Firefighting Through a Performance Management Lens

Executive Editor Jonathan Walters sheds light onto how he approached his January feature on cuts to fire departments as journalist and as a volunteer firefighter.

GOVERNING Executive Editor Jonathan Walters' January 2011 feature on cuts to fire departments is recieving many comments. (You can read and contribute to the comment chain here.) View blog editor Tina Trenkner asked Walters to shed some light on how he approached this story as journalist who follows performance management and as a volunteer firefighter for his town in New York:

I knew when I wrote my story on cuts to fire departments, I was wandering into controversial territory. In this case, though, I wandered in with my eyes wide open. Nor, as a Class A interior-attack qualified firefighter, am I unused to things getting hot around me.

I’ve been active in my local fire company -- Ghent (N.Y) Fire Company Number One, Inc. -- for more than 15 years. I also currently serve as president of the GFVC No. 1, a job that any president of any volunteer fire company will tell you requires equal measures of patience, diplomacy and steel.

Anyway, as author of two books on performance measurement in the public sector, I’ve always viewed my active firefighting career through a performance measurement lens. Based on demand in the face of constrained budgets, is my fire company amassing and deploying resources in the smartest, most sophisticated way possible?

The conclusion I’ve come to, invariably, is that we in the fire service have a long way to go when it comes to using performance metrics to drive what we do. We like to talk about our annual run rate, response times, crew sizes, etc., but not about how many of our calls are real, or what they consist of, or how we performed once we got on the scene. As I tell my guys all the time, our image as local heroes isn’t going to inoculate us forever from tough questions about what we cost versus what we do.

There is no group of men and women I’ve ever been prouder to serve with than those I serve with in firefighting; at its most intense, it is dangerous, dirty, tough and vitally important work. But this is 2011, and we in the fire service really do need to get proactive about analyzing and explaining to the public and public officials what we do in relation to what we really need. Otherwise, we become ever more vulnerable to attacks and cuts that aren’t driven by data any more than what we ask for now by way of staff, equipment and infrastructure is.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.