You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure

Photo by Tony Greco.

By David Cain

Today, we live in a world of metrics and key performance indicators to improve operations and bottom lines. The corporate world needs these tools as a way to measure success and streamline operations. Profitability is crucial and necessary for any for-profit business. However, can we use these same measures to improve our fire operations? I think we can!

I once had a senior member of my department tell me, “We manage programs, but we lead our people.” The idea of managing people was an offensive term, insensitive to say the least. I believe we do both. Today’s fire leaders are tasked with providing a service based on many metrics. These include response and turnout times, bunker drills, training requirements, fire inspections, equipment readiness, personal fitness, and qualifications (i.e., ff1, hazmat tech, wildland quals, and so on). We even do this with our apparatus.

So, is it necessary to measure all these items if we are going to be good managers? Yes!

Our firefighters are the backbone of any fire department. The members who answer the calls need all the tools, training, and experience they can muster. Each member is part of a team that must be able and ready. If just one member of that team fails to do his job, it could result in some very bad outcomes. Likewise, if his equipment fails, the outcome can be just as devastating. Many things we cannot measure still need to be managed. It is difficult to measure how someone is dealing with the human issues. Life at home or in the firehouse can affect our ability to think and act clearly.

The focus of using technology to measure our performance and to provide us with the best equipment is crucial. Let me be precise: Within a given year, we know the call load and types of calls to which we respond. This is provided through our records management system and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. From this data, we can adjust our response and improve our efficiency. One example of this is the call load to homeless people. In metro areas with a large population of homeless people, the need for sending a pumper could be considered overkill. I have read and heard that some departments have created a two-person response unit to deal with this issue. Simply, the cost of sending a big truck out on these call types can be measured in fuel savings and wear and tear. However, taking firefighters off the pumpers and putting them on these smaller vehicles could be a dangerous practice. Again, being able to measure savings on equipment and people should provide the needed data to make a good decision.

Logistical management for a fire department needs a system to measure usage for ordering, budgeting, and replacing equipment. Pump, ladder, and hose testing are necessary tests that provide crucial data for safe operations. In addition, the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly tests for apparatus and equipment checks are just as important, if not more so. I recently read an article about a department that was operating with expired turnout gear. I believe the state fire marshal shut them down until they came up to the required standard. Why does this happen?  Most likely, no one was managing or measuring the data.

The fire service must be one of the most equipment-based professions out there. There is no way anyone can manage and measure all the expiration dates, required maintenance logs, testing of air packs, bunker gear, station maintenance, narcotics tracking, and so on without a technology-based system. In addition to the equipment requirements, we must deal with National Fire Incident Reporting System reports, scheduling, CAD systems, training, and training records. Since my retirement as a deputy chief, I have been working with fire departments in the United States, Canada, and Australia. The challenge is the same; there isn’t one “magic bullet” that can solve all challenges, but there are some very good systems out there that can help you tackle these concerns. Vet them carefully for responsive and reliable customer support in addition to the quality and dependability of the product itself.

After my retirement, I got to meet and spend some time with Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant. Durant, for those of you who are too young to remember, was the pilot shot down in Mogadishu. Black Hawk Down is his story. Durant was gracious enough to speak at the graduation of a recruit class in Colorado. His message was clear: If we, as chiefs, expect our men and women to do a dangerous job, we need to give them all the best tools, training, and support that is possible. As firefighters, we need to commit to being ready at all times.


David Cain is a retired deputy chief with the Boulder (CO) Fire Department, where he served for 34 years. He works as a consultant for, a technology service that helps fire departments across the country automate their apparatus, equipment, and inventory checks.



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