(Appeared in print as "Square Pegs and Round Holes")
Does one size of pants, shirts or shoes fit all? Of course not. People wear different sizes, yet all sizes have similar concepts and designs. In other words, you can have a small pair of shoes or a large pair of shoes, but both share the same essential components, like a heel and a sole, regardless of the size. Size is an issue of scalability.
This principal applies to one of the most essential questions in fire-service management: Can a standard apply to all fire departments? Rather than focus on any one standard, let’s focus on a very simple concept: scalability and capacity.
You either size something up or you size something down to make it fit. You then compare that commodity with what it is supposed to do, and find that you either have it the right size, too big or too little. There is the dilemma: How much is too much and how little is too little?
When determining size, you must consider the attributes of the object being produced. As I was preparing this article, I couldn’t help but think about spandex. It attempts to make one size fit all, but it can only stretch so far. So, what comes with the concept of scalability is the practical limitations of the component.
Any level of service a fire department adopts must be weighed against the level of risk in the community. It is not about the standard; it is about the relationship. If you have a huge fire problem and a miniscule fire department, you have the beginnings of a potential disaster. If you have practically no fire problem and a huge army readied against it, you have something that can’t be sustained. There is another element of scalability that must be part of the discussion: discretionary decisions.
Look at decision-making as a formula that measures need equals capacity. If you don’t know what your need is, then you don’t know what your capacity is. If you know what your capacity is, and it is inconsistent with your need, then you either have overkill or underkill. Have you really assessed your department’s needs and evaluated your resources to make sure that they were equitable and balanced and not just based on some arbitrary, one-size-fits-all mentality? Can you prove that the need is there? Can you prove that you have the capacity to deal with the need?
Consider this: Do firefighters need to be trained? What kind of training do they need? What kind of training is available? What kind of training have you adopted and incorporated into your department? Is there any difference between what you trained your firefighters to do and the actuality of what they do at the scene of an emergency?
We cannot make decisions in a vacuum. What keeps us from all feeling and sounding exactly alike is that our communities are drastically different from one another. We need to recognize that.
Hopefully, I have convinced you that one size doesn’t fit all. So let me introduce you to a second concept: the template. A template is nothing more than a pattern to follow to develop an organization that meets certain criteria. Templates are like patterns, in that there are best management practices for organizations that face similar problems. But a template doesn’t mean one size fits all.
A template means one size fits one size. Volunteer fire departments look different than metropolitan departments. Metropolitan departments that have ports or airports look different than metro department that have neither. There is a great deal of challenge in separating these two concepts in your mind. Nonetheless, an individual who can see the difference between these two can follow a pattern of development to achieve a certain level of service and simultaneously avoid being locked into solutions that don’t work anymore.
Hopefully an individual who sees the implications of these two concepts can engage in the practice of making decisions that are pragmatic and doable. The opposite of this is jamming square pegs into round holes and seeing the damage.