Most firefighters have heard of the fire triangle—fuel, air, and temperature are the basic ingredients in combustion. Most people in our job are familiar with the inverted triangle, a technique used to find the point of a fire’s origin. But another, equally important triangle is less well known: the productivity triangle.
Total cost, firefighters’ concerns, and organizational responsiveness are the basic ingredients in managing an efficient fire department. Knowing how to measure and interpret these factors can be the difference between adequate manning and skeleton crews, between modern equipment and obsolete tools, between high morale and disgruntled workers.
The word productivity has evolved from the Latin words pro (forward) and ducere (to lead). The standard business definition of productivity relates inputs (resources) and outputs (the final product or service).
To apply this formal definition to a manufacturing organization is relatively simple. A classic example is the automobile industry, which analyzes productivity in terms of increasing assembly line production. Improvements are measured by quality (fewer mechanical breakdowns and factory recalls), quantity (more physical units off the assembly line), and time (decreased downtime of the assembly line to retool and refit for new models). So when we study productivity programs in the automobile industry or any other manufacturing organization, there’s tangible evidence of increased outputs.
When the traditional business definition is applied to a public service organization, the inputs are still easy to comprehend—they’re largely the personnel, apparatus, and equipment expenses. But the outputs become abstract. How can fire protection, police protection, or safety fit into the standard definition of outputs? Can a community calculate exactly how many fires, crimes, or industrial accidents were prevented? It’s impossible, because the event never occurred. Yet this doesn’t mean that productivity doesn’t affect the public service agencies; it means only that we who work in such agencies must explore productivity from a different perspective, concentrating on something other than inputs and outputs.
The focus must be on financial responsibilities and human resources.
The financial responsibilities can be measured or projected by looking at the productivity triangle’s total cost side. Three values are involved:
- Risk management is composed of two elements, budget and insurance.
The budget will vary with the size and type of the emergency delivery system and with the needs, wants, and risks that the community can afford and is willing to accept. Common considerations when developing a budget are the major costs:
- Fixed costs are unlikely to change appreciably. Examples are maintenance of both apparatus and fire stations, basic tools and equipment, and utilities.
- Sunk costs are money already spent. Examples are existing fire stations and apparatus.
- Variable costs differ significantly from one alternative to another and need to be closely scrutinized. A major decision is whether to make variable costs internal or external—that is, to do the job yourself or to contract it out. Examples are repairing apparatus, dispensing fuel, getting legal advice, and acquiring photocopy equipment.
The second risk element, insurance, takes the form of the community’s fire insurance rates. These costs have escalated dramatically over the years because of the increase in claims. Yet, one factor is controllable—the insurance grading schedule, which gives equal emphasis to a fire department’s ability to extinguish fires and its ability to prevent them. The four major items that figure into this schedule are fire department equipment and operations, fire prevention activities, the reliability and adequacy of the community’s water supply, and the dependability of the communications system.
Examples of human suffering are plentiful; some of the recent headliners are the Great Adventure fire in Jackson Township, N.J.; the Union Carbide toxic material leak in Bhopal, India; the Stauffer’s Hotel disaster in Harrison, N.Y.; and the Fire Station No. 34 explosion in Philadelphia.
After the Great Adventure fire in May of 1984, the parent company, Six Flags, spent millions of dollars on legal fees, safety improvements, and advertising. Yet the Great Adventure theme park suffered a 17 percent decrease in attendance the summer after the blaze. These costs can be measured now, but future losses due to decreased credibility, pending litigation, and forfeiture of selfregulation can only be projected.
The human suffering costs attached to the Union Carbide leak of December 1984 include all the same ones incurred by Great Adventure plus the direct financial costs of temporary shelter, extra food, medical care, emotional counseling, and lost wages for the people displaced.
The Stauffer’s Hotel disaster in December 1980, which killed 26 persons and injured 30 others, resulted in 12 companies—including Stauffer’s—paying more than $48 million to the survivors and the victims’ families.
The Philadelphia Fire Station No. 34 boiler explosion in May 1986 killed one firefighter and seriously injured two others. Many other firefighters potentially may suffer from long-term, post-incident stress. At this time, it’s impossible to estimate the total cost, but it’s certainly astronomical compared to the cost of replacing a malfunctioning boiler part.
The human element, like financial responsibility, is an integral part of any productivity program. The human element constitutes the other two sides of the productivity triangle.
