This time of year always brings about a slew of new year's resolutions. Perhaps one you'd like to pursue is to start a strategic analysis leading to a department master plan, but the mere thought of it sends a chill down your spine. Where will I get the people, the expertise or the time to start such a project? To answer that question, I'd like to quote fellow FIRE CHIEF columnist, Chief Ronny Coleman, who is fond of asking the question, "How do you eat an elephant?" His answer is always, "One bite at a time!"
Following Coleman's example, a useful but less daunting tool than a full master plan could be a needs assessment, i.e. what needs your attention now and how do you prioritize all that might need to be done in order to work toward finding a solution and making a better department? I first came across the idea of such an assessment while working with architect Rich Pontius to determine what space allocation was needed now and in the future regarding the design of a new fire station. The process, however, can be adapted to nearly anything, including an eventual master plan. The difference is that you can limit a needs assessment to whatever you believe is crucial to your department now and into the near future, or expand it to include multiple areas that impact your present and future operations.
Before starting a needs assessment, the chief, as the leader of this endeavor, should discuss with the officers and members the expectations and outcomes for this project. The assessment is a tool that is only as good as the process and the input from those who choose to participate. The survey portion of the process should be viewed as a chance for everyone to share their ideas, concerns, and potential solutions to help mold the future direction of the department.
Starting with the survey, the members can have input that helps determine what is right; what is wrong; what works well; and what is broken in the organization. The results of the survey should be tabulated and used as the basis for one or more focus groups. These groups should be limited in size because they easily can become unwieldy. However, the focus group should consist of a cross section of the officers and members that can act as a representation of the department. A single focus group can begin with certain topics and work through each section of the survey over time. Or there can be multiple focus groups working on separate topics simultaneously, as long as you have a method to tie all of these sections together and resolve any inconsistencies, especially concerning the operations of the department.
If a topic — for example funding a new fire levy — is part of a focus group's section, then representation should include members of the general public and the governing body, such as the city or township, whose status will help validate the need and the solution. When asking for additional funds in these uncertain economic times, it is extremely important to make this process as transparent as possible, so that the public clearly understands the level of research that has been done leading to this request and to the financial solution.
So what categories can be used as the basis of a needs assessment and survey? Well, this can be any facet of your fire, EMS, or rescue operations. Here are some of the possible areas for you to consider:
- Recruitment and retention
- Budget/payroll cost
- Officer development
- Wellness and fitness
- Continuing education
- Standard operations
- Standard operating procedures/guidelines
- Medical protocols
- Scene safety
- Radios, both mobile and portable
- Compatibility with neighboring departments
- Design for local hazards
- Number of riding positions
- Safety/seat belt/restraints
- Hose and appliances
- Ladders, including aerial devices
- Gross decontamination
- Water supply
- Dry hydrants
- Portable tanks
- Fire prevention/public education
- New plans review
- Code enforcement
- Smoke detectors/CO monitors
- Department investigators
- Regional task force
- State fire marshal
- Liaison with police and prosecutor/district attorney
- Special operations/homeland security preparedness
- Gross decontamination
- Rope rescue
- High-angle rescue
- Explosive removal
- Station design
- Living areas
- Sleeping quarters
- Day room
- Training room
- Alarm room
- Bay area/number of bays
- Training tower/building
- Physical fitness area
- Computer room
After looking over this list and adding or customizing it to fit your department, what is next? Before choosing the areas you may wish to tackle, it would be wise to get input again from your officers. Obviously, you will need to choose areas of importance and of immediate need to the department. Equally as important, however, is to try to ensure that the process is successful, and that the results are achievable. Success is also important to reinforce the value of the time and resources expended by the focus group members. If one area initially is proved successful, it will be easier to get buy-in for the other, more difficult areas, or to initiate some necessary change within the organizational culture.
My suggestion is to start slowly and pick areas where results may be more apparent, in order to build confidence in the process within the focus group and the membership at large. You must also set and adhere to a timeline for all of the steps in the process, i.e. the publication, completion and return of the survey, tabulation of suggestions, and deciding which areas to tackle first. Otherwise, the process itself becomes unwieldy and may never be brought to a consensus or a successful conclusion.
It may surprise you, but you won’t receive 100% participation from your membership in completing and returning the survey. This may be due to a lack of interest, satisfaction with the existing conditions, or disbelief that anything substantive will result from the process. Any return of 35% to 40% or more is probably a good representation of all factions or ideas within the department, and should be considered valid as expressing the overall consensus of the firefighters.
There are several other uses for a needs assessment other than as a tool for initiating a master plan. First, such an assessment could help to justify your request for aAssistance to Firefighters Act, SAFER, or Fire Prevention grant. Working through the assessment process and discussing the subsequent steps agreed upon by your department to help solve the issue will help validate the process and justify the request for grant funds.
Overall, in difficult economic times, a needs assessment should help prioritize where existing budget money should be spent and help justify the need for additional funds through grant applications or levy requests.
A progressive chief has many tools to help navigate change or ascertain the needs within the department. The assessment process should be a more direct and less cumbersome way to take a snapshot in time to determine where your department is today and where it should be heading in the foreseeable future. By taking smaller bites of the elephant, you can accomplish a great deal in this new year.
Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, MIFireE, is the chief of Wyoming (Ohio) Fire-EMS, a 78-member combination fire department bordering Cincinnati. He previously served as the fire marshal of the state of Ohio.