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HOW TO WIN A BUDGET ARGUMENT

 

The Post-Fire Evaluation  --  A Case for Quantifying the Concomitant Save

 

by Eric Saylors, Captain Sacramento Fire Department

 

 

 

One of our greatest challenges in public safety is articulating our value and worth in a quantifiable manner.   Unquestionably, our greatest contribution to public safety is not what we create, but rather what we mitigate, or prevent.  For instance, we are called to a fully involved fire.  The area of origin of the fire, e.g., a structure on fire, burns to the ground.  However, our fire-fighting actions prevent the fire from spreading to the house next door.  Our fire-fighting actions prevent the fire from spreading to the neighboring library or museum where precious rare books and pieces of art are housed.  Or better yet, our fire-fighting actions save a life or save a family pet.  It can be difficult to measure the value of these saved items, but not impossible, and therein lies the thesis of this article -- we can no longer simply measure the value of what is lost, we must begin measuring what we save.  To continue to focus solely on what is lost is not only outdated, it's counterproductive.  Focusing solely on what is lost due to fires makes it easy to understand why budgets become leaner each year.  

 

But how do we measure what didn’t happen, even though we know absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? A standard strategy of public safety agencies is to measure and report losses, and suggest fear of greater losses if funding is reduced. 

 

Change the Debate – the Assumption

To change the debate to quantify and report our success in a correct manner, we begin with an assumption, a definition, and that assumption explains how we shall calculate value.  Value must be calculated for tangibles and intangibles, for instance property, economic, emotional, human, pet, artistic, and historical values.   Every time a fire involving a business is quickly extinguished or prevented, that business can remain open, continuing to contribute to the economic vitality of that area.  The employees of that saved business can continue working and contributing.  Every time a video of a fire fighter saving an animal goes viral, we have additional evidence that our value exceeds simply measuring the loss of a structure.  If we need any more proof, for ambulance runs, it's lives saved that count.  It is we who have been failing to recognize what the general population has recognized for a very long time.  We have been failing to recognize the full value of a mitigation or save; consequently this full value has not been included in the worth of a fire department.

 

Now that we understand what comprises value, we can begin building a formula to measure and report what we save by estimating the value of everything at risk during the fire (including the burn area), subtracting the value of what was lost, leaving us with the value of the save.

 

FORMULA #1:                                                        Save Calculation

 

what is at risk – what is lost = what is saved

 

risk – loss = save

 

 

FORMULA #2                                                    Performance Calculation

 

save 

risk

 

 

For external reporting, e.g., to the City Council, to the media, we should use Formula #1 to report the total value of property saved, to validate our total budget.  

 

Using Formula #2 we can compare our value annually, correlating the score to call volumes, response times, staffing levels, and ultimately, to an accurate budget.  

 

The difficult part of this is not the math  --  the math is a simple equation and ratio.  The difficult part is changing our mindset, changing our understanding of the worth of a fire department; of understanding from the assumption (see above) that value equals the value of tangibles and intangibles, e.g., property, emotional, human, pet, artistic, and historical values.

 

This change in thinking leads to a change in policy.  Undoubtedly, each department or municipality will want to create a strategic plan of their own, since each department knows and understands their unique features.  However, in achieving this understanding and in working in furtherance of these calculations, we can each start our policy discussion by using some form of this Vision and Mission:

 

Vision - A change in the debate begins by recognizing that the worth of a fire department is greater than a simple calculation of loss; that the worth of a fire department is more accurately represented by including what is saved and losses mitigated. 

 

Mission - Establish a standard to record and report the value of what is at risk and the value of what is saved on each fire, and begin to establish a value for not only tangible items, but also for intangible items, see assumption above for the definition of value, and see Formula #1 above for the calculation.

 

Once your policy is established, you'll want to set goals and objectives.  Goals and objectives should also reflect a department’s unique features; however, it should prove helpful to incorporate these guidelines as goals and objectives focusing on process, such as:

 

 

  1. Develop a standard procedure to establish a total value for what is at risk and a total value for what is saved.  (See Formula #1 above.)
  2. Use ratio scores to measure and monitor performance, correlating performance to call volume, response times, and staffing levels.  (See Formula #2 above.)
  3. Acknowledge that data must be gathered in a standardized way, and then it must be analyzed and transformed into information to be beneficial.
  4. Meetings and idea exchanges can be in-person as well as electronic.  Idea exchange will be encouraged and not limited by narrow or parochial methods or thought. Brainstorming should always be encouraged.
  5. Input data and results into a central data base.
  6. Provide management with data and information on set schedules, e.g., for press releases and City Council meetings, showing quantification of worth to the community and to justify the total budget.

 

It should also prove helpful to incorporate goals and objectives focusing on people, such as:

 

  1. Enhance the Investigation Unit by establishing a team to perform post-fire evaluations for every fire and for every shift. This will be most effective with an interdisciplinary team, reflecting a broad array of talent and knowledge.

  2. Collaborate with all parties interested in the formation and advancement of this policy.  Examples of interested parties would include the Fire Fighters' Union, economists and their professional associations (who better to evaluate value and loss of items tangible and intangible?), insurance companies, actuaries and their professional associations, local historical societies, perhaps the local college has a history student that would be a good addition to such a team.

     

The above lays out a very different way of evaluating our performance; consequently, it might be helpful for all of us to begin the collaboration right here, right now.  I would very much like to hear from you, to hear your thoughts on this topic.  The sooner we begin instituting these ideas, the sooner we can make compelling arguments for our budgets.  Please let me know your thoughts and experiences by sending an e-mail to me at eddleftseat@gmail.com or by calling me at (541) 728-0773.

 

Hi, I'm Eric Saylors, a Captain with Sacramento City Fire Department.  I'm HAZMAT certified, and I also have many years as a medic and preceptor.  I have Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Strategic Planning and am also in a graduate program with Homeland Security and the Naval Academy.  I would like to thank my dad, Dave Saylors, a retired Captain with Sacramento City Fire Department, for being a inspiration in my thinking.  My dad was also a pilot in the Air Force, and I'm glad to have followed his love of aviation with my flying as well.

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