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by Phil Davis: A chief's perspective of fire departments

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September 30, 2013

Glowing results from customer satisfaction surveys make us feel good and strokes our egos. However, it’s the critical ones that can make a difference in your service delivery. SERVICE is the key word here. We don’t provide “hardware”, we provide a service to our community and the only way to know if we are doing a good job is to ask the customers. In the public sector we rarely do that—why? (1) There’s no competition (2) We know we are doing a good job (3) What does the public know about emergency response? WRONG-WRONG and WRONG.

True, we don’t have direct competition- we have indirect competition. Every time you ask the community to support your tax initiative, levy, override (whatever it’s called in your jurisdiction where you are asking for more tax dollars) you are competing against ALL of the other initiatives that also need additional funding. Your competition comes from schools, roads, water treatment, libraries, parks, prisons and so forth.

Yet most public sector agencies, especially public safety agencies don’t do customer satisfaction surveys and they should. Unhappy customers tell between 13-20 people. If you receive great service we typically tell 3-5. Human nature. Word of mouth advertising is what it’s called in the private sector. For us, it’s all about the ballot box and passing initiatives that enhance or maintain services.

Don’t just dismiss the critical letters you receive, the nasty letters to the editor or, perhaps worse yet, the negative spewing on social media. Stay on top of it and do something about it. You can turn a bad customer contact around if you know about it.


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July 11, 2013

Even on the golf course our conversation tend to center around work- or the fire service in general. When asked about apparatus replacement I began to think about what it takes to really make informed decisions and to plan accordingly. Here's the advice I have for fleet managers.

Based upon the research and standards within the fire service, I recommend that front-line engines be in-service for a period of 10 years, followed by 5 years in reserve, followed by 5 years in a training-reserve capacity at the training center (if you have one). 10 years in reserve if you have no other needs for it.

The following discussion points are the caveats that will change this timeline on a case-by-case situation.

Discussion and Justification:

Apparatus replacement is a component of a fire department’s strategic plan and as such, criteria should be established to guide the fleet replacement process.

There are factors that make this a more complex and individualized decision for your department. Age of the apparatus is not the only criteria to consider when making these decisions. Unreliable vehicles, out-of-service time and costs are the deciding factors.

Age- The chronological age of the apparatus gives us benchmarks when planning. It is generally accepted that front-line Type-1 engines in a municipal setting will last for 10 years followed by 10 years in reserve and retired at the 20 year mark. Some say 15 years followed by 5 years in reserve. It’s really a combination of factors that drives the decision.

Utilization/Mileage- Another factor to consider is the utilization and mileage of the apparatus. Apparatus assigned to busy stations will sustain more wear-and-tear and may need to be rotated to slower stations to lengthen their useful life. Apparatus of an older age may not be suitable for out-of-county mutual aid assignments.

Maintenance- Preventive maintenance will lengthen the lifespan of apparatus. However, some apparatus just require more maintenance. Therefore, the budget expenditures per apparatus need to be accurate to gauge long-term maintenance cost versus replacement. Availability of replacement parts may become an issue with older vehicles.

Changing Standards- Industry standards drive decisions about apparatus replacement. Changes that we have witnessed in the past few years include improved safety, lower emissions, greater fuel economy and changes in operational standards. I recommend that your fleet manager stay in tune with NFPA 1901 and actively participate in the standards-making process. Lastly, rapidly advancing technologies can make equipment and practices obsolete sooner than expected. Replacement versus retrofitting costs will need to be compared.

 


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June 05, 2013

There are things that happen in life that just make you shake your head—that surreal moment when you feel like you are in a Seinfeld episode. Remember the one about the restaurant being able to take a reservation, but they were unable to keep the reservation? Here’s my latest personal episode: I recently rented a dumpster for my oldest daughter’s move out of a house. There were several contacts with the garbage company- like getting it emptied and then planning for its removal when we were done. I called and left a voice mail when we had cleared out the house and asked them to pick up the dumpster the next day, if possible. Six days later a friend called me to let me know the dumpster was still there—so I called the garbage company and explained the situation. The “customer service” representative told me that, “yeah, no one really ever listens to those messages. You have to call and talk to a live person.” I asked why they had a voice message center and an outgoing message that directed the caller to leave a message. She laughed and said, “’cause management wants to believe that the messages get listened to, but they don’t.”

So my question to you is: how much of your organization is behaving like this garbage company? Do you have a method to test to see if your systems are working? How do you know if your customers are just shaking their head with disappointment or disgust? Do you have a proverbial answering machine in your organization? Take 10 minutes this week to assess your systems—Secret Shopper… Undercover Boss… we all need some accountability in our lives.

And to close, (this falls under the WHAT WERE THEY THINKING category… City of Wenatchee, Washington, did you have to put the light poles in the middle of the sidewalks? Accountability folks—accountability!


1 comment
April 20, 2013

Man made. Accidental. Nature. All cause horrific tragedies but it is the man made atrocities that tug at our heart strings more than the other. How can another human being do that to people? —innocent people. As responders we are blind to the cause of the emergency—even to the point of leading to our own demise as in the case of secondary explosions designed to kill responders—or the fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX. We get SO frustrated with the “public” and their attitude of “it’ll never happen to me” but if we look inside our own organizations we possess the same attitudes and behaviors. Our hearts and prayers and sympathies go out to all of the victims, families, co-workers and friends of the tragedies of this past week. What a horrible week for America. But let us keep our eyes forward because these events will occur again in another part of our country. Stay aware of the dangers and train—train like your life depends on it—because it does. Stay safe my friends.


