Throughout my career, I have always cringed at the notion that “the fire service should be run more like a business”. This statement has typically been connected to the desire to find efficiencies, which is often code for “spending cuts.” I have typically responded with the common retort, “The fire service is focused on service delivery. And when it comes to service delivery, perhaps businesses should be run more like the fire service.”
However, a couple of years ago, I read the book We Don’t Make Widgets by Ken Miller. In his book, Miller claimed that public sector agencies operate from the premise that we provide services instead of producing products. He explained that one advantage private sector companies have is that they have clearly defined products (generically referred to as widgets), and they concentrate on improving the process by which their widgets are produced. Improving the production process can result in better widgets delivered faster and/or cheaper. This is considered good business practice.
Miller then argued that public sector agencies often make widgets and need to identify what those widgets are. Then, he continued, we could concentrate more on improving our processes that better widget production. He defined widgets as anything that:
- are specific and tangible
- can be counted and measured
- can be delivered (handed off to a customer)
- results from a process
Applying this definition, I realized that we do produce widgets in the fire service. Our widgets include “products” such as extinguished house fires, uninjured occupants, and firefighters safe enough to return home. These items fit the above criteria and result from a process we call fire suppression operations. This altered my perspective regarding how we can best improve our process that would result in better widgets delivered faster and cheaper. This is not only a good business practice but also results in better customer service.
Let’s look at the traditional fire suppression process in the form of a timeline. The elapsed time of each step in the sequence will vary, but the sequence of these steps remains the same:
There’s ignition, discovery, notification, call processing, turn-out, travel, set-up, water on the fire, and overhaul. This process often results in the production of widgets but the quality of them or the ability to deliver them can be inconsistent and vary due to factors out of our control.
Now imagine an improved fire suppression process to produce better widgets. In fact, we don’t have to imagine such a process. This process would follow the sequence of water on the fire, discovery, notification, call-processing, turn-out, travel, set-up, and overhaul. This process has already been exemplified in a variety of case studies underscoring fire sprinklers in the built environment:
The key to the fire suppression process is applying water to a fire at a rate of flow that exceeds the rate of heat release. We have spent decades researching and developing ways to shave seconds from the various segments on the front end of the process, trying to improve efficiencies and reduce the time until fire service involvement. The main problem with our traditional fire suppression process is that the fire continues to develop throughout the entire process until we can finally apply the adequate rate of water flow.
Moreover, changes in the built environment are significantly increasing the rate of fire development in lesser time. This rapid fire development reduces our chances of delivering high-quality widgets. Our antiquated process can no longer keep up in our changing environment. The chances of delivering repairable—and extinguished—house fires, uninjured occupants, and unscathed firefighters will decrease.
Acknowledging, embracing, and promoting fire sprinklers as the key to meaningfully improving the fire suppression process will help us deliver better widgets. Isn’t that our job, our responsibility, our duty? If we were corporate executives of private sector companies ignoring such an obvious and significant improvement to our production process that has been available for so long, we would undoubtedly be looking for work.
This post was written by Rick Ennis, fire chief for the City of Cape Girardeau in Missouri and chair of the Missouri Fire Sprinkler Coalition. Read Rick Ennis' previous blog posts written for the Fire Sprinkler Initiative.