enhances the organization.
We have consistently helped departments save money through demonstrating improved processes, allowing them to free up funds to recruit more staff or purchase vehicles and equipment.
Many fire services are facing a crisis as Government grants and funding get stretched thinner, especially due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and many are having to find ways of doing more with less.
Fire and rescue services are having to adapt to environmental, technological and societal change and evolve from the traditional models of emergency management, to find innovative ways of balancing service delivery in fiscally challenging circumstances.
Departments are constantly being asked to reduce costs, improve insurance ratings and implement change, but usually look internally, or to other local Departments for inspiration. But you can only learn so much from within national boundaries. It’s like bumper cars/dodgems – only so much can rub off from others inside the same track.
Why invest in a review?
Organizations, like drivers, can suffer from blind spots and an independent review is a valuable investment to help identify them, maintain standards, improve efficiency and plan to meet the growing number of challenges faced by emergency services in our rapidly changing world.
In England, inspection is compulsory, and each of the 45 County Fire Services is given a colour-coded rating from ‘Outstanding’ to ‘Inadequate’ along with directives for improvement. It is carried out by a Government appointed team, but most of the technical assessors are ex Fire Service themselves and only base their findings on UK experience and examples.
None of the state-sponsored national reviews have recommended consideration of international systems, or attempted to analyse the value of alternative models being used in neighbouring countries that often provide an excellent service for much less than those in the UK.
In the USA, unlike healthcare and education sectors, there is no statutory requirement or obligation for Fire Departments to be independently reviewed. The CFAI offers a voluntary accreditation scheme, but less than 1% of municipal Fire Departments have successfully completed the 3–5 year process to date.
The US insurance industry uses the ISO PPC Fire Department grading programme to help calculate rates, but it only judges ability to respond to structural fires. With the majority of calls being EMS, rescues or other services, the assessment is only a limited evaluation. With no unifying national doctrine, the result is that many Fire Services are doing things to the best of their ability without always knowing if it is actually the most efficient or effective model for their community.
Who hires us and how does it work?
Our work typically comes from three sources:
- Proactive Fire Chiefs looking for an outside opinion on the status of their Department to support and justify budget submissions.
- Mayors, City Managers and Boards of Directors, who want an impartial assessment of what their FD really needs.
- And finally, following an emergency when things haven’t gone well and an independent review is needed to investigate why.
Globally, the most common solution is investment in assets, ‘shiny things’ look impressive to personnel, the media and the voting public, but tools are only truly effective and sustainable if there is an organized, well trained, healthy and harmonious organization behind them. Better Policy isn’t as sexy as a new pumper truck, but in our experience it regularly has more impact and greater long-term benefit.
Using our proven, systematic approach we carefully and respectfully look at absolutely everything, talking to the community, other agencies and reviewing legislation and the local risk management plan before assessing the Fire Service itself, from operational and administrative policy, procedures, resource management, through recruitment, training, prevention and ultimately service delivery. We talk to every tier of staff in the organization in confidence and work hand in hand with service leaders to get a clear picture to formulate our opinions and recommendations.
The final report provides all stakeholders with an impartial assessment that ensures accountability, generates learning, builds on success and addresses anything that could be done differently.
There is nothing worse than having a fat dossier full of unrealistic recommendations dropped on your desk or filed away on a shelf, so we pride ourselves on not only making sensible, achievable suggestions but ensuring that a workable plan of staged implementation forms part of the findings.
Our reviews have included National, Municipal, Paid, Volunteer, ARFF, Industrial and Corporate Fire and Rescue Departments and, depending on the size of the organization, take between one and four weeks. Outcomes have regularly delivered:
- Reduced operating costs
- Improved efficiency and effectiveness
- Better response times
- Enhanced public image
- Improved workplace environment
- Better Policy and Procedure
- Reduction in sickness and injury
- Improved Union / Management interface
- Better risk and resource management
Accessing information, or getting advice on how counterparts in our industry operate isn’t easy.
The Institution of Fire Engineers have done some great work in developing an international network of 20 member countries in an effort to promote cooperation on technical matters, but English language dominates and unless you become a member and pass examinations, access to information is still difficult. The truth is, we are still light years away from an international best-practice database that is contributed to by every continent and available in multiple languages.
Most Fire Service consultants are usually retired and offer fire prevention, legal compliance or engineering services, referring to experience from one particular state or national career.
I stepped away from government service early and have spent the last 19 years travelling, researching alternative global practices, developing bespoke solutions, reviewing, reforming and solving problems, which has put me in a unique position in the industry to bring that knowledge to the client.
As a former Fire Chief, I know how stubborn the industry can be to consider or accept change and as a foreigner travelling the world, coming into Departments, asking lots of questions and convincing people things could sometimes be done differently, isn’t easy, but a review can identify ways of delivering an improved, fiscally efficient level of public service without compromising safety.
Times are changing: there are fewer structural fires, an unpredictable global climate, cities getting bigger, people living longer – just a few factors that affect emergency trends and how they need to be catered for. The Fire Service industry is changing too and unless leaders and authorities regularly and proactively open the doors to periodic review, widen their horizons and start looking seriously at alternative ways of operating, the future could be very uncertain.
Unless you really think you cannot possibly improve on what you do, then a review really should be considered a wise investment. If you want an independent perspective on the status of your Fire Service and make your best even better, please reach out to me.