My most recent challenge is really two-fold. While approaching devastating budget reductions in my department, there was a need to reduce staff while we were in the middle of an experimental program for the department. Reduced budgets do not permit the latitude for any experimental processes, but this tool may have saved staff positions. It was a conundrum to say the least.
We were experimenting with a third party online electronic reporting program for life safety systems. At the time of the budget cuts, the program was responsible for improving compliance by nearly 200% while allowing staff to be more efficient. In addition, it established a usable database as a search engine. We were observing that electronic test reporting is extremely valuable to the fire service if done properly.
All fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems, commercial hoods and a myriad of other systems are periodically tested for functionality and reliability. Test reports completed by private service companies are typically mailed, but electronic reporting creates a useful database without the need for hand filing or the need for on-site storage. It has to be a collaborative partnership between public agencies and private enterprise, and it takes time to populate the database. Patience and persistence are necessary for success.
The cultures between public agencies and private companies are extremely diverse. Due to the nature of public service and public disclosure legislation, public agencies have developed cultures of openness, and typically share information freely. Private companies fear competition, shelter proprietary information and distrust government involvement in general. To say that these cultural differences might present challenges to electronic reporting is significantly understating the endeavor.
The cost of the program is small compared to the benefits. The cost varies depending on the third party provider and what services they offer, but is between $7.50 and $15.00 per report. Typically the service company pays the fee, so there is no cost to the jurisdiction. There is also a potential revenue fee option that can be authorized if needed by the authority receiving the reports.
Resistance to the submittal fee by service companies was high at first, but a number of jurisdictions are beginning to implement a fee to submit paper reports due to the labor involved with reviewing, filing and storing hard copies. The service company submittal fee buys them notification to the property owner, usually in the form of letters, it creates a virtual file draw for service companies to store and manage and it provides follow-up notification for deficient systems. It can also protect their customer base.
The benefits to the jurisdiction are, or can be, enormous. It provides a complete database listing all the buildings, property owners or managers, addresses, contact information for emergencies and complete tabulation of every life safety system in the jurisdiction. This is all accessible from any wireless device given the proper codes. It is perfect for those late night emergencies where incident commanders need information.
Periodic tests are automatically scheduled, notifications are sent to owners and service companies of impending tests. The results of the test are posted on the website the moment the test is complete. Benefits for the property owner are reduced insurance rates, as well as confidence that the life safety system is functional and reliable, so their property and the people living or working there will be protected.
I believe these programs have value. I have seen the results and I am convinced that inspection, testing and maintenance of existing life safety systems will help make our communities safer.
In the end, I chose to retire instead of laying-off two staff members. My salary was used to balance the budget and keep an experimental program operational. I am now serving the community in a different manner by advocating for this emerging industry.
In looking back, I believe my greatest leadership challenge was coaching an 11 year old girl’s soccer team. The similarities between coaching young girls on the soccer field and managing firefighters, or implementing new management tools, can be astounding. Sometimes your most valuable lessons can come from the most surprising sources. What you think are inconsequential challenges can become life changing experiences for others.
It sounds like you made a very difficult and mature decision in deciding to retire so that this program could continue so even in your retirement you continue to serve your community this time by your absence. I found your description of this technology to be extremely interesting and would encourage you to write more on it if you're interested perhaps for fire apparatus and equipment magazine or fire engineering. I think as time goes on people are becoming more and more accustomed to using electronic mediums such as the Internet and other tools to do what used to be done by paper and pencil. This trend is only going to continue to gain acceptance in widespread use. Thank you for a fantastic blog and for your willingness to put your communities welfare and safety ahead of your own personal interests.
Mr. McNulty, I read your comments with interest and I assume what you are talking about is something new and potentially a good idea - an automated process that for ensuring fire safety equipment within a jurisdiction is periodically tested and reported as required in a manner that enhances compliance, documentation and reliability while while reducing a fire department's labor requirement. It sounds like the idea of third party online electronic reporting program for fire safety systems may have tremendous merit, but will it work in practice is the big question. It seems for this to be successful, a lot of inertia may have to be overcome and a major paradigm shift in thinking made by all stake holders: local jurisdictions (fire marshals to city councilmen), property owners, and industry representatives (service companies, insurance providers, equipment makers) for them to realize it could be a win-win for everyone. A lot of old dogs will have to learn some new tricks. I wish you success.