Seeking public opinion of fire department services
Fire departments, as a general rule, evaluate service levels pased upon their perceptions of acceptable standards. From this, either the status quo is maintained or changes are made to improve quality. This works well in most cases because dedicated personnel continue to challenge themselves to perform at a higher level. But occasionally, input from citizens or taxpayers is beneficial. While we have the best intentions to provide the highest possible level of service, we should try o give the public what it wants, not what we think it ought to have.
With this perspective, the Farmington .fills (Mich.) Fire Department has imolemented a program to seek out public Opinion of the fire department and >«olicit suggestions from the “customer.” ^We believed that we were providing excellent service, but were unsure of *ne public’s perception. A simple postcard questionnaire helps to determine the level of satisfaction of the people who receive services-either emergency incidents or fire prevention inspections-from the fire department.
Until this program began in April 1987, the only time feedback was received from the public was after unusual cases, either good or bad. Historically, very few people wrote or called, and even fewer indicated dissatisfaction with the department.
We also thought that we could get feedback that would help in training our personnel. For example, while we were able to measure technical skills on the training ground and in the classroom, we were unable to evaluate “bedside manner.” How did firefighters and officers apply their skills and knowledge? Were they “practice players,” or did they perform when it counted? We wanted to know if our personnel needed more training to develop interpersonal skills. Our goal was not to “catch” personnel doing something wrong, but to ensure that they were operating as trained and in a professional manner.
The questionnaires were patterned after the survey cards often used by restaurants and hotels that provide feedback from the customer to management. We wanted a simple form that wouldn’t overburden those completing them. We also wanted to make it easy for the form to be returned to the department.
Questions were designed to address perceptions of professionalism, training, competence, and courtesy. We also were interested in measuring how the public perceived response time to the emergency and the time taken to perform inspections, not in actual minutes, but whether or not it was a reasonable period of time from the viewpoint of the “customer.” From this, a series of questions was developed for both incidents and inspections that are satisfied with simple “yes” and “no” responses. Space was provided for additional comments, and the respondent was asked to provide his name and phone number in case more information was needed.
Once the questions were developed, they were printed on a preaddressed, prestamped postcard. A letter was sent with the card to explain its purpose and procedure.
Initially, a survey was sent out to every third incident and inspection. For emergencies, we wanted to cover all types of incidents (fires, service calls, EMS calls, etc ), cover all days of the week and times of day, and cover all fire stations. For inspections, we were looking for feedback on individual inspectors, type of inspections (annual, final, reinspections, etc.), and type of occupancy. Our purpose was to get a true random sampling and to ensure enough returns to draw conclusions. The early response was good, with approximately 60% of the cards returned. This response gave us the confidence to change the frequency rate of surveys sent from every third to every fifth incident and inspection.
Prior to being sent out, each card is coded so that the incident or inspection can be logged and then referenced upon the card’s return. The surveys are sent out within five days of every incident. We take the information off the incident reports; therefore, the personnel completing these reports must obtain accurate information, particularly for those cases in which the occupant is not the owner, numerous patients are involved, or the incident occurs away from the mailing address of the person involved. In certain cases, based upon information on the report, a survey is not sent. These include sensitive incidents such as suicide or death, or cases with no specific address or name. Hie next incident would then receive a survey.
Forms are also sent in cases in which specific information on a particular incident is desired. This could be a structure fire, as those calls are not as numerous as EMS calls or other types of incidents. In the case of inspections, the surveys are sent out after all reinspections are completed so feedback can be received on the entire contact with the fire department.
We receive approximately 400 completed survey cards per year for both incidents and inspections. More than 45 percent of the cards returned have provided additional comments, all but one complimenting the professional manner in which the services were rendered. The returned cards are reviewed by the chief and the fire marshal. A negative response to any question requires follow-up, usually a personal phone call from the fire chief, provided a name and number are given.
