PAYING THE PIPER

BY CHARLES F. BRUSH

“Paying the piper” comes from the Robert Browning child’s story “The Pied Piper.” As the short (Brush) version of the story goes, the town of Hamlin was overrun by rats (rodents of low self-esteem). With the town officials at wit’s end, along comes this dude who calls himself a “poor piper.” He offers to rid the town of rats for a major amount of money. The mayor agrees to give the piper the money after the job is done.

The piper plays his version of the “Macarena,” and all the rats follow him down into the river, whereupon (it would not be a child’s story without at least one “whereupon”) all the rats drown. The piper, having met his part of the bargain, returns to the mayor for his payment. The mayor suffers an attack of “I don’t remember agreeing to that” (sound familiar?) and pays the piper a mere pittance (chump change). The piper, in revenge, plays another ditty-something akin to heavy metal-and all the children of Hamlin ran away with him, leaving their parents and homes, thus becoming the first documented “roadies” in history.

THE MESSAGE

Paying the piper means paying what’s due, what is fair, and what is expected. The pied piper told the mayor what compensation he needed for ridding Hamlin of the rats.

Do we inform our town or city officials of what we need to safely, effectively, and expeditiously provide emergency services, or do we make do with whatever is thrown our way? Do we educate our officials and the community about the level of service they are getting? Do we speak truth or with ego-enhanced tongue?

My department’s mission statement is “Meeting the needs of an informed community in a fiscally responsible manner.” Short, sweet, and to the point. In other words, we will provide the services that Joe or Josephine Citizen wants and do it cost-effectively.

Note the two key words “informed community.” Is your community educated regarding the levels and types of services you provide? My bet is that the answer is No. The piper told the mayor, “Give me a thousand dollars (guilders are tough to exchange), and your rats are toast.” The mayor did not say, “Here’s 50 bucks. See what you can do.” (He did that after the job was done.) Yet many of us operate like that! I know all the rationales: I’m not from your department. It won’t work here ellipse.

TEST YOUR COMMUNITY

Just for grins and giggles, ask a few folks around town a few questions, questions that will tell you what your community knows about you and your department-questions such as the following:

  • Are emergency service personnel at the fire station all the time?
  • Are they paid or volunteers?
  • What is the average number of personnel available during the day? During the night?
  • What amount of fire can the department contain?
  • What level of EMS is available to you?
  • What do members do when not on calls?

The questions were easy to come up with because they have been asked before. For a rural volunteer fire department in a bedroom community near a major city, we received answers that were consistently not reality-based and that showed a pervasive perception generated by television and the previous communities in which the folks had lived.

NOW, FOR THE EDUCATION

So now comes the part about breaking the perceptions the community has about you-educating your town or city about what you really are; what your department can do; and, more importantly, what you cannot do, based on current conditions. Once you have informed the community members of what they are getting currently, they can better evaluate the level of service they are getting and the level they would like and then take the appropriate action. Let’s look at a few examples of how this approach can work:

  • The chief shows up at the council meeting decked out in finery. Several of the department members wonder if they’re dealing with the fire chief or the leader of a third world country. The chief quickly acknowledges that the department currently has room-and-contents capability in the hydrant area 80 percent of the time (the size of the fire the department can contain under normal conditions-presenting this in terms of percentages is really cool).

The chief says the department has the personnel and resources to conduct rescue operations and contain a fire in a room. If the fire extends outside the room before additional personnel arrive, the crews on-scene will make the best rescue efforts possible and run a defensive operation to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings. The result? The community found this to be an acceptable level of service and made no changes. What did change, however, was that now when a building thermally shrinks (burns down), no fingers are pointed and no barbs are tossed. The community is getting the level of service it wants.

  • The ad that ran in the paper and the message that was delivered during school programs and presented at senior centers said: “We are not paramedics.” At issue was the community’s common lack of understanding of what constitutes EMS. Community members used the terms “EMT” and “paramedic” interchangeably (offending some of the EMTs, no doubt) because they did not know the difference. This campaign informed the community people about the differences between the basic life support service they had and the advanced life support (ALS) service they thought they had. The result? The informed community decided that it wanted-and is now receiving-ALS services.
  • The community was informed regarding the primary components influencing the outcome of an emergency so that the community may make informed decisions regarding them. This is accomplished using what I call the Thirty/Three/Thirty Rule, as stolen and modified from a class at the big house in Emmitsburg (The National Fire Academy). This rule states that if you want to inform, take advantage of every opportunity by having three prepared presentations that can be given at a moments’s notice. The presentations are about 30 seconds, three minutes, and 30 minutes long-and all sing the same song.

The community was informed that there are four components critical to the outcome of an emergency: notification, arrival, equipment, and trained personnel. Although each of these components impacts the outcome of an emergency, the capability of each affects the effectiveness of the others. The earlier we are notified, the closer we are with the necessary equipment and human resources and the better the outcome will be. These components, however, are interdependent on one another, and cost effectiveness lies in the balance of all four components. For example, the abilities of the best firefighters and medics in the world armed with the best equipment and receiving almost immediate notification are reduced to average or less if they are too far away (Chief Stephen Allen).

You just got the 30-second program, deliverable anywhere. The three-minute expands on the theme with further interrelational examples. The 30-minute show graphically, pictorially, and colorfully brings home the points in a computer-generated presentation. The result: A second station on the west side will be staffed 24 hours a day starting in January 2001.

The poor piper did not say, “Give me a thousand bucks, and I’ll see what I can do.” He gave a level of expected service and a cost for that service. Every level of service has a corresponding cost. If we educate and inform those we serve, they will select the true level they want or can afford, and we can meet their needs.

CHARLES F. BRUSH is a career deputy chief of the Lebanon (NH) Fire Department and a call firefighter in Hartford, Vermont.

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