In-House Specialty Shops: Cost-Saving Opportunity

BY KURT MUELLER

Chesterfield (VA) Fire & EMS has traditionally counted on its diverse workforce to repair and maintain its equipment in-house as much as possible. Chesterfield, a county of 446 square miles and 311,000 citizens on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, consists of a workforce of 466 and operates 21 fire stations. Its fiscal year 2009 budget was $44.1 million. It is proud of its seven specialty shops managed by station personnel in addition to their regular duties and responsibilities.

Chesterfield did not introduce the specialty shop concept in response to hard economic times. Specialty shops have been an integrated part of station life for decades, but their true value is now becoming more apparent during times of budget cutbacks. Fire departments across the nation are faced with the effects of the rapidly changing, volatile economy that transforms the fiscal policy at all levels of government. Specialty shops are a common concept among fire departments. But is their impact understood, let alone appreciated? I suspect that specialty shops are a widely neglected and unexploited cost-saving opportunity. Running a specialty shop is not complicated. As a matter of fact, all that is needed to succeed is a well-thought-out plan, leadership, and buy-in from all stakeholders, which is the standard formula for success in anything we do in the fire service.

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(1) This is a sample of the items we manufacture and repair in our specialty shops. (Photo by author.)

Chesterfield’s network of specialty shops includes nozzle and hose repair, chainsaw repair, helmet repair, gas monitor and thermal imaging camera maintenance, electrical, self-contained breathing apparatus and mask repair, and sewing. Although there is an obvious cost-saving incentive to deal with the flow of common maintenance and repair issues, there is also a trust and pride enticement. Don’t you prefer to know who is working on your turnout gear, for example? And the sewing technicians working on the turnout gear enjoy their work and also find gratification in doing something for their fellow members.

In Chesterfield, the responsibility of the specialty shop at a station lies in the hands of the station captain. Firefighter participation in the specialty shop is not mandatory, but it is encouraged. At my station, for instance, it is preferred that these activities be conducted as a shift activity. Although not every firefighter is motivated to learn a new trade such as sewing, there are plenty of support tasks that are simple but equally as important—for instance, cutting out fabric patterns. There is a job for everybody, and it is the team effort that makes the specialty shop successful.

The measurable internal economic impact is indisputable. But, if not managed properly and supported consistently, its effectiveness will diminish because of a lack of accountability and freelancing. I was reassigned as the station captain to Station 16, home base of the department’s sewing shop, in August 2007 and experienced firsthand what it meant to run a fire station with a busy specialty shop. I will use our department’s experience with the sewing shop to illustrate the potential a carefully managed specialty shop has to offer. I will also share the strategy that worked for us, the challenges that we were able to overcome, and those we did not overcome but learned to accept and work around.

 

THE SEWING SHOP OPERATION

 

In the past, the sewing shop was run by a few firefighters who took it upon themselves to take care of incoming service requests. In 2007, for example, 179.75 hours were devoted to working in the sewing shop, 82 percent of which was done by only two sewing technicians. When both of them left Station 16 at the same time, we were left with no skilled technicians. Clearly, being dependent on one or two people to manage a specialty shop was a poor business practice that would haunt us in the future. We refused to let the sewing shop collapse and decided to take a holistic approach with a comprehensive restructuring that would not only save it but also guide it into a prosperous future.

 

Restructuring Plan

 

The plan included recruiting and developing new sewing technicians, succession planning for shop management, formulating rules of conduct within the shop, defining a scope of practice, creating a list of project priorities, developing a system to collect data on all shop activities, and setting a time line. The plan was kept succinct; the emphasis was on functionality and empiricism. Although the station captain was the driving force, buy-in from the shift lieutenants, the firefighters, and the executive leadership was critical. A specialty shop operated inside a fire station requires commitment and support from all stakeholders.

So that the station captain could remain at the strategic planning level to focus on the restructuring process, we selected a firefighter specialist for the role of shop manager who would handle the day-to-day activities. The shop manager’s job description included the inspection of incoming repair items and production requests, the prioritization of these requests, the coordination of the workload among the three shifts, researching and requesting sewing supplies, and tracking all projects.

Departmental support is a must. We learned, however, that it is not always easy to readily get top-down support. A specialty shop is a joint operation among Maintenance and Logistics (M&L), Operations, and Safety. The work in the specialty shop is in reality an M&L function that Operations personnel execute with input from Safety. This can create frustration when it comes to setting priorities and seeking funding. The lack of data collection prior to 2008 made it even more difficult for us to demonstrate necessity and cost/benefit justification. This experience validated our decision for all-inclusive data collection as part of our restructuring process; the benefit of data collection will be discussed later.

