Fire departments are not businesses: How to explain this concept to newly elected officials
Six factors highlight why for-profit designs are not interchangeable with public safety operations
By Bryan Sky-Eagle
We’ve seen it time and time again. When newly elected officials take office, they simply don’t understand how fire departments operate. They try to view fire departments as a business – a flawed perspective.
To be clear, there are business aspects of the fire department, as it must be funded to operate. And it is understandable for a new public official to implement agile business practices in the fire department’s administration, much like a business would. But when we consider public values, multiple decision-makers and the public’s general welfare, where do we find the price tag for these fundamental aspects of government? These elements mark a significant difference between a fire department’s mission and a private business’ bottom line.
Educating elected officials on the public mission is the responsibility of the fire department. In making the case to their respective public officials, I offer six factors that highlight why for-profit designs are not interchangeable with public safety operations.
1. Fire department values
If we defined a business as an organization that provides services with speed and efficiency to its customers, then most people would agree that government services like the post office and Department of Motor Vehicles would surely fall short in being considered a business. Enthusiastic elected officials are often quick to replicate customer service practices used in business and apply them in the fire department. What they fail to consider is that the fire service has many types of customers with very different values, leading to a department that is intentionally designed to allow for oversight, due process and equal treatment. The fire service provides fire prevention services to business owners, life safety and property conservation to private citizens regardless of class or status, and must comply with procurement laws for equipment purchases to ensure a fair process. Constantly confronting constitutional values like these slows down the administration of the fire service because of the vast array of public concerns, and eliminates the idea that a department can focus on serving one type of customer for efficient operations.
Further, the social value that the firefighters provide also supports not running fire departments like private businesses. Consider businesses like fashion, sports and gambling that may employ values like excellence, teamwork and innovation that make them successful, but they have debatable social values across the different public sectors. Turning to the fire department’s contribution to social values like education, humanity and fairness, the same business values apply but moves beyond money. For example, implementing excellent fire safety inspections to secure our public schools, providing innovative EMS to aid our regional healthcare providers, and carrying out arson investigations in a team effort with our justice system are all highly valued services that support local communities.
Elected officials deciding fiscal priorities do well when prioritizing the social values that the community deems worthy and direct their resources based on the mission the agency carries out. The fundamental difference between the business and the fire department is its mission to deliver superior public safety service to everyone. These services are based on constitutional and social values the community has decided for themselves – and for the elected officials to respect and uphold.
Businesses usually have a single decision-maker, the CEO, and this makes for efficient operations, because while a CEO may desire the employees’ input, it is not a democracy, and the CEO can make the singular decision to move forward. This is an attractive business practice when trying to respond to rapidly changing market demands, but it ignores the dangers of tyranny and the balance of powers our constitutional framework requires. Think of the collective bargaining process and the principles of separation of powers that prevent tyranny, gives liberty to the firefighters, and enriches public policy through compromise. Shared decisions would be a bane of the private CEO’s autonomy, but it is central for a fire chief and other elected officials because compromise is fundamental to the public sector.
Compared to a CEO, neither the fire chief, elected mayor nor city manager owns a controlling interest in the government, and it therefore falls on the local, state or federal legislatures to negotiate many competing interests. Experienced public officials understand the divided decision-making process and thrive when they can bridge the disparate interests that help the fire department maintain a mission ready state to serve its citizens.
3. General welfare
Private for-profit businesses do not consider the general welfare of their customers, much less for the public at large. Their focus is to maximize shareholder value by structuring rapid business operations that respond to its customers as the market changes. But private markets have a terrible time addressing systemic social failures like disaster response and often fail to provide low-income citizens with EMS, fire education and code inspections to ensure safe working environments.
Remember the exploding Takata airbags that killed 16 people or the Volkswagen emissions scandal? Businesses may be incentivized to cut corners when it comes to our safety. To a business, these inconveniences may be considered expenses to be paid and not welfare practices to keep citizens safe.
