Is the Fire Service Trading Effectiveness for Efficiency? Complacency and Normalization of Deviance

Firefighter on a ladder

By Dane Carley and Craig Nelson

In reality, the push to become efficient has taught complacency when compared to the mindset 20 years ago. In fact, the level of complacency seems to have turned into a normalization of deviance , except this normalization of deviance did not develop from crews taking shortcuts and accepting the shortcut as a new way of doing business, as is often the case when discussing normalization of deviance. This normalization of deviance is a choice made by fire department administrators across the country based on their interpretation of data to make a fire department more efficient because of real or perceived political pressures.

Hence in 2017, the assumption was that the reports were smoke from an earlier fire, so no definitive action was taken until the engine from Fire Station #32 reported their findings. The initial smoke reports coming into the dispatch center were given a ranking, a determination of importance (or not), much like a medical is ranked in the medical priority system. This behavior is a culture shift seen throughout the fire service, and is the result of years of finding ways to be more efficient based on data and probabilities without considering outcomes. This is the type of thing that happens, and will continue to happen, as long as the fire service uses data to justify fewer outputs because of lower inputs (efficiency) without considering outcomes (effectiveness). An efficiency is only effective, and should only be implemented, when considered in the context of an outcome. An efficiency should never be implemented for the sole reason that it will save money. These are symptoms of a fire service that is no longer a higher reliability organization.

RELATED: Construction Concerns: Complacency and HubrisFirefighter Safety: The Normalization of DevianceDon’t Bet Your Life: The Sin of Complacency

What does the fire service do to remain a highly reliable organization; to remain effective and not just strive for being the most efficient? The answers are to listen to those on the street and to use the correct data in the correct context to measure outcomes instead of simply outputs.

Listening to those on the street is a trait of highly reliable organizations. The line staff who put the administration’s decisions to work every day see how those decisions affect people–the outcomes. Line staff may not have data to back their position, but their gut tells them when a department’s standard practice is affecting the public negatively based on their experiences. The line staff knows when having too few people at a full arrest reduced the likelihood of the patient surviving. The line staff knows that a fire would have damaged less and put fewer people in danger had another engine responded sooner. The line staff may not have numbers and charts to support their position, but their position is just as valid.

Second, use data correctly. Data will tell the user anything the user asks but also only what the user asks. Using data to make operations more efficient also makes the department more effective when used correctly, just as the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire has done with the inspection program. However, data can be misleading when taken out of context, with preconceived notions, or collected incorrectly.

Third, use data to measure outcomes instead of outputs. For example, it makes no difference if an effective response force (ERF) of 18 people arrive on the scene of a working fire in eight minutes or less if those people are not trained. All 18 people could stand in the front yard and roast hot dogs, but the department can say they responded with an ERF in the allotted amount of time. But we typically measure an ERF because it is easy, which is nothing more than an output.

An outcome measures more. An ERF may be a component contributing to a positive outcome for a structure fire, but an outcome measures how the incident affected someone such as a homeowner, for example. Measuring whether the fire extended more than five percent after the first unit’s arrival is an outcome measure for this same situation. This tells the department if that ERF was not only a sufficient number of people but it also tells the department if those people were trained adequately to put lines in service to keep the fire from growing significantly after their arrival. Another, and possibly better, outcome measure may be how long the homeowners were required to live somewhere else. Instead of having a goal of placing 18 people on the scene in eight minutes 90 percent of the time, a department should measure how long a homeowner is required to live somewhere else and set a goal that 90 percent of homeowners will be able to return to their home in less than X number of months after a fire.

So while it may not be possible to identify a specific reason or provide a direct measurement of the cultural shift in the fire service, many years of observation and study of human behavior has shown that we may need to refocus our attention on what is important. We need to be efficient where it is appropriate and make our case to our politicians with numbers but also remember that being effective is more important to our shareholders–the community–than being efficient when they call 911. We are the 0.1 percent of people in a typical community trained and equipped for an emergency, so we need to plan for the worst-case scenario and hope for the best so we are prepared for the worst every time we arrive on the scene.

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Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

Craig Nelson works for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department and works part-time at Minnesota State Community and Technical College – Moorhead as a fire instructor. He also works seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter in Northwest Minnesota. Previously, he was an airline pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

Dane Carley entered the fire service in 1989 in southern California and is currently a captain for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since then, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting in capacities ranging from fire explorer to career captain. He has both a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology, and a master’s degree in public safety executive leadership. Dane also serves as both an operations section chief and a planning section chief for North Dakota’s Type III Incident Management Assistance Team, which provides support to local jurisdictions overwhelmed by the magnitude of an incident.

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