Coming Soon: Volunteer and Combination Fire Department Studies

By MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO

Scenario: Engine #4 is 20 years old. Clearly, this vehicle has served your volunteer fire department and the community well. You have also, most likely, done your job well as an officer in your department by providing your town with a few years of notice that the rig will need replacing in the near future. The decision to replace this vehicle should be a “no brainer,” especially since in most communities police cars, school buses, and highway department of public works (DPW) vehicles are less than 20 years old. However, now that budgets are tighter, your town’s city hall questions the replacement request to the point where it seems the hall members do not believe you or trust in your expertise as a fire service professional.

Then, out of the blue, one of your council members suggests retaining the services of an independent consultant to do a fire department study to see if this 20-year-old truck truly needs replacing, perhaps suggesting that you were being dishonest so as to secure a shiny new truck just for the sake of it.

A few miles away, another volunteer fire department chief is in hot water with his town’s board because he added career members to fill in for unavailable volunteers during daytime shifts, which is considered a burden on an already ballooning fire department budget. Again, the board suggests a fire study.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar to you? Maybe you are one of the chiefs referenced in the aforementioned scenarios, or maybe you have heard this from a neighboring community. Either way, as costs rise, available funding shrinks. And, as small volunteer departments begin to transition to small combination fire departments, conducting an outside study seems to be a popular move, with more studies expected over the next few years.

Having personally conducted many of these types of studies over the years, I will provide you with some general information about fire department studies that may alleviate some anxiety you may have regarding your upcoming study. Hopefully, by becoming a bit more educated about fire studies, you may approach the process in a positive manner and use the outcome to bolster your need for equipment, funding, facilities, vehicles, or staffing.

Oftentimes, consultants are not experts or any more educated than you or other representatives in your department. I have done studies for many organizations where I have scratched my head and asked myself, “Why are they even doing a study?” If they had just listened to the in-house people who know their job, they would probably be going in the right direction. Sadly, over time, personalities, politics, and dollars can get in the way, and boards can turn a deaf ear to the knowledgeable people in the hometown fire department. Someone from the outside who may not have your experience still may get the ear of your elected officials and townspeople simply because consultants have seen the internal workings of many departments and have some benchmarks to reference. Another reason for this is that consultants over the years have not fought the internal annual funding or personnel battles that may have “dented your armor” while the consultant’s armor is dent free to the town or village boards that have retained him.

TYPES OF STUDIES

There are generally four types of fire department studies your local officials could use to evaluate your organization. The most common study evaluates the consolidation or merger of volunteer fire departments, which is suggested to reduce costs of vehicles, facilities, or staff. These studies are often also suggested when small volunteer fire departments struggle for staffing. Bringing the small pool of volunteers from various departments together to create one stronger department with a larger staffing pool answers the prayers of communities that may be struggling to get volunteers. However, don’t simply assume this is going to work. A poorly done or forced merger can actually drive away active members. So, initiate studies early on to evaluate the merger’s viability by assessing the current members’ morale; how the by-laws and standard operating guidelines would mesh in a merged organization; and how the leadership of each department’s chiefs, captains, and lieutenants as well as board presidents, vice presidents, and treasurers would ultimately come together to make a new merged department successful. This type of study generally provides the information needed to move ahead in an educated fashion or may cause you to pull the plug before a disaster occurs from the merger’s results.

A shared services study evaluates the potential for departments in a geographical region or the same town to share services or specialized equipment such as aerial apparatus, hazmat units, marine units, high angle or collapse units, and so on. This study will generally evaluate call volume for such services and other related issues like simultaneous incidents in those shared services categories and in cases of potentially shared vehicles like aerials, response times, maintenance costs, and training/staffing issues. Sharing a $1 million aerial apparatus between two small towns seems like a great idea until both communities need it at the same time. These potential issues must be addressed prior to entering into any shared services arrangement; this study can answer these questions and point out potential roadblocks.

A general management review evaluates the overall department management and its day-to-day operations. This study is meant to ensure that fire departments are making every reasonable effort to meet accepted fire service standards and operate as financially efficient as possible while at the same time considering safety, with only funding and staffing being roadblocks to success. The review is also used to ensure that proper long-range planning is being done and to provide a report card or feedback so that the department can work to improve areas where exposures might exist. The study can be general, informational, or in response to some type of public matter such as the failure of a bond vote to make a major capital purchase, to build a facility, or where there is leadership or internal issues that need to be addressed by an external individual or consulting group.

A comparative study is used by government agencies to compare its organization with others in similar-size communities with similar demographics. This study can determine if an engine should have four or five firefighters as a minimum standard or evaluate the annual salary for a captain. Town or village boards will often use these comparisons when negotiating salary and benefits packages or labor contracts with career firefighters. The study can also be used to ensure communities do not lose trained quality staff because your town is, for example, paying firefighters $35,000 while the surrounding towns are paying their firefighters $50,000. It is only a matter of time before your well-trained firefighters are slowly siphoned off to neighboring departments.