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February 02, 2013

So how important is training? Now wait- it’s not that simple. Obviously training is essential to ensure competence and quality, not to mention that it builds camaraderie and credibility. But is missing training a reason to suspend or dismiss a person from your team? One of the big challenges for volunteer organizations is recruitment and retention and in this case I can argue that you can add by subtracting! A person that refuses to participate in training and only wants to “play in the game” is bad for morale, teamwork and your credibility—even if they are performing at a competent level. It is favoritism to not hold your team accountable to each other and the entity as a whole, and favoritism is bad for the group. By having the backbone to eliminate a bad apple from the group your credibility and respect will swell. People want to be part of an organization that they can be proud of and one that has a stellar reputation. By not tolerating unacceptable behavior the message is sent that we ARE a credible, honorable and respected organization. This applies to organizations regardless of the entity affiliation—volunteer fire departments, the sheriff’s posse, a faith-based organization or NGO are all struggling to recruit and retain good people. Perhaps this advice will help in those endeavors.


1 comment
January 15, 2013

The fire service has been cross-training for 30+ years. Today's firefighter is expected to be (better than) competent in everything from fighting structure fires, haz mats at a train derailment, delivering babies, swift water rescue, wildland firefighting, terrorism and WMDs... and the list goes on and on. At some point, there is a diminishing value. People cannot be (better than) competent in everything already on their plate. There is a move afoot in some municipalities to add law enforcement duties. To add law enforcement responsibilities is just plain-- irresponsible on the part of the public policy makers. The public expects and demands that you be good when you show up at their emergency. It is not possible to be good at everything. To drive this point home, I’m sure you would have serious trepidation about going to a physician that claims to be a specialist in every specialty area. You wouldn’t buy it.


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December 17, 2012

Most of the college football teams that are scheduled to play in upcoming bowl games finished their regular season weeks ago. How are they expected to be “up for” and ready to play a game that is so far away? In preparedness aren’t we faced with the same dilemma? How do we stay sharp and game-ready when our “big one” is so far away? Or is it? That’s the challenge for emergency managers—not knowing when your next big game is. If we knew our disaster schedule weeks, months or years in advance,  we would be the most prepared, motivated and competent disaster workers. Of course, but that’s not how our game is played.

I recently read that one of the college coaches asked his football players if they wanted to practice football or play whiffle ball? They chose whiffle ball and the coach was OK with that. Let’s think about why that kind of activity was productive for a college football team preparing for a bowl game and how that parallels training for a disaster.

  1. It is fun
  2. It is a divergence from the pressures of the game
  3. It creates team camaraderie and competition
  4. It’s not the same old training—it’s different
  5. Odds are, no one is a whiffle ball expert and so they are all learning or relearning how a whiffle ball moves and therefore, how to play the game

Nothing beats on-going training, exercises and drills in the world of disaster response. People don’t care how smart you are… they care whether or not you can perform the tasks they need done. People are counting on you to be good—to be competent in whatever your job requires. My old friend, retired fire chief Ronny Coleman taught me that you don’t experiment on the public. The public expects and deserves for you to be ready—to be all-risk ready.

No one likes redundant, boring, repetitive training—so spice it up—have fun—do something different for your team. They will appreciate it.


1 comment
November 28, 2012

When you see a poorly written test question you can easily identify that it’s bad; when you see a leader with poor leadership skills you can easily identify that. How can it be so difficult to write a test question? Why is it so hard to be a good leader? If I ask you to be a great leader—because you can obviously identify a poor one—it’s easier said than done. Can we see weak leadership traits in ourselves? If I asked you to write a perfect multiple choice test you could do it, right? Because you said earlier you can identify a poorly written test question—therefore, you’ll never write one.

Leadership is made up from many parts- some we can control, some we can’t. Words like vision, ethics, motivator, expert and more go into the character list. I will suggest that timing is a key factor in the success or failure of a leader. Today, in this economy, it is difficult to be a successful leader. Resources are scarce and leaders are having to say no more frequently than ever before. No to staff increases. No to new equipment and apparatus. No to new programs or expansion of services. No to outside training, conferences and workshops. No to increases in wages and benefits. It’s not fun being a leader in these conditions but a good leader will still lead. Anyone who has been through tough times before knows that good times/tough times are cyclical and things will improve.

How can you be a leader in tough times? Lead.


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October 17, 2012

Apply this “human nature” explanation to whatever situation you are struggling with… whether you are a leader of career personnel, volunteer forces or just trying to change the public’s behaviors, consider this from Wikipedia.org

Unconscious incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

Conscious competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

Behavioral change in one’s self is the easiest to do, followed by changing the behavior of a small group, followed by a larger group, and so forth. Changing the culture of an organization or modifying behaviors of people is not easy. If you are charged with getting people ready for a disaster, it will be an uphill battle but don’t give up. Small changes are occurring even if they are not immediately visable.


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September 11, 2012

Today, September 11th, is our generation's Pearl Harbor. And now, some 70+ years after WW-II, we consider the Japanese allies, commerce partners and the country, a nice place to visit. Can you imagine a day when we will have a change of heart and feel that way about the middle eastern countries that have harbored terrorists? I can't. Once your soul is tattooed with the images of such a horrific event, it changes you forever. My 88-year old father served in WW-II and was part of the second wave of soldiers on to Iwo Jima. He will never get past what the Japanese did to the USA. In that war the enemy was well defined and easy to spot. In our war on terror, our enemies are not easy to spot and are hidden amongst us.

The point of this blog is to remind us all that vigilance is necessary and on-going. Preparedness is something that gets a lot traction right after an event. Don't let your guard down. Dust off those WMD and mass casualty plans-- update them and refresh your training on them. Being aware and prepared-- wouldn't we all be a lot safer if everyone was? 


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