And what about the activities that are placed in the fire service precisely because they cannot be measured? For instance, how do we measure terrorism and the attacks that didn’t happen or nightclub fire inspections and the lives that were saved? Fire departments exist for the general welfare and safety of its citizens, and should be at the front of any elected official’s mind when financial shortcuts look more attractive but come at the cost of community safety.
Private-sector performance is measured by profitability. This is the singular focus for businesses because it’s an existential problem – without it, they do not exist. In deciding what services or functions a fire department should deliver, it is prudent that the service is provided by the most efficient method, in the least costly way, to accomplish the mission. This is a persuasive view because it’s built into our idea of capitalism and the drive to do things better.
On the other hand, the performance metric in a fire department is based on the achievement of outcomes and represents the primary difference between businesses and social sectors. Money in the businesses sector is both a resource for achieving greatness, and an output as a measure of greatness. The fire department’s output is measured in the number of lives saved or disasters avoided. Departments that have invested in technology can show this point with data-driven analysis that both enlightens and educates elected officials on what the fire service delivers. Outcomes are reflected in the number of technical rescues made, the total lives saved in burning structures and emergency medical interventions, and how many fire hazards were corrected to keep businesses safe. For the public official, these “measures of greatness” reflect how tax dollars are used over how profits are gained. To put it more succinctly:
- Businesses measure their success in profit; fire departments do not.
- Businesses offer services for money in voluntary transactions; fire departments do not.
- Businesses serve customers; fire departments serve communities.
Reducing waste reduces cost and thereby increases profitability. This is a popular view in the private sector because it involves goods and serves being acquired at the lowest cost with labor producing at the highest levels.
This idea of economic efficiency is misguided for fire departments because the dynamic we practice is focused more on the goodness we produce, and less on the efficiency we amass. “Good to great” is a celebrated concept for businesses, but for fire departments the amount of “good” more realistically captures the department’s performance over the extent of “great” efficiency achieved. Despite how clever public officials try to measure the efficiency of a fire department, there is simply no workable bottom line to analyze when achieving the “good” that the fire department provides its community.
Private companies care about customers and generally ignore the people who do not buy their products. This reveals the company’s accountability and confirms their responsiveness to their markets. Achieving customer focus goals can also be reduced to a single person being accountable, the CEO, which makes for improved operations as mentioned before. But newly elected leaders are cautioned against framing “accountability” of fire departments as a comparison to responding to customers. The comparison is not accurate because the fire service has multiple branches that are connected to multiple decision-makers, which makes their responsiveness to citizens complex, and at times, an unorderly process.
Our democratic platform is founded on a pluralistic response that must be aligned with the goals of the constitution’s public interest mandate. The social nature of the fire department places its accountability in public arenas with scrutiny from the press. The comparison to customers is not fair because there is no cable television channel showing how decisions are made in a corporate boardroom. And corporate leaders do not find it necessary to explain their decisions to reporters or journalists. Not so with fire departments. As the department’s spokesperson, the fire chief is accountable to the elected officials in the public forums of city hall, during open budget meetings, and through the daily press coverage of emergency responses.
Find a shared goal
While a “businesslike” framework is very appealing for economic decisions charged to newly elected officials, it is misguided to compare fire departments to private businesses. The better aim is to continually strengthen the partnerships between elected officials and fire departments to deliver the vital fire and emergency protection that the community has charged them both to provide.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bryan Sky-Eagle, JD, MPA, CFO, is a deputy fire chief in the Houston Fire Department, currently serving as the department’s resilience and sustainability officer with the mayor’s office. He is an affiliate scholar with the University of Houston Law Center, president of the HFD Chief Officers Association, and holds the Chief Fire Officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Sky-Eagle co-authored the book "Texas Disaster Law Guide: Legal Considerations for Emergency Responders and Managers." He previously served as area commander during Hurricane Harvey and operations section chief for Winter Storm Uri, and currently serves on the Terrorism and Homeland Security Committee with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). Connect with Sky-Eagle on LinkedIn.