Our defined scope of practice and our list of project priorities proved also to be vital; they gave us the guidance to streamline new project requests and to reject unreasonable expectations. We made it clear from the beginning of our restructuring process that we wanted to remain a fire station and not turn into a walk-in 24/7 “sweat shop.” It was essential to us that the sewing shop not impact our ability to respond to calls, to train, to do physical fitness training, and to maintain units and the station.

 

Revisions

 

One of the first changes we implemented was to discontinue walk-in requests that in the past interrupted daily activities. We designated one day a week, Friday, as our sewing day. We kept that day free from scheduled cleaning and maintenance jobs. The shift on duty on Friday spends its available time working in the sewing shop.

Our time in the sewing shop is limited; therefore, it was critical to streamline and to prioritize the service requests. Turnout gear is the first priority on our list of projects. If our evaluation process determines that it is no longer cost-effective to repair a garment, we condemn it or reclassify it as training gear that can be worn in a nonimmediately dangerous to life and health atmosphere. The second priority is the manufacturing of standardized bags for face pieces, C-collars, tools, and equipment. Additionally, we fabricate straps for the high-rise pack, gated-down lines, and pulling supply lines. The safety and dependability of our products are fundamental. We work with only high-quality fabrics and thread. The ladder boots for our extension ladders on the engines are an example of our assortment of miscellaneous products. In the restructuring process, we established standardization and simplification of product designs as goals. This improved our efficiency significantly. Third-priority items are nonstandardized, customized projects and noncritical repairs. The station captain has to approve them first. Spare and training gear constitutes the fourth and last priority on our list.

 

Work Process

 

The work process in the sewing shop is straightforward and efficient. An electronic work order must be sent to the sewing shop’s e-mail inbox for every service or production request. Meanwhile, our logistics truck drops off the damaged turnout gear and other repair items once a week. The shop manager inspects and prioritizes the incoming items, matches each item with a work order, and adds the request to an electronic spreadsheet. At that point, we initiate the data collection and project tracking process. Additionally, the sewing technicians write down the time they spend in the sewing shop’s log book. The log book is another vital source of data collection. The station captain keeps track of time spent in the sewing shop by person and shift, as well as on- or off-duty personnel on a separate spreadsheet. The station captain has the authority to advertise off-duty work opportunities to the sewing technicians when there is a backlog of turnout gear or a request for a time-sensitive project. Here, the station captain seeks funding from the division that owns the project to pay the sewing technicians to stay over and work. Our data collection and cost calculations have proven to be indispensable to illustrate the cost savings compared with outsourcing. The station captain integrates the data into a monthly sewing shop activity report that is shared with the stakeholders.

Last December, we sent our first group of six sewing technicians to the Morning Pride turnout gear plant in Dayton, Ohio. During a three-day course, our sewing technicians received an in-depth education in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting. A second group of sewing technicians followed in January. The NFPA 1851 class was the first training of its kind for our department and took our sewing shop to a new level of expertise in personal protective equipment. All the training leave and travel expenses were approved despite a countywide travel ban because of budget constraints, because we were able to provide a solid cost/benefit analysis based on our data collection. This exemplifies the significance of methodical data collection. Data collection is not optional but imperative for a specialty shop to flourish.

 

Results

 

A workable plan with a clear vision, efficient processes, and buy-in from all stakeholders produced remarkable results. The time spent in the sewing shop increased in 2008 by 374 percent, to a total of 672 hours. Amazingly, 80 percent was done on duty by the sewing technicians, in addition to 2,354 calls for service out of Station 16, prevention programs, inspections, training, maintenance, and so on. Throughout the year, 21 firefighters helped in the sewing shop, 10 of whom accumulated more than 20 hours. A fairly equal distribution of work performed by the three shifts is a testimony to the commitment of all the Station 16 personnel. The sewing shop repaired 63 turnout coats and 99 turnout pants; manufactured 98 bags, 46 straps, and 22 ladder boots; and handled various special projects that included cargo nets and heavy-duty curtains. A conservative cost comparison with vendors that offer the same or similar services and products translates the work completed into a market value of $38,000 for 2008.

Based on our data analysis, it is fair to say that the sewing shop has overcome the obstacles that come with each restructuring process and has achieved an impressive cost-saving impact for our department. The potential for the sewing shop, or any specialty shop for that matter, is limited only by who runs it. The Chesterfield sewing shop success story is only one example that demonstrates the success that any specialty shop can achieve with ingenuity, commitment, and stakeholder buy-in. The intent of this article is to inspire other departments to start up or to maximize their own specialty shops and to learn from our lessons learned.

KURT MUELLER is a captain with Chesterfield (VA) Fire & EMS. He is a graduate student at Jacksonville (AL) State University Institute for Emergency Preparedness. He works part-time for Jacksonville State University as a graduate research assistant on the Oak Ridge CARRI Project (Community & Regional Resilience Institute). He is a student in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and a member of the Virginia Association of Hazardous Materials Response Specialists.

 

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