In the fire service, when we ask someone about their department, one of the first places we go with the conversation is call volume. Of course, “How many calls do you get a year?” is only the feeder line for what we really want to hear: “How many FIRES do you get in a year?” How do we measure the worth of our department? In how many working fires we happen to fight in a year, that’s how. It’s kind of the same as asking a soldier how many battles he has fought, or a ball player how many games he has won. How do I know you know your job? By how often you happen to do it, I guess.
There are some firefighters who, asking these questions, tell me stories that would only mean to me that very soon they won’t be telling the same stories, because it won’t be long before they run out of fuel in their district. But worse is the citizen who, agenda apparent, asks how many fires we have a year and infers that there is a correlation: x (number of fires) = y (quality of equipment).
Not beating around the bush, what I should have said was: “So what you are wondering is, if we were a REAL fire department, we’d be burning down a lot more homes, right?” Or if we were a really good organization, we’d have many more dead people. Or more HAZMAT calls. Or perhaps more rescues. As someone who really believes in what it is I do for a living, my problem with that idea is that the volume of serious calls doesn’t measure departmental success, it measures community failure.
Let’s go back to the beginning of our careers, either as paid or volunteer firefighters, and what was it you were told? We were told that our primary mission was to PREVENT fires, to PREVENT injury and mortality, and to PREVENT disasters. What? You didn’t take that conversation very seriously? That seems to really be the gist of it: We know what we were told, we understand it makes sense, but it’s not the reason we became firefighters. We became firefighters because it looked cool in the movies, or because we have some kind of belief in the heroism of the job. We never really bought that prevention nonsense. We like to bust shit up and go where everyone is running out from. You can’t do that when you are preventing fires.
Perhaps, though, we should actually be measuring how bad your department regularly burns down room and contents fires because it is indicative of poor skill, or by burning down so many taxpaying businesses it indicates your resources aren't sufficient for the job, or by having so many alarms it indicates lousy codes or enforcement. Maybe we should be looking at how many people don’t actually walk away from an encounter with your emergency medical care. Or how many HAZMAT calls you have that evolve into county-wide disasters.
I have said before that we should start hitting up the insurance companies for funds. After al, they have a huge stake in this. When we save a building or a life, we are saving them money. Wasn't that the premise behind the early 18th Century fire brigades? Instead of municipal taxes exclusively supporting fire suppression, the insurance companies should maybe back off some of those exorbitant bonuses for their executives and invest in fire protection to a better degree.
There are many reasons why buildings burn that we have no hand in, like the condition of the buildings, the amount of fuel loading, and the intelligence of the occupants who put a pot of oil on the range then go down to the store for cigarettes. But ultimately, if we want to measure something, maybe we should be comparing what it is we save compared to what it is we protect. If we want to see how good it is we are doing, I think that the number of times our community doesn't suffer loss should be a better goal. It is, after all, what we signed on for.