Fighting Fire with Data: Command And Leadership

Fighting Fire with Data

Fightinf Fire with Data
We saw how using and sharing our data with our field personnel could have a positive impact on our service to our community. (Photos courtesy of Orange County Fire Rescue Department.)

In 2009, after being appointed chief of the Orange County Fire Rescue Department (OCFRD) in central Florida, I found an organization that was experiencing population growth, higher call volumes, record numbers of tourists, and heavier traffic congestion. The challenge quickly became putting into place a process that would constantly evaluate and leverage existing resources while being able to rationally respond to existing and future service demands. The challenge was made more difficult because, like other departments across the nation, OCFRD was facing financial pressures because of the housing crisis and subsequent recession’s impact on local government budgets. In other words, the department was being asked to do more with less.

Strategic Planning Process

To address these issues and others, we initiated a strategic planning process that would accomplish three things:

  • Provide for a higher level of transparency and accountability, with the objective of providing information that would tell citizens what they’re getting for their money and the results they could expect.
  • Develop performance indicators across every service and program area to allow employees at every level of the organization to see how their efforts contribute toward the achievement of our goals and objectives.
  • Enhance the credibility of the organization by clearly setting service-level expectations for the community that reflect the available resources and investment in the department.

To truly bring the strategic plan to life, we knew we needed a more efficient and effective way of tracking performance in every area, especially those that directly impacted members of the community, such as our emergency dispatch center and field operations. The department knew that if technology could be harnessed to make those measures available in real time, without significantly adding to our workload, we could unleash the natural tendency of public safety employees to reach the highest level of performance possible.

Call Processing and Turn Out

Early on, we saw how using and sharing our data with our field personnel could have a positive impact on our service to our community. Under pressure to keep response times from increasing further, we knew we couldn’t drive faster, nor could we just build more stations or add additional units without significant investment in terms of both funds and time. So we looked at those elements of response time that were within our control and could be reduced without additional resources. Within the cascade of events that occur from the time an emergency begins to the time we arrive on scene, what are elements of response time that we can control? The most obvious, and possibly only, answers were call processing (the time it takes to answer and process a call and dispatch units) and turn out (the time from the alarm sounding to the units leaving the station).

Both of these times had increased well above where we wanted them to be: Call processing 90th percentile time was approaching two and a half minutes while turn-out time was approaching two minutes, a significant portion of the overall response. We knew these areas presented a prime opportunity to impact overall response time.

Focusing on customer service and performance rather than compliance with a standard, OCFRD launched a quality improvement program using FirstWatch software to measure call processing and turn-out time performance. Communicators in the dispatch center and firefighters in all 41 stations could access real-time gauges and reports that displayed their performance. In addition, the software provided supervisors and chief officers with e-mail and text alerts when times exceeded the standards. Quickly, we began to see differences in our communications center and among companies as they began to benchmark against each other, looking for ways to improve their own internal processes to improve performance.

Tracking Measures

We had always emphasized minimizing call-processing time and turn-out time, but until we used our data to show department members each and every day how they were performing, we struggled to improve in a manner that sustained itself consistently. Using our data; providing real-time feedback; and emphasizing improvement, not punishment, made all the difference. Shortly after focusing directly on call processing and turn-out times, we began to see a significant difference. Today, our call processing time has improved from two minutes 16 seconds to 57 seconds at the 90th percentile. Our 90th percentile turn-out time for EMS incidents has improved from one minute 42 seconds to 60 seconds, and our turn-out time for fire calls has improved from one minute 25 seconds to 53 seconds at the 90th percentile.

Out of 243 performance measures in our strategic business plan, call processing and response time are just two examples of how we began to use and communicate data that would help us bring our strategic vision to life. We built several operational performance measures into our strategic plan that go beyond the typical structural measures tracked by fire departments. While 911 callers care that we arrive on scene quickly, they also want us to put the fire out quickly, so we are now tracking how long it takes firefighters to establish a water supply, put water on the fire, and initiate primary and secondary searches.

We certainly don’t know if every measure we are looking at today is the exact right one, and we expect that many will change as we continue to refine and improve our processes. But as I’ve told my immediate reports in the past, “If we say it’s important to us, then we should measure it for improvement.”

Tracking these measures is critically important to knowing whether we are providing the high level of service that the public expects and deserves. By putting these measures in the strategic plan and sharing the results with all members of the department, each firefighter, telecommunicator, and administrative staff member knows exactly what the mission is and whether the agency is achieving it. They also understand the importance of accurate data entry and timely report completion.

Beyond Performance Improvement

There are other, less obvious gains from conducting internal performance improvement efforts and not being afraid to share the results internally and externally. By showing that we were capable of shaving time from our response without any additional resources, we demonstrated an understanding that budgets are limited and money doesn’t fix every problem. In the end, that dedication probably helped us convince local officials that we weren’t simply asking for more money because it was something everyone always did-even with those impressive improvements, our response time still wasn’t adequate to certain areas of the county as development continued and the population grew.

As a result, county officials allocated $30 million to construct new stations to help meet demand. In an era when the public and local governments expect higher accountability and return on investment, OCFRD’s use of data and performance measures likely helped assure county officials that our request for more resources was based on an analysis of current resources, demand, and performance.

Using data to create a results-oriented organization shouldn’t be limited to new tech start-ups or manufacturers. Fire departments that do not take advantage of the troves of data they have in their hands will find themselves lacking accountability, situational awareness, and the ability to improve operations.

Real-Time Data

  • Establish two out.
  • Establish a rapid intervention team.
  • Establish a water supply.
  • Put water on the fire.
  • Contain the fire.
  • Initiate a primary search.
  • Complete a primary search.
  • Initiate a secondary search.
  • Complete a secondary search.
  • Establish ventilation.
  • Extinguish the fire completely.

Current Issue

April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4