STATISTICS in Fire Service Administration
Using carefully collected data as a management tool gives you a big advantage in maintaining community service levels.
Today’s fire executives have a greater need for more sophisticated, highly developed management skills. Human resources management, budgeting, funding requests, and compliance with legislation must receive attention equal to that given to firefighting itself.
In their managerial roles, fire service executives must acquire and use the skills and training that public managers and administrators have. They can no longer rely on the technical specialization of their profession to offset the demands for accountability, documentation, and objective information.
One of the most fundamental tools for effective management is data analysis. Data analysis is a component of research and statistical analysis, the larger area of skill used in public administration. Data are used in four major ways as a powerful administration tool: in needs assessments, evaluations, information processing, and presentations. Senior fire executives use these tools on a regular basissome more than others, and some with greater skill than others. Through proper use of these data analysis techniques, fire executives can greatly enhance their capabilities and performance.
CONDUCTING NEEDS ASSESSMENTS
A needs assessment involves conducting an objective study of a given situation to determine need. The study’s focus varies according to the need you are trying to determine. For example, a department evaluating its level of emergency medical services would study community demographics to answer such questions as, Does the community need public EMS? What level of service is required? Who will have to rely on the service? The department would study its own resources and logistics to determine apparatus, equipment, manning, and training levels needed to provide a specific level of service.
Needs assessments can be used in a number of ways in the fire service. In the area of human resources, they can assess manpower and training needs. They can support a request to upgrade or purchase equipment by demonstrating the difference between current stock and optimal stock, given current and anticipated service demands. A needs assessment comparing the current gear available with that recommended in NFPA 1500 can support a request to upgrade turnout gear.
Fire departments also can use needs assessment in planning. As a community grows and changes, it places new demands on the fire service. A department may need to expand its service area or shift the allocation of its vehicles among stations. These decisions are based on an assessment of the changing needs and demands of the community.
A different form of needs assessment comes into play in hazardous chemical emergency response planning as required under SARA Title III. This plan entails hazards analysis and community analysis prior to the actual construction of the response plan itself. The hazards analysis identifies the potential need for response as it documents the types, concentrations, and potential effects of chemical hazards found in the community. The community capability analysis identifies the resources the community has to deal with such hazards. Identify and document the gaps in community response capability and the needs of the community. Then you can develop the optimal response plan.
A needs assessment should be performed and documented as part of every emergency response plan. However, many communities do not recognize the value in using it to extend comprehensive department capabilities. A documented need, tied to new mandated codes, laws, and standards, can support a strong argument for upgrading service.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EVALUATION
Evaluation should be an automatic follow-up to action taken as a result of a documented needs assessment. It is a way to make an objective determination of the performance level of an individual, a program, a department, or equipment. The performance may be relative or measured against a predetermined standard. Evaluation categorizes and ranks the subject of study.
The fire service uses evaluation as a basic tool of administrative decision making. Hiring new personnel involves some type of evaluation, usually a written test to measure knowledge and a physical test to measure agility. The scores may or may not be weighed against a set standard. For example, most written tests have a minimum acceptable score below which no one is considered for employment. For any scores above this set minimum, an applicant’s chances for employment depend on the scores of other applicants. A candidate scoring 80 percent may be in the top five in one round of tests and may rank 20th in another. The adequacy of the individual score is relative to the scores of the other candidates.
When performing evaluations, keep in mind the perspective of the subject of study. For example, in evaluating the equipment in a given fire department, the determination must be made relative to the community in which the fire department operates. A large rig with a tower ladder may not be the best choice for a community with narrow, winding streets. Thus, in order to perform objective evaluations, outsiders must take the time to familiarize themselves with the department.
Program evaluations consider the accomplishments of given programs and measure the extent to which they achieve their goals. In addition, evaluations analyze the program’s operation and often identify reasons for success or failure. This makes it easier to refocus or readjust the program for better results.
Remember, the ultimate goal of evaluation is improvement. It is not a punishment or reprimand. Managers should recognize the difference and use evaluation in a positive manner.
The fire executive uses performance evaluation in human resources. Performance evaluation should be tied directly to job description expectations. The best performance evaluation is one that begins with an analysis and discussion of expectations prior to evaluation. Then the manager can measure the evaluation against these clearly defined expectations.
In all cases, evaluation is necessary to maintain and upgrade the quality of the fire service. It is a tool that demonstrates accomplishments and identifies areas to target for improvement. Properly used, evaluation can provide the foundation for in a department’s development.
