Data in and data out…

Are the numbers important?

CarolinaFireJournal - By Ron Cheves
By Ron Cheves
10/22/2013 -

Does your Fire/EMS agency have a good paper trail? Do you keep good records and can you find them when you are asked for them? Do you really look at the data or do you print it and put it in the file? Do you know what they mean and what they can do for you?

If you are one that does keep good data and you truly know what good data can do, you are a rare breed indeed. I am finding that most of us do have good information but most are not willing to take the time to do more than what is required.


Just about every chief officer and most firefighters can tell you how many calls per year they run and about how many of those are EMS runs versus fire runs, but few can tell you beyond that. There are many other bits of information that really makes a fire or EMS agency see how they are doing.

We all need to have some type of performance measurement or goals to gauge the department’s effectiveness. Do you have a benchmark on response times only? What do your community leaders, and even the community citizens, know about your response times and the other things you are doing? Are these numbers good enough to meet their expectations?

Communities need to understand what drives your department and what make you different (better) than the other departments your size. The community’s expectations about services and what they should include must guide how the fire department seeks additional funding or resources. Most times these expectations are higher than the fire department can support due to funding. The best way to accomplish this is to come to some balance between what is expected and what the community is willing to support. These expectations can be achieved by having response goals that provide the fire department a benchmark for success. And it is very important that the fire department not set these goals internally. We sometimes choose what we think is right without knowing what is real. Community feedback is essential to determine the correct path to your future.

Some performance goals may include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Average time from dispatch to response
  • Average time from response to arrival
  • Average time on the scene with basic or ALS
  • Number of certified or qualified firefighters assembled on the scene within a defined time period (NFPA 1710 or 1720)
  • Generation of proper fire flow (per ISO) within a defined time period

All of this data will be able to supply you with “dashboards” for the department and the local government or community leaders to use in determining how the department’s performance measures up to community expectations. These organizational dashboards will provide a way to monitor in real time compliance within your organization’s goals. When looking at this data in real time you will be able to adjust your response strategies accordingly. When the goals and expectations are not being met, the department needs to re-evaluate how it is operating.

If you are operating an all-volunteer fire department or a combination department some other data will be essential to your success. These will be, but not limited to:

  • Average volunteer retention rate
  • Average annual recruitment and associated demographics
  • Average call per volunteer
  • Busiest time of the day
  • Busiest day of the week
  • Any fund raising data critical to the budget
  • Cost of recruiting, hiring and training new people

One very important thing to remember if you are using volunteer shifts at different times than the paid staff, you must make certain that the data reflects the right personnel. Do not pit your volunteer shift against your paid staff (they have to be treated differently), and make absolute sure the number for nighttime response allows time to wake and dress to respond on the call.

When you are trying to determine the right benchmark and goals make sure you are keeping the goals real and something that is achievable. If you set the bar too high, or try to compare your department to someone else or something you can never be, you will be disappointed in the results and the program will fail. It is imperative that the leaders of the department do not try to compare or create guidelines that emulate large departments. Focus on what your department’s core mission should be and create a model that is effective for your department and your community.

When looking at staffing for an incident such as NFPA 1710 or 1720 suggest, be careful that you not over commit what you are capable of doing. Change what needs to be changed to meet your needs, but keep in mind the minimums required for a safe scene. Don’t feel you have failed if you do not meet these standards 100 percent of the time, most departments don’t. Keep track of all incidents and you will find the average will be the numbers you are looking at.

If your community leaders feel like you are doing a good job and you are satisfied with your level of service then you probably are doing a good job with your data and how you communicate those numbers to those leaders. But do not be satisfied with the existing state or condition (status quo). Everyone can always make improvements on what’s being done. You need to be the one with the answers before the questions are asked as to why numbers are down, response levels are slipping, or you’re losing too many volunteers. Leaders in the fire and EMS service should have their fingers on the pulse of the agency and as things start to slip in the wrong direction a corrective action can take place immediately.

After all of this is done and you feel like you have the right information, make a plan to get it in a form of the dashboard talked about earlier. Keep in mind that you cannot have too much information, but you need to present it in small amounts, and keep it as simple as possible. If you can make pie charts and bar grafts that will be the simplest, and very easy to follow when you present it. You should do this on a regular basis so the information is fresh and current. Share this with you officers and all the members of the department before you try it on the community leaders.

Chief Ron J. Cheves (ret.) has 39 plus years as a volunteer in the fire and emergency services rising to the position of Fire Chief. He currently leads the Red Ribbon courses for the VCOS section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and in 2012 was appointed to NFPA 1720, the standard for Organization and Deployment by Volunteer Fire-EMS Dept. He is a columnist/lecturer for several fire service publications and participates in numerous conferences throughout the country. Cheves now serves his local community as the Safety Officer for the Robinson Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department, a progressive Fire-Rescue provider for about 5,000 residents. He can be reached at 704-557-5781 or [email protected].
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