Numbers Spark Improvements at Austin Fire Department

A business intelligence software application provides the AFD with statistical basis to better itself
By Rhoda Mae Kerr & Elizabeth Gray

“You can get a lot further with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word.” These memorable words attributed to mobster Al Capone have relevance in the world of fire service company officers—not in promoting violence (no one is advocating that), but in sorting through competing claims. One fire company promises all its run reports are done. Another swears its continuing education (CE) is completely up to date. As a company officer, you want to be on top of things, reward the units that are complying and follow up with the companies that are behind. Yes, you can get a lot further with a kind word and a gun than you can with only a kind word, and that gun is a number—a quantitative measure.

The Austin (Texas) Fire Department (AFD) has come to rely on a software product called QlikView for easy access to the hard data they need to monitor operational performance. This business intelligence reporting system is simple and effective and allows transparency because everyone can see everyone else’s numbers.

Many firefighters don’t like measurements. We become good firefighters by learning from experience, not by crunching numbers. Or do we? For the company officer, numbers make it easier to ensure that we’re doing what we say we’re doing. Hard data promotes transparency and accountability. These are big, fancy words, but company officers in the Austin (Texas) Fire Department (AFD) has come to rely on a software product called QlikView for easy access to the hard data they need to monitor operational performance. This business intelligence reporting system is simple and effective and allows transparency because everyone can see everyone else’s numbers. There is no hiding in the AFD. Such transparency also plays on a strength of company officers: their competitive nature.

When we implemented QlikView, AFD Command made the courageous decision to put all the data out there so everyone could see it, warts and all. We did not immediately set standards, but let companies observe what others were doing and check themselves accordingly. This non-punitive approach encouraged trust and accountability. At the same time, it measurably improved performance.

What sort of data do we publish? Our Operations Dashboard includes four key measures:

1. National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) Report Completion
Using QlikView, AFD company officers can query on open NFIRS reports older than seven, 14, or 30 days. With only a few mouse clicks, they can request data by station, shift, captain’s complement or battalion. They can also drill down on still-open reports to help determine who is responsible for completing the report in cases where multiple companies responded.

Before we rolled out the Operations Dashboard, it often took months for officers to receive notification of open run reports and then act on the information. The quality of some of those late-completed reports probably wasn’t the greatest. It’s hard to recall details of a specific incident months after the fact. But now that officers have the information available on a daily basis, completion is timely and quality is better. Within just a few months of making the Operations Dashboard available, we closed more than 600 open reports, a reduction of 90%. Company officers now take pride in knowing that they have no overdue reports.

2. Continuing Education Completion
Officers used to have to go through an eight-step process to determine CE status. It took several minutes to provide a generalized report, which then had to be scoured for relevant personnel records. Often, by the time the captain realized a member was behind, the quarter was over and catching up was troublesome. Now, with the Operations Dashboard, company officers have immediate access to CE status for each member. Captains can see trouble brewing before the quarter is done, and verify that personnel complete training that is both timely and appropriate. Example: Captains can ensure company schools are not reported as complete across different dates, which would imply they were completed individually instead of as a group.

With ready access to CE data, our company officers enabled a 5% increase in our CE compliance rate. This is equivalent to 400 additional firefighter classes. The impact on performance cannot be overstated: A trained firefighter is a safer and more effective firefighter.


3. Inspection Completion
Also available to company officers through the application is the daily status of in-service property and hydrant inspections. They can see the number of inspections that are assigned, pending, inspected, passed and referred. More importantly, they can see the status of any other company in the department. The facts speak for themselves: High-performing companies are recognized for being ahead of schedule, and officers can investigate the laggards to address any issues preventing them from completing their inspections. What’s interesting is the discussion is now shifting to the quality of inspections, not just getting them done.

4. Turnout & Response Time
This aspect of our Operations Dashboard has been at once the most effective and most challenging information to present and use. Meaningful turnout and response time data were not readily available prior to rolling out the Operations Dashboard. Once the numbers were visible, initial reaction was very mixed. Several companies declared data to be flat out wrong and did their own timing with stopwatches to prove it.

They were right.

We discovered a glitch in the CAD dispatch formula that was unknowingly delaying station alerts. Once we fixed that, overall response time to reach the emergency scene dropped 8 seconds. We had suspected some sort of problem with the CAD tone out but couldn’t do much about it until we had data to prove there really was an issue.

Data presentation also tempered initial reaction. Our first version of turnout and response time data was a largely undecipherable table of numbers. In addition, some of the data points were subject to human error. For example, companies had to press the “on scene” button on their MDC to signify arrival. This affects the accuracy of the response time measurement. The next version reorganized the data, flagging times that were outside an average range. But that caused problems because it lumped too many different types of apparatus, station designs and circumstances together. Company officers and battalion chiefs rightly declared that “one size does not fill all.” And the numbers were still hard to read.

We went back to the drawing board for a graphic solution. Our visual box plots enable an apples-to-apples comparison to turnout times with similar units. The box plots enable officers to identify at a glance the companies that are outliers, and investigate. Compared to similar units, is their time too fast (which could mean they might not be fastening their seatbelts)? Is their time too slow (perhaps indicating the officer needs to walk faster to the truck)? Individual unit turnout times decreased up to 25%, and the department-wide distribution of response times appears to be tighter than ever.

At Their Fingertips
Direct access to data (other QlikView documents we’ve developed track sick leave, time and attendance, budgets, work orders, etc.) also reduces the chief’s workload. Officers talk about the time they save no longer having to chase information, and take pride in visualizing and verifying that they are managing their companies pro-actively.

Several officers admitted they thought the Operations Dashboard was “another dumb program” when they first heard about it. AFD Captain David Bunn says he won’t go back.

“It allows you tremendously easier access to all the information you could want for daily operations,” says AFD Captain Terry Holmstrom. “It is at your fingertips.”

Battalion Chief Mike Frick says this: “This application allows me to look for information and put it to use. Before this, we usually had to request the material from some ‘interpreter’ (techno-geek), hope they understood what we needed in non-user terms, and hope that we would get a response back. Just knowing that the information is there, and that we can access it at our own speed, is a tremendous help.”

That’s better than just a kind word.

For more details on how the Austin Fire Department implemented QlikView to improve operations, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/fire/qlikaward.htm.

Rhoda Mae Kerr is fire chief of the Austin Fire Department. Elizabeth Gray is manager of AFD’s Business Technology division.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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