Some people who were called have offered legitimate suggestions. For example, one woman wondered why we would ask her eight-year-old daughter, who had fainted, specific questions while trying to ascertain her level of consciousness. The mother felt the questions were too specific and that her daughter might not know the correct. day of the week even when she was healthy. The suggestion was relayed to firefighters as a constructive reminder.
These calls have proven to be very helpful, offering an explanation that’ helps the citizen better understand the fire department and often change a potentially negative attitude into a positive feeling. These people usually don’t expect to hear from the department after they complete the survey. Many are amazed that the chief would seek^ their opinion. This has proven beneficial from a public relations viewpoint.
The follow-up phone calls have pro-vided another benefit, as they’re an additional assessment tool to evaluate”* the private ambulance company that provides paramedic and transportation services for the city. We can make clear to the citizens the distinction between the fire department’s role as first responder and the private company.
The results to date have been excellent, a compliment to our personnel and a testament to the professionalism ob the department, as well as allowing an, avenue of communications with the citizens.
Of the approximate 450 incident sur-x veys returned during the first 15 months of the program, the following comments were received: Six cards stat. ed that the fire department did not identify themselves, though the respondents indicated that they didn’t really need such information, as the “big red truck” gave them a clue as to who was’ arriving. One person felt the firefighter^ were arrogant. Another was dissatisfied because he received a citation for open’ burning. ,.
The most concern expressed was in the area of response time, with ten’ respondents dissatisfied. Of these, nine, responses were under seven minutes, and one response was eleven minutes ‘ Discussions with the persons receiving the services revealed no great dissatisfaction as a whole and often revealed circumstances bevond the control of. the fire department. Some of the cases involved delays by the police dispatch center. Other times, the people hadn’t called the correct emergency number.
Overall, we found that the answers to questions concerning response time were based more on “panic” perception ^.han actual time. We have had what we consider long response times reported as very fast by the survey respondents. Jo some, you can’t get there fast enough. Others are satisfied that you showed up, were professional, and were ompetent. Considering the number of returned surveys, the negative responses are very minimal.
, Of the inspection survey cards returned, the following was noted: One respondent felt that personnel were ^ude. We do not feel that this is a ^problem, as we can’t please everyone. However, we did make a comment to £Lhe inspectors involved. Three people felt that the violations were not fully explained, because of this, we have continued to educate and remind our inspectors to communicate with the building occupants and owners to ensure that they understand our requirements. Another person felt that his questions were not adequately answered.
Seventy-three percent of the respondents indicated the inspections took 30 ^minutes or less, not as big an imposition on business as many may believe. Again, tve are dealing more with perceptions ,of time as opposed to actual time. Hence, we have concluded that the Occupants do not believe that we are ♦aking up too much of their time.
All in all, it was a very good report t«ard. Typical comments described personnel as nice, helpful, polite, professional, and courteous. This was somewhat surprising to us because it indicates acceptance of fire safety and code enforcement inspections, yet does not v^n-ish the positive image of the firefighters/inspectors in the community.
The results have proved successful ‘Snd above our expectations, and the srost for the first 18 months, including printing and postage, was less than «500.
We had some initial concerns: Would the public take the time to return the Purveys? Would we receive bad reports? We were inviting criticism and allowing the public an avenue to vent all of their frustrations in dealing with the whole spectrum of governmental services.
The city manager was concerned that other city departments would be pressured to develop such a survey. He felt that other departments would be more likely to receive negative feedback because of the nature of their work, and that the surveys would stir up a “hornet’s nest.”
None of these concerns have presented a problem. As a matter of fact, the police department has since developed a system patterned after our program and has found it successful.
From the cards, we now know that the citizens appreciate the services we provide. There has been no distinction between career and volunteer, day or night, station to station, or weekend to weekday. This positive feedback (which goes beyond the occasional letter) is important to firefighters. The public perceives that we are a competent, professional organization of which the community is very proud.