Merit Raises Linked to Performance By Fire Fighter Evaluation System

Merit Raises Linked to Performance By Fire Fighter Evaluation System


Charlottesville, Va.

Historically, local governments have maintained merit pay systems with structured pay steps that were awarded at regular intervals if an employee’s job performance was termed satisfactory by his supervisor.

The intent of the system was good. However, during the last five years I became keenly aware of the problems associated with the traditional merit pay system through discussions with members and supervisors in the Charlottesville, Va., Fire Department. The majority of their concerns related to the following four items:

  1. Most fire fighters and officers generally received a merit increase unless they were on the verge of dismissal.
  2. The system was devoid of incentive because all fire fighters and officers received the same percentage increase.
  3. Fire department line officers had no way to reward fire fighters whose performance far exceeded that termed to be satisfactory.
  4. Fire officers had difficulty in documenting either above or below average performance because there were generally no measurable job performance tasks.

After evaluating the preceding four factors, the bottom line said that our merit system in actuality had become a longevity system. Our elected officials also had expressed concern about the validity of our system to the city manager and ultimately they said, “Either design a system that proves to us that employees are being rewarded for their performance or we will no longer fund merit pay increases.”

System criteria

Prior to selecting a consulting firm to structure a new pay system, the fire department said it wanted a system that would meet the following criteria:

  1. An evaluation system tailored to our organizational objectives that would link performance to pay.
  2. Written job performance tasks that were measurable in quantitative terms.
  3. A system that would force managers to manage.

In order to develop a succesful employee performance system, it is essential that the organization have good measurable objectives which are linked to a management information system that will document whether organizational objectives are being achieved.

We felt that we had a good system for doing this as we were measuring such things as manning, inspections, training, response times, water application times, and salvage objectives designed to reduce water damage.

The important point that I feel needs a great deal of emphasis is that you must have a good system for measuring performance at all levels of the organization. Without such a system, it is virtually impossible to implement a system that links pay to performance.

In December 1978, the city administration decided to proceed with the development of a true merit pay system with implementation scheduled for July 1, 1979. It is important to recognize that the implementation of a system relating pay to performance will initially have a traumatic effect on some employees. However, there are steps that management can take to minimize the impact of such a change.

Once a decision has been made to introduce an improved merit pay system, it is critical to the success of the project that you do two things. First, you must ensure that fire fighters and officers receive large doses of accurate information about the proposed system, and this should be instituted prior to the preliminary development of the system. The second critical step is to stress employee participation in the writing of job performance standards along with the development of weights that will be assigned to each task.


Job title: Fire Fighter

A three-step process has to be followed in the development of this type of performance system:

  1. Determination of job tasks,
  2. Assignment of weights to tasks and
  3. Writing job behavior guides.

This portion of the development was accomplished by fire fighters and officers who were assigned to evaluation development teams for the various job classifications within the department.

Job tasks

The evaluation development teams first have to determine the job task for the position classification assigned to them. Each job classification should have a minimum of three tasks and not more that 10. Basic tasks for fire fighters are shown in the accompanying rating guide chart along with the weight of importance assigned to each task.

The assignment of a weight to each task should receive careful consideration because this permits emphasis to be placed in accordance with departmental objectives and desires of the organization. In the rating guide chart under task weight, we stipulated that 80 percent of a fire fighter’s evaluation would be tied to four of the seven tasks, i.e. 20 percent each alloted to task 1, operating fire apparatus; task 2, suppression operations; task 3, training activities; and task 6, fire prevention. The remaining three tasks have a total weight of 20 percent.

A completed evaluation form gives a good example of how the weights are applied to the tasks.

Each task is graded on a 1 to 10 basis on an evaluation form and each task score is multiplied by the weight, or percentage, assigned to the task.

General guidelines stipulate that if an individual’s performance needs improvement on a given task, he will be graded from a 1 to 3, satisfactory performance ranges from 4 to 7, and outstanding rates 8 to 10.

The employee performance report is matched to the Fire Fighter’s Job Tasks. In the example illustrated, the fire fighter received a 6 on task 1, which resulted in a weighted score of 12. Task 2 was rated at 4, which gave the individual an 8, and the weighted scores of all tasks totaled 59.

Job behavior guides

After completion of the two preceeding tasks, the evaluation development teams are ready to write job behavior guides. Close guidance is mandated in this stage of the development and there are several guidelines that must be strictly adhered to.

  1. Cover the specific functions performed by personnel in each position classification and stay away from job descriptions because thay are usually a canned job.
  2. Describe what the employee does.
  3. Describe how the employee does it.
  4. Giving consideration to items 2 and 3, determine the work output or the result of the employee’s effort.
  5. Write the description in terms of things that can be defined and things that are either measurable or observable.


An example of one job behavior guide is task 3 for fire fighters, which relates to training. Results of this task can be documented by training tests, observation, and an individual’s participation in training beyond that required by the department.

Another example is task 1 for captains, which relates to the maintenance of records and is also easily documented for evaluation purposes.

Finally, it was necessary to conduct a training session for our supervisors in the use of the new evaluation system. This training stressed the following points which have to be addressed to make the system function:

  1. Each task must be rated separately.
  2. Day-to-day performance must be closely reviewed.
  3. Consideration must be given only to what the fire fighter does in relation to his task—not the potential value of a fire fighter.
  4. Supervisors must use their own judgment.

Prior to the adoption of our current system, evalutions were conducted during the month of an employee’s birthdate and again six months later. Under the new system, evaluations are still conducted semi-annually. However, due to the competitive nature of this system, we now evaluate all employees during a 30-day period.

