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‘What if …?’ Key questions to help quantify your fire department’s needs

Fire service leaders must focus on data, not emotion, when make their case for funding, staffing and more


“It is critical that fire service leaders think through their needs to identify the metrics that could achieve more funding or staffing or whatever it is they need to help their organization.”

Photo/Dave Hernandez/Tribune News Service

This content originally appeared in FireRescue1’s Fire Chief newsletter. Sign up here for the latest leadership insights.

The fire service is underfunded.”

That statement or some form of it has been used by fire chiefs throughout history. But have we quantified that statement with facts and supportive documentation? I would argue that we have not communicated how much better the outcome would be if we were, in fact, “fully funded.”

The fire service generally runs at an emotional level. We focus on anecdotes and personal opinion instead of using metrics and facts to spotlight what we need and why. Of course, not all aspects of our job are easy to quantify, but it is critical that fire service leaders think through their needs to identify the metrics that could achieve more funding or staffing or whatever it is they need to help their organization.

“What if” questions

There’s no such thing as a perfect world. We’re not going to suddenly find ourselves with a windfall of money or personnel. That doesn’t mean we can’t fight for what we need, though. This starts with identifying what we need – and why – through a series of “what if” questions.

As you answer the following “what if” questions, consider how you can establish at least the minimum service level in your community and see measurable outcomes.

What if you had enough money to run the fire department the way you want?

  • What would the fire department look like?
  • How could the fire department impact the quality of life for your citizens?

What if you had enough money to train your personnel to the level you desire?

  • What training would you conduct?
  • How would more training provide better service?
  • How would more training save lives?

What if you had enough money to educate your personnel to your desired level?

  • What education level would that be?
  • Have you identified deficiencies in your firefighters’ capabilities?
  • How many lives have been lost in the last five years because not all of your firefighters are trained at this level?
  • How would additional education save lives?

What if you shifted training to non-structure fire response efforts?

  • Is it realistic to plan and staff for working residential structure fires (5%) of our emergency request?
  • How much of a firefighter’s time could be dedicated to training the public how to live their lives in a safer manner?

What if you could reach all members of your community with public education campaigns?

  • What is the makeup of your community?
  • How would you reach all citizens?
  • How would you measure success?
  • How many lives could be saved with an increase in public education?
  • How many lives could be saved if each company inspected 10 residential occupancies each month to determine if there is a working smoke detector in the residence?
  • How many lives could be changed if each company is required to attend at least 2 community meetings each month?
  • How many injuries/near misses could be saved with an increase in public education?

What if fire sprinklers were installed in every occupied building built from this point forward?

  • What percentage of buildings in your jurisdiction would be sprinklered?
  • What would the outcome of this action signify?
  • What would be the economic impact of this situation?
  • How would you measure the outcome of this action?

What if you were able to reduce the occupational cancer risk?

  • How many lives would be saved?
  • How much money would that save in overtime and healthcare expenses?

What if you were able to have enough equipment for all members?

  • What equipment would you purchase?
  • How would additional equipment improve the operations of the fire department?

What if you could complete an annual community risk reduction assessment?

  • What actions would you take with the report?
  • How could you better serve your community?
  • How could you better protect your members?

What if you had all the staff you needed?

  • How many members would work for your department?
  • Would the additional staff be career, part-time, volunteer, pay per call?
  • How would additional staff provide better or more services?
  • How would more efficient services impact residential fire suppression operations?

What if you could reduce residential structure fires by 50% annually?

  • What would it take to achieve this and why?
  • What is the outcome of that reduction on insurance claims?

What if the public understood the non-emergency services provided by today’s fire department?

  • How would this make a difference in your operations?
  • How would this affect member morale?

What if your fire-based EMS system worked flawlessly?

  • How would more efficient services improve the outcome for basic EMS calls for injuries and cardiac incidents?
  • Would you provide advanced life support services?
  • Would you provide transport services?
  • Would you provide first response services for all 911 medical calls.

What if your members had to attend classes at the National Fire Academy?

  • What is the change that occurs at the local level in the delivery of services after a student attends an NFA class?

What if a person who wants to become a chief had to achieve a certain level of education before being appointed?

  • What would the outcome be?
  • What benefits would this education provide to the community?
  • Could those benefits be measured?

What if all firefighters completed an annual NFPA 1582 physical?

  • What are the benefits?
  • How many lives would be saved (firefighter and civilian)?
  • What is the economic impact?

What if automatic alarms received a single company-level response in non-emergency status?

  • What would be the outcome?
  • Is the outcome measurable?
  • What is the economic impact of this response level?
  • Would lives be lost or saved under this model?

What if there was a safety officer responding to every report of a structure fire?

  • What would be the outcome?
  • Is the outcome identifiable?
  • What is the measurable outcome?

The questions above certainly not inclusive of all possible questions that you may need to answer in this process, but they do serve as a starting point for preparing helpful answers to increase your chance of success.

Be prepared to answer the tough questions

Statistics and data tell your story with facts. Presentations tell the story with emotions. Both methods are important to changing our future. You can’t have one without the other. If you want to make a change in your fire department delivery system, you will have to be prepared to answer the question, “What good will be accomplished if I give you what you ask for?” You will have to be able to prove the need, not just the want.

Chief John M. Buckman III served 35 years as fire chief for the German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department, and 15 years as director of the fire and public safety academy for the Indiana State Fire Marshal Office. He is the Director of Government and Regional Outreach for Buckman is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a co-founder of the IAFC Volunteer and Combination Officers Section. In 1996, Fire Chief Magazine named Buckman Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year. Buckman is an accomplished photographer, a co-author of the Lesson Learned from Fire-Rescue Leaders, and the editor of the Chief Officers Desk Reference. He is also the owner of Wildfire Productions. Buckman is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Chief Buckman on LinkedIn or via email.