INITIATING A STUDY

Fire department studies are initiated in several ways. The mechanism that most often triggers a fire department study is a concern or scrutiny from your town or village board. For example, if a new council member or trustee has been elected on a promise to save taxpayers money and leave no stone unturned or sacred cows, it is only a matter of time before the mayor walks in and says the officials are seeking to retain a consultant for a study.

Usually, when I serve as a consultant, I tell clients that they should have expected the study. Fire department leaders should always remain in close contact with town leaders; at the slightest hint of unrest, they should make every effort to find out what is wrong or address these issues as soon as possible. If your local government hires a consultant without your involvement or blessing, an agenda may already be afoot. In this case, your best course of action is to be involved as much as possible, be professional, provide the documents they request, and do not be viewed as an obstructionist; the consultant has “wide breadth” as to how he can write the narrative reports or recommendations, which can include a recommendation to change out you or your officer team. So, make every effort to be a positive influence.

A fire department study can also be initiated through a joint task force, which often comes together when towns are looking for ways to save money through cooperative purchasing or shared facilities. These desired scenarios often include having fire apparatus serviced at the town highway garage (where DPW trucks are serviced); fueling fire apparatus at the local school district’s bus garage; or when the town looks to build a combined town hall, firehouse, and police station. These joint task force studies are often made up of representatives of various local groups and will probe the likely success or failure of this type of joint operation. These projects can be successful. However, any joint task force should identify the key participants, the chairman, the desired outcomes, and how the costs of said study are being divided among the participating agencies. Joint task forces should not be fishing expeditions; they should clearly define goals for the study.

Last, your fire department can commission its own study by retaining its own consultant. This is the most desired path to a study; it can provide you with an exceptional management tool and can buffer you from difficult decisions. Many fire department leaders resist going down this road for fear of the perception that they do not know their job or they need help. This is not true! Most successful businesses and most educational organizations often seek outside feedback and coaching to reach goals. If you have been asking for a new truck year after year and are getting nowhere, it may be time for your consultant to ask for the truck more firmly!

Many times in volunteer departments, officers are elected. It is much easier for the consultant to feed changes or bad news to members as opposed to elected chiefs doing the same. Your own study can provide you with an excellent report card that you can manage on your own terms. This is akin to a friend’s giving you a “heads up” when somebody is about to punch you in a bar, enabling you to defend yourself. Your own study or review can prevent you from being sucker-punched by your local newspaper or television news investigative reporter. Your study will tell you where you need to improve so you can correct the issue before you become a news item. This type of study can often validate your current operation and support your long-term goals.

Long-range capital plans are often a component of studies commissioned by individual volunteer and combination fire departments. Many elected officials believe that we live from budget year to budget year. Although this may be accurate to some level, you should also have a replacement plan for the next 20 years or so for items that have a predetermined life expectancy as well as a replacement cost that can impact your budget. In most cases, you can really look only five years into the future. However, this long-range plan (LRP) document, which should be done in spreadsheet form, can be adjusted as you go year to year. Its setup can be time-consuming and tedious because it involves counting ceiling tiles, chairs, and computers and evaluating heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning units; firehouse roofs; and garage doors. However, your town government leaders will be truly impressed when you can show every major impact item listed by item; the year the item was new; and the item’s cost, life expectancy, and estimated replacement year and cost.

CHOOSING A CONSULTANT

Once you have determined that you are going to conduct your own study or are rapidly becoming involved in one you did not ask for, select the “correct” consultant such as a lawyer or an architect. You have to be able to trust him; work well with him; and believe he is ethical, fair, impartial and, most importantly, knowledgeable about your type of organization.

However, understand that fighting fire is only one part of the equation; volunteer and small combination departments are unique community organizations with a wide variety of personalities and motivational/political factors. If the members of a consulting firm working on your project have never been active members of a volunteer entity, they are lacking a key element in making recommendations for the management and long-term success of that type of organization. This is similar to my having spent my entire career in a volunteer setting and thus not being a good fit to study a 100-percent career department.

Any consultant you consider should have an up-to-date Web site, provide a written proposal that outlines what he is going to do for you and the deliverables that you will receive, and provide recent reference letters. He should also provide a project schedule that can accommodate weekends or evenings for volunteers who may want to participate but who may work during the day. Subcontractors should be identified up front so you can consider their impact on the project.

In most cases, you may not have to issue a request for proposal for a professional service under a certain dollar threshold, but your counsel or purchasing agent should check with your state’s rules for retaining professional services and how those rules may impact your type of organization.