ONGOING INFORMATION PROCESSING
Information processing is much more than simply putting data into a computer. It is the identification, gathering, analysis, and reporting of data relevant to the study question. Each step in information processing must be carefully integrated, keeping in mind the purpose of the activity, to ensure that the necessary information is gathered and processed properly.
Information can be wrong in two ways: when the numbers or pieces of information themselves are false, or when the data are accurate but have nothing to do with the question being asked. For example, if the fire chief is addressing the question, Are our firefighters adequately prepared to respond to a chemical fire? and has only the information on equipment and protective clothing available, he cannot provide an accurate, substantiated answer. Any good answer must take into consideration the department’s manpower and training levels.
A number of data sources are available to the fire service; obviously, those collected or generated by the service itself are useful. Unfortunately, many fire executives are unaware of the availability of much of this information and. therefore, fail to use it. State and local information sources are also available to aid the fire service. It is important to know how to identify the information needed and where to find it.
A number of data collection activities take place within the fire department itself. The best collection methods are those that start with the uses of the information and design the collection efforts to facilitate those uses. Any examination of the data, whether by a member of the fire service or not, must substantiate conclusions reported. Reporting must be accurate and complete. For example, many departments fail to complete the NIFRS reports. As a result, researchers cannot verify important elements such as equipment or appliance failures or building assembly weaknesses. This delays the discovery and response to these problems, resulting in even greater property loss.
Once data is gathered in-house, it must be processed in a manner appropriate to its intended use. Again, the question being addressed must be clear. Computers are widely available today, and even small personal computers are capable of advanced data analysis techniques and often have high storage capacity as well. Thus data processing is not an impossibility for smaller fire departments. The key is to match the capability with the use.
Information processing should be an ongoing component of routine activity. Use it to compile annual reports, status reports, and special reports requested by council or others as well as for community information campaigns. The ability to document actions and needs greatly strengthens the position of the fire service in its attempts to upgrade manpower levels, training requirements, and equipment capability.
THE IMPACT OF PRESENTATION
The impact and importance of factual information often is buried in a poor presentation. Clarity is the first step to a good presentation of data: The audience must understand exactly what the data show, especially an audience with little knowledge of data analysis and only surface knowledge of the question under discussion. Too much data or data poorly presented just confuse and complicate the issue. For example, if you are requesting an increase in manpower, listing each firefighter’s shift activities during a one-month period would not support your request. On the other hand, a presentation of manpower status over a 10-year period compared with the increase in F.MS and fire runs would. Another argument for increased manpower would be population increase: Present a graph depicting the change in ratio of department manpower to area population to better illustrate your point.
The best method of presentation will vary according to what is being presented and who the audience is. A public presentation on fire safety, for example, should be dramatic and clear. It should not concern itself with details, because the best way to drive home the message is by reinforcing a few key points. For a presentation to council during a budget session, however, much more detail and less sensationalism is called for—the purpose is to explain the situation in detail, not to make a lasting impression.
Charts and graphs visually illustrate comparisons in a way that is clear to the viewer. Tables, when used properly, also add to clarity.
Following is an example of a poor presentation: A midsize community’s fire service was requesting support for a hazardous-materials response team. Initially the fire chief prepared a detailed chart of each hazardous-materials incident that had occurred within the past five years. The chart included the following information for each incident: the name of the chemical involved, the location of the incident, manpower response, equipment response, length of time for containment, time for cleanup, cost of containment, cost of cleanup, law enforcement agency responding, date of compensation for cost, type of action taken to contain the incident, and involvement of medical personnel. As a result of this presentation, discussion centered on why five firefighters responded to one incident and 10 to another, why one spill containment cost twice as much as another, whether it was necessary to close off a major traffic corridor during a containment period, and other matters. The chief never did get the opportunity to focus on the need for funding the haz-mat team.
During the next council session, the chief returned with a two-page document. The first page contained a graph of the increase in hazardousmaterials incidents over the five-year period. The second page contained tables showing man-hours expended in hazardous-materials containment over the same period of time and the costs associated with this containment. This time the chief was able to focus the discussion on the issue, and he was successful in securing the support from council that resulted in allocation of funds for the haz-mat team. This is one example of how the proper use of statistics can impact the level of preparedness of the fire service and greatly enhance the fire department’s position.*