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Fire Fighter—Task 3

Participates in training classes and performs in fire fighting drills.


Attends training drills, classes and other than inservice training in his own time; attends college level classes; participates in the instruction of training classes; stays abreast of technological changes within the fire service.


Attends in-service training classes and participates in in-service training drills.


Does not regularly attend in-service training programs and participates little or not at all in fire fighting drills.

Fire Captain—Task 1

Maintains records and compiles information pertaining to shift personnel.


Collects and compiles accurate and complete information for reports. Reports are always accurate and are turned in on time. Always keep records of shift objectives and shift personnel up to data. Is able to identify the need for new forms or methods for recording keeping and sees that they are drafted and initiated. Reviews reports for accuracy and always speaks with personnel filing report if inaccuracies or errors are found. Needs no supervision to complete the job.


With only occasional supervision and correction, collects and compiles information for reports. Usually prepares accurate and complete reports on schedule. Keeps records of shift objectives and shift personnel reasonably up to date.


Requires correction and supervision of reports. Inadequately collects and compiles information for reports. Does not complete reports on time. Fails to submit reports. Reports are incomplete. Records of shift objectives and personnel are not up to date and are inaccurate.

Ratings are prepared by the employee’s immediate supervisor and are reviewed at the next highest level of supervision. Fire fighters are normally evaluated by a lieutenant and reviewed by a captain.

After the captains have satisfied themselves as to the fairness and accuracy of the evaluations, they are forwarded to the deputy chief. The deputy then meets with each captain to review evaluations to ensure that all captains are applying the same standards in the grading of the tasks.

This final review is of extreme importance. The individual charged with this responsibility must be able to recognize inconsistencies and deal with them in order to ensure fairness to the employees being evaluated. We found this step to be the most difficult and most time consuming, but the effort is necessary in order to have uniform grading.

After necessary adjustments have been made, evaluations are returned to the supervisors, who review whem with their employees. Employees have 10 days to appeal evaluations.

Appeal process

The first step of the appeal process is informal. The employee simply notifies the chief of the department he desires to appeal his evaluation. A meeting is scheduled by the chief with the employee and his captain. If the employee is not satisfied with the decision rendered by the chief, he may then appeal to the director of personnel.

The second step, or formal appeal, is heard by a three-person panel consisting of one individual from the personnel department, and one supervisor and one non-supervisor from other departments. The latter two individuals are drawn from a previously selected pool and they cannot be employees of the fire department.

Within five working days after hearing the appeal, the panel must forward a written decision to the employee, the chief of the fire department, and the employee’s immediate supervisor. The panel’s decision is final and if it finds in favor of the employee, his rating must be revised in accordance with the decision.

Guidelines for appeals

Employees who appeal must abide by the following guidelines:

  1. An employee cannot appeal his rating by comparing his rating with that of a fellow employee.
  2. The employee must specify the specific task being appealed.
  3. The employee cannot appeal the pay award.

It should be pointed out that employee pay is not determined until all appeals have been heard and decided. Item 3 means that an employee cannot base his appeal upon a statement such as, “My evaluation may mean I won’t receive a merit increase. Therefore, I want to appeal.”

Pay plan development

This is probably the most important part of the process because it involves the linking of pay to an individual’s performance in accordance with his numerical rating.

After all appeals are complete, each captain receives a salary worksheet which lists his employees, their ratings, the amount of money necessary to award that a 2.5,5, or 7.5 percent increase, and the total amount of money available for merit increases for his employees.

At this point, each captain has to determine what the scoring criteria should be for his employees. For example, he might decide that individuals ranging from 0 to 59 would receive no increase; those from 60 to 75 a 2.5 percent increase; 76 to 90, a 5 percent increase; and from 91 to 100, a 7.5 percent increase. Each captain has to develop a scoring criteria that permits salary increases to be awarded with the amount of money available for his platoon.

The next step in the pay plan development occurs with a meeting of all captains. The captains as a group determine what the departmental scoring criteria will be and naturally this requires concessions on the part of some captains. This scoring criteria is then approved by the chief of department and is applied throughout the department to all ranks for the purpose of awarding pay in accordance with an individual performance.

We have operated with this evaluation system for more than a year and the following results can be documented.

  1. Good performance is being recognized and the supervisor has a means to reward good performance.
  2. Fire captains have assumed true management status since they control the pay of their subordinates.
  3. Improvements in the attainment of organizational and individual objectives have been documented.
  4. A better evaluation has been attained. Supervisors give more thought to the process because they realize that it will ultimately affect an individual’s pay.
  5. Employee/supervisor relations have improved because the evaluation has to be discussed candidly.

This system can produce tangible benefits for both the employee and the organization. It will work and it will improve employees’ performance if it is properly managed. Aside from the noticeable benefits is the personal satisfaction I have in being able to tell citizens, with documentation, that our personnel are paid in accordance with their performance and productivity.

The LaPlata, Mo., Volunteer Fire Department took delivery of a 1967 GMC 3/4-ton pickup truck on a permanent loan basis from the Missouri Department of Conservation through the efforts of Edward Keyser, fire protection forester of Kirksville. Fire fighters purchased a canopy for the truck and built rear doors. It was painted by Dewey Roger, lettered by Terry Baker and equipped with forcible entry, ventilation and rescue equipment. It is used on all fire calls—city or rural and responds to injury accidents and disaster situations. It is available to all of Macon County and part of Adair County, including Kirksville.

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