Because all fire departments are labor-intensive, fire chiefs must be aware of all counterproductive human resource problems and then evaluate policies that comprehensively reflect the concerns of the firefighters:
- Equitable compensation must be analyzed in terms of shortand long-term motivators. In the short term, wages and fringe benefits can attract and motivate new recruits in career departments; better life insurance coverage and reduced property taxes can do the same in the volunteer service. However, to motivate in the long run, the fire service must offer recurring opportunities and challenges. The least expensive, but most effective, motivator is the simple acknowledgment of the efforts of subordinates. A mere “thank you” can help motivate a worker longer than any expensive contractual concession.
- The political environment often catches a fire chief b tween a shoestring budget allocated by the governing body and the basic needs of firefighters (apparatus, equipment, clothing, and training). Whether a department is career, combination, or volunteer, the fire chief will become the buffer or bridge between elected officials and labor leaders. These conflicts occur between management and labor when there’s a perception that the political forces ignore their obligation to provide adequate funding to the emergency delivery system.
- Employment practices have a major effect on the human resource and can be resolved by a common-sense approach to supervising. One of firefighters’ main concerns is their immediate safety. These anxieties are lessened when fire administrators create employment practices throughout the organization that are safe, fair, enforceable, and consistent.
- Effective organizational policies are unbiased, just, clear, and realistic. No one wants to work under rules (written or unwritten) that thrive on the uncertainty of favoritism or arbitrary decisionmaking. Hence, if rules are clearly stated, there’s less chance that firefighters’ physical or mental health will be compromised.
- Participative management is an opportunity for a free exchange of ideas. For many generations, the fire service has been reactive. It responds when the bells go off. To become proactive, an organization must recognize its problems, then train present and future leaders to solve them. Simply put, it means systematic planning.
An example of a good employment practice is the enforcement of the National Institute of Safety and Health recommendation that all firefighters use self-contained breathing apparatus when engaging in interior structural firefighting. An example of a poor employment practice is closing a fire station instead of paying overtime when management and labor have a contractual agreement on minimal apparatus manning.
This can be done only by conferring with labor leaders who influence firefighters’ attitudes, individual firefighters who operate the apparatus and equipment, company officers who supervise the operations, and purchasing agents who develop specifications for apparatus and equipment. Quality circles, quality-of-worklife programs, and employee/employer councils have been successful in instilling pride in the labor force, as well as controlling costs.
Augmenting the concerns of the firefighters are circumstances that have a significant effect upon the human element. Thus the final side of the productivity triangle is organizational responsiveness at times when an organization is susceptible to human resource problems. Usually, these are times when the fire chief must be active and visible to prevent or eradicate morale problems.
- Sympathy for peers occurs whenever there’s a disabling injury. It’s imperative that safety personnel inquire into every accident. Gathering pertinent facts and creating viable programs to prevent future incidents is an indicator of a proficient fire department. As part of any safety investigation, a department should communicate the circumstances surrounding the injury to all the firefighters, ensure accountability of company officers, and have recommendations made directly to the top level of the organization.
- When there’s a change in elected officials or department commanders, work, safety, and health practices may not be clearly communicated at first. Oftentimes, an overzealous new superior will disregard stated safety policies and increase the risk to subordinates in an effort to increase services or status.
- Reduction of forces or the closing of a fire station puts the remaining firefighters in a strange position. Commonly, they’ll feel guilty and apathetic. These negative emotions can pervade the fire station and cause abnormally high resistance to change. The chief must make sure communication is open and the remaining firefighters are properly trained so they have safe work habits in their expanded roles.
- Distractions and dissatisfactions can follow a major fire or incident in which the emergency system is subject to criticism, such as the MOVE fire in Philadelphia in May 1985 or Philadelphia’s Gulf Refinery disaster in August 1975. In career departments, this condition also occurs at or near the time of contractual negotiations, sickout, or strike. Often the workers’ attention isn’t on their task, buton the media’s criticism or the collective bargaining issues. This preoccupation causes neglect of maintenance needs, housekeeping, accits, and injuries. Safety nd training officers who are committed to their duties but still sensitive to the human needs will combat these problems with frequent and unannounced stops at firehouses and emergency incidents.
Productivity can take many forms. It can be as simple as administrators turning their desks away from doors so passersby won’t be a constant distraction or as sophisticated as projecting the actual number of fires prevented, lives saved, arsons solved, and worker injuries avoided by specific programs. Today’s fire chief has many options.
The point to remember is that for a labor-intensive emergency delivery system, productivity should be stated not in narrow input/output terms, but rather in the terms of the productivity triangle. Total costs, concerns of the firefighters, and organizational responsiveness must be addressed and computed for an emergency service to be efficient.