Bench-marking Your Fire Department’s Service Levels

As cities across the state and country begin discussions on the upcoming year’s budget and set their maximum tax levy, fire chiefs’ are putting the finishing touches on their requests.  If you’re like me, it always seems like the ink isn’t quite dry on the last budget before you begin work on the next.  Whether your Department’s budget is $10,000 or $10 million, the devil is always in the details; you work hard to ensure that you accurately plan for the upcoming year while remaining conscientious of the tax-payer dollar (ranking 44th in the Country on per-capita spending on the fire service is pretty conscientious if you ask me).

In many department budget requests, you’ll find colorful graphs and charts of historical data sets like the number of calls, average turnout of personnel, response times, and dollar losses.  There might be anticipated increases in responses, inspections, and public contacts.  Yet, despite the 20 pages of fancy pie charts and diagrams, and the confidence that you “told the right story” to justify your budget, you’re left wondering how many additional raffle tickets need to be sold or pancakes eaten to afford the essential items your Department needs.

So, how do you tell the right story to get the funding you desperately need?

You need to have a plan on where you want to go.  In other words, what measurable goals is your organization working to maintain or achieve.  Too often, we only use data sets that tell the reader about the work we are doing (“we went on X number of calls”) and what we anticipate doing in the future (“we expect to respond to Y additional calls next year”).  Unfortunately, these individual datasets lack any reference to any measurable outcome that helps tell your story (aside from the obvious that you’re getting “busier”).

Take for instance fire loss.  Research has shown that keeping a structure fire to the room of origin greatly increases the chance of survival and significantly decreases the damage to the structure.  After a collaborative community-involved strategic planning process, the Brooklyn Park Fire Department, for instance, established a benchmark of containing structure fires to the room of origin for 80% of all incidents.  To achieve this requires a multi-pronged approach of education, prevention, mitigation, and response.  From a response perspective, additional benchmarks were set for call processing times (2 minutes, 90 percent of the time), a rapid turnout time (2 minutes, 90 percent of the time) and strategically located stations to provide a quick drive time.  Note the 90th percentile is a more common unit of measurement for emergency service delivery although most records system report averages.

As you begin to look to the upcoming year, I encourage you to find measurable outputs that you can use to establish strategic benchmarks for your Department.  Work collaboratively with your internal and external (i.e. community) stakeholders to set realistic, achievable, and actionable benchmarks.  Utilize NFPA standards, accreditation models, and industry best practices.  Be honest and let the data and your benchmarking tell the true story.

Note: this article appeared in the September issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!