Texas Bull’s Eye

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

I was in a recent conversation at a management conference with a group of firefighters and was asked, “What is the most critical thing a fire officer must do?” My answer was that the boss must create and maintain an effective level of “fitness for duty.” My answer produced a few blank looks; finally, someone (thankfully) blurted out, “Huh?” So then I tried to describe how critical being fit for duty is to how we operate. In our very active discussion, everyone seemed to agree that everything a boss does that affects fit for duty will either positively or negatively influence our operational effectiveness and safety. I guess this is the natural agony and ecstasy of being the boss.

Our basic duty is to prevent harm. To do that, we must deliver protective service. Our service delivery capability is created by all of our organizational resources: humans, facilities, hardware, and systems. Each of those categories has its own fitness-for-duty capability profile, and together they create the level of our overall ability to protect the people, places, and things in our response area.

When we consider the recent recession we have suffered through and the reduction in all four categories of fit-for-duty resources, we must ponder the effect they have had on how we protect our community. No matter how community administrators and politicians lecture fire chiefs about how they must now “do more with less,” that phrase was developed about a decade ago. Then, we had enough resources that we could do the more-with-less adjustment. For the past decade, we have cut out all the fat, and all that is left is bone. Any current reduction causes structural damage to how we deliver service.

Everyone, whether they want to or not, must absolutely live with the timeless reality that the mother and father of disaster are “too little” and “too late.” I guess we could also say that the mother and father of effective service are “enough” and “on time.”

I recently watched a news clip of a very articulate, capable metro city fire chief testifying to the city council/mayor about the current level of operational capability within his department after an extended period of significantly “browning out” fire and EMS companies. His response to his bosses was (I thought) very simple and straightforward. He explained that the concern of the politicians about the current response time resulted from budget-reducing decisions made by these same politicians to remove the units and that the predictable effect of that resource reduction is extended response time.

His very frustrated (but very well-controlled) reaction reflected that he had to now manage 80 percent of his (very busy) original fire department and then to report to the group (who took away the other 20 percent), which was now surprised/shocked that the response times went down 20 percent. Today, the kids would say, “Duh.” This is a perfect example of how fit for duty (in this case = reduction) actually works, including the reaction (on both sides of the issue) in the real world.

Fit-for-duty resource capability is the result of the interaction and relationship of input and output-simply, resource input directly relates to service delivery output. If we fiddle with the resource inputs (+/-) on the front end, it will directly affect the service outcomes (+/-) on the back end. It would seem that this relationship is kind of an iron law of logic (!) and when service delivery outcome is reduced because resource is removed, it should not be a big shock to someone who is capable enough to get elected to the city council on one side or to have the ability to become a fire chief on the other.

It is fascinating to watch the resource reduction adventure when the political policy makers call on and expect the chief of their fire department (who, incidentally, serves at their pleasure) to stand up and explain that reducing resources will not affect the ability to protect and serve the customer. National standards that describe long-standing response time requirements and staffing levels many times do not seriously influence the discussion. It seems that current budget constraints outperform those long-standing, well-tested deployment standards.

Modern, fairly conscious, contemporary fire chiefs have been raised on these standards and believe in them and attempt to follow them. I respectfully understand that communities today are seriously constrained by budget limitations and that what we can now afford simply limits the level of resource allocation. Whereas the budget today is what it is, the current reductions create a major source of frustration for today’s fire administrator who is called on to create some miraculous explanation (actually voodoo) that reassures the body politic that the reduced level of resource is really okay. If this trend continues, the system should recruit executive fire officers from the local budget office (fine people), not those of us who were assigned at an impressionable young age to Engine One.

There is currently a need for some reality therapy throughout the whole budget determination process. Any recession (like the current one) is regulated by its own iron law of logic: There are no longer the resource inputs ($) to support the former level of outputs (translated into service delivery). If we assume that the level of resource capability that was in place before the recession was adequate to effectively protect the local community, then we must realize that when that level is reduced, there must logically be some reduction in effectiveness.

The standard our service has used to determine adequate response capability is based on more than a half century of testing and actual street application. The deployment levels involve both acceptable and effective resource levels and the response time requirements to deliver a standard level of protection. These standards, developed through actual service delivery experience, have been continuously tested. Those tests have consistently produced essentially the same results for the past 50 years. Recent deployment testing was performed within the most carefully controlled, academically based, statistically significant design and produced exactly the same results as all the earlier testing and actual application.

My rant is not that the “city” is broke (now just about every local place is). I understand that a city cannot print money. If the city fathers/mothers have to cut the budget for everything to add up, then that’s what they were elected to do, and I sincerely and respectfully sympathize with them. My gripe is that you can’t cut off the budget end and then be surprised/shocked that it very directly affects the service delivery end.

The budget we are allocated supports our troops, facilities, hardware, and service delivery and support systems. These are the basic organizational parts of a fire department, and every piece integrates with the others to create a system to deliver service to Mrs. Smith when she calls us to help her. I believe that the current squeeze on our resources has caused us to become more creative and innovative and that is always a good thing for whatever reason motivates us. The dilemma I see is that the recession has not changed the physical fire extinguishing characteristics of a gallon of water, the thermal/toxic properties of a unit of heat have not changed, and gravity pulling on a fire-damaged building could care less about the current recession.

Toxic/thermal/gravity are our timeless enemies, and they are getting worse: Fires produce more heat and are more toxic, and burning buildings now collapse on us quicker. Everyone responsible in any way for providing public fire and rescue protection must somehow realize the sad reality of how those current conditions react and how they affect the customer and the firefighter.

When the result of reduced resources gets explained in baloney political terms (everything is alright when it’s not), it could cause us to apply what is called the “Texas Bull’s Eye.” A really smart guy explained this process to me. He related that a hokey-pokey Texas marksman would shoot into the side of the barn and then draw the bull’s eye with the bullet hole in the center of the target; if you can manipulate the target, you can consistently shoot 100 percent. When we, for whatever reason, increase our standard response level in the beginning, then explain that everything is okey dokey in the middle, and then come up short at Mrs. Smith’s kitchen fire at the end, we are simply shooting into the barn, screwing with the target, and then “miss-representing” the outcome.

We have recently invented a new application for an old word. We now use that word to describe how government should act. That word is “transparent.”I think the idea behind transparent is to eliminate the Texas Bull’s Eye.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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