Many times, fire departments want to read sample reports as they evaluate potential consultants. Be cautious with this request; many clients prefer confidentiality and actually own their study on completion. Consultants who provide confidentiality many not be able to provide complete copies of recent studies. In that case, sample narrative pages, a sample map, and reference letters should suffice. When you review the consultant’s reports or narratives, be cautious of consultants who dwell too much on the past or what was wrong years ago. Your organization should look for positive, real-world information that can help you move forward and grow for the future, if need be. Clearly, safety issues need to be addressed. However, blaming a truck committee from 1980 for an unwise apparatus purchase does not correct the situation. Simply stating that the mistake rig needs to be replaced with one better suited for your community or response pattern says enough.

Also, actively seek stakeholder input. Any consultant you or your town retains should conduct private interviews with firefighters, officers, town or village officials, neighboring fire departments, and a few citizens. This input is critical to having your final report received in a positive manner. If firefighters, citizens, or government leaders feel the process was private or that they were shut out, the final document can end up on a shelf, collecting dust.

THE DELIVERABLES

For any study, data will be requested. Have your consultant provide a clear data request list, preferably in checklist format so there is no question or miscommunication about what data was requested. Items like drill schedules, call data, apparatus information, by-laws, membership applications, career staff contracts, civil service job descriptions, house rules, and so on may be requested and evaluated. The request list should be clear and agreed on up front. Note that in cases where a government entity is pushing your fire department for a study, the data requested will require significant staffing hours for gathering the data. There will also be significant costs involved in copying the data or documents, so request proper reimbursement from the consultant or the local government conducting the study. For volunteer fire departments, the time frames for gathering the data should be reasonable because the volunteers will need time out of their schedules to generate the data or locate and copy the documents.

Consulting is generally based on hours involved in traveling to a site, gathering data and information, evaluating the data, putting together the final narrative report and recommendations, and delivering the final report. All of this costs money, and it can add up. Any consultant your fire department or town board retains should provide you with a complete cost breakdown up front and a guarantee that he will come in on budget and on time. Ask the consultant’s previous clients if this was in fact the case.

The consultant should also submit an actual cost for the study or review and mileage and hotels fees with a not-to-exceed cap. Also, office supply fees for printing, copies, mailing fees with a flat rate or a cap, and a clear list of any other incidentals are also acceptable. Do not allow the consultant to add meals to a consulting contract because people have to eat whether they are home or on the road. In most cases, a small volunteer or combination fire department should be able to get a general study, review, or LRP done for between $6,000 and $10,000, including travel and incidentals. The larger the study and the more hours required, the greater the cost. For example, studies of multiple fire departments, where four or more smaller volunteer departments want to develop an LRP and discuss consolidation or shared services, can rise to more than $20,000 because of the hours involved. Six months is an acceptable time frame for a study to unfold, from initial contract to final report.

Any review or management tool worth its weight should discuss the following:

  • Recommendations to improve efficiency.
  • Cost effectiveness of the fire department.
  • Apparatus fleet management advice/future needs and replacement schedule.
  • An evaluation of firehouse facilities from a safety, maintenance, and serviceability standpoint.
  • Potential future firehouse locations or where needs and trends may indicate eductions or closures of stations.
  • General comparisons to other similar-size departments.
  • Recruitment/retention issues and advice.
  • Response time information and benchmarks.
  • Morale and camaraderie of the firefighter membership force.
  • Evaluations of any technology or communications issues or potential disruption of service issues.
  • Building trends based on building permits and housing starts.
  • Evaluation of drill/training schedule.
  • Officer development efforts.
  • Active vs. inactive and interior/exterior firefighter comparisons.
  • Multiyear budget and audit reviews.

Expect deliverables presented in a fully printed and three-ring-bound copy including photos, color charts, and geographic information systems mapping to support the written narrative. Also, on delivery, have the consultant present at least one slide presentation walk-through of the final report.

There is much debate and discussion about the need for draft reports. If you want to change the outcome of the final report to fit your needs, get a draft copy; you might as well not even hire a consultant and simply write your own report the way your fire department wants it to read. However, if you want the honest opinion of your consultant, a draft report is not needed. Your organization can simply add a written statement to rebut or further clarify the consultant’s information or opinions in the final report to keep it truly impartial.

Although there will be many stakeholders involved in the study or review process, there should be one lead contact at the fire department. Too many bosses or people giving direction or trying to guide the outcome of the study will immediately muddy the waters. If this starts to occur, your consulting firm may quickly ask who the lead contact is and then request that all the information and contacts be funneled through the lead contact (except for confidential stakeholder interviews).

For a sample of an LRP document in PDF format, e-mail me at MPDBUS1@aol.com.

MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO is a 28-year volunteer firefighter and chairman of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company board of directors. He has instructed at FDIC and is a trainer for the fire service, the public transportation industry, and certified commercial vehicle drivers. Dallessandro also operates the Web site www.respondsmart.com.

Michael P. Dallessandro will present “Volunteer and Combination Fire Department Managers Academy” on Tuesday, April 8, 8 a.m.-12:00 p.m., at FDIC 2014 in Indianapolis.

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