Does Your Department Specialise in Plate Spinning?


In a recent discussion in the Rope Rescue Group on FFN, I referred to many departments as "plate spinners". You can read the full discussion at:
http://www.firefighternation.com/group/roperescue/forum/topic/show?id=889755%3ATopic%3A882697

I'd like to say that this term used to describe many departments is mine, as I feel that it sums up many the world over, however it's not- it was suggested to me by someone who heard it from someone else. (You know the old, "a friend of friend's brother, who's cousin’s dad’s uncle, etc!!!")

It's not the most flattering term to use, but I also believe that it sums up many departments very well. It's not necessarily the members own doing, it may be management, it may the mutual aid agreements (or lack of), it may be legislated, it may be lack of funding or it may simply be a case of "no one else does it, so we will".

Let me explain the term and have a think about your department, OBJECTIVELY. Take the emotional attachment hat off and look long and hard at your department.

Plate Spinning was a term used to describe the nature of what many fire departments do. We spin plates- in other words, we do a bit of fire, a bit of EMS, a bit of confined space, a bit of USAR, a bit of HAZMAT, a bit of trench rescue, a bit of SAR, a bit of rope rescue, a bit of road crash rescue and so on. And we spend so much time and effort running between the plates and keeping them in motion.


We need to be more than plate spinners. Why?

* First and foremost, there's lives at risk. Now it may sound stupid, but we can never lose sight of this. We need to be prepared for any incident that is thrown our way, in order to save lives.

* It's often public money we're spending on equipment and training. Many of these require many dollars worth of equipment to perform properly. This is especially true with specialised topics such as the suite of "rescue's" as listed above. Rope rescue for example, requires more than a couple of karabiners, a figure 8 descender and some rope.

* We must acknowledge that the hours often required to maintain minimum skill set is often beyond what many departments are capable of doing- this includes career and volunteer. (Contrary to what many may believe, career station staff don't have all the time in the world to do training- they're often too busy on runs, etc)


So how do we move on from being plate spinners?

* We need to look at our core business. Look at statistics for calls. This will often determine what we need to focus on. If we're only getting 2 calls per year for HAZMAT, why focus so much effort on it?

* We need to get in place proper mutual aid agreements- NOW! Find out what your neighbouring department does. Find out what equipment they have, train with them, and work with them. Don't hesitate to call them ASAP. We all know it's a lot easier to cancel a responding unit than it is to get them rolling in the first place. We need to collaborate with our neighbours. We need to communicate with our neighbours.

* We may need to swallow some pride. We don't have to do EVERYTHING. it is OK to acknowledge your limitations and use other departments that are already equipped and trained to do a particular task.

* We need to pre-plan to determine our drivers. Pre-planning sets the tone for so many benefits to the department and the public.

* We need to educate our managers and decision makers. Educate them about core business. Educate them about the real dollars required to properly equip a department to do a job. Educate them about the real time it takes to maintain minimum skill levels.

* We must acknowledge that it is often public money we're pissing up against the wall. Spend it wisely on your core business or we risk losing the support of the public. (This was highlighted really well recently on FFN when someone asked a question about raising $ to purchase a million dollar truck- the replies from many members offered some great alternatives, with a much reduced outlay for the department and the community.)

* We need to think like a business. We need to be smart about how we manage funds (raise it, allocate it, spend it, justify it, etc) I run a training and consulting business and every major purchase is weighed up carefully- we look at the required outlay versus the Return on Investment (ROI). I'm not spending a fortune on equipment, only to have it sit in my factory collecting dust. I'm also not investing huge $ on my staff's professional development, if it's not of any benefit to the business- there has to be ROI in everything we do.


Is your department plate spinning or are you fair dinkum about doing the job properly, to the benefit of everyone?

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Comment by lutan1 on September 8, 2008 at 5:51am
Wow! I think I'll close this blog- Mike just summed it up beautifully me thinks!
Comment by Mike Schlags (Captain Busy) Retd on September 8, 2008 at 5:43am
In my attempt to be a more kind, caring Mike, I respectfully submit that what you are talking about refers not to municipal fire departments or paid/call departments where money is given as an incentive to stay active, but about volunteer departments.

In my county, we used to have a couple of volunteer departments and now, slowly, they are going away Why? For all the reasons you mentioned in your post...

There is a new generation out there and their number one concern is themselves. It's not uncommon for a firefighter to pass his or her probation and then revert to this other person. I question why some of these folks ever got involved with the job sometimes.

The fire service here in the states is much like a Walmart scenario. The little mom and pop stores are slowly going by the wayside. There simply is too much liability and expense involved with trying to keep up with the fire department job requirements to be an all risk department. It is the standard and one must adapt and maintain the minimum standards out there. Failure to do so means that another department that has more resources will eventually come in and do your job for you. This will not always be the case but it's not uncommon to hear of a department being absorbed by another. It's happened where I live and all but two volunteer firefighters are doing the job anymore at one local department. The rest of the folks who gave years of service and dedication were given an afternoon awards banquet and a thank you, that's it.

So as we discuss the downfall of the fire service, I can't help but think that is very preventable as long as your willing to drop ego, roll up your sleeves and work together with other agencies to either become more than you were when you were a single agency or a facilitator with the single goal of modernizing and bringing about needed changes. There are still many departments that have so much redundancy with each department having a chief, training officer, fire marshal, etc. If there was ever a time for departments to think about consolidating things like PPE or apparatus purchasing for example the cost savings would make this type of approach successful. As it is, when we buy apparatus, we piggyback our order with Los Angeles City or County FD's to save thousands of dollars. Other departments don't have to reinvent the wheel here, only work smarter.
Comment by lutan1 on September 8, 2008 at 4:32am
Just while I'm on a roll- I have seen numerous examples of servivces that have purchased a set of rescue tools (spreader, ram and cutters) and give their members a weekend of training and that's it. Now if you've been in this game a while, you'll know that that is not enough to be competent at road crash rescue. It takes more than a shiny set of tools to understand correct and safe techniques, casualty handling, car design, hazard control and all the other associated topics to do with just this one discipline.

That's the sort of "plate spinning" I'm talking about. Do it, and do it properly.
Comment by lutan1 on September 8, 2008 at 4:29am
Bottom paragraph should read, "On a side note"....

Damn laptop can't spell tonight!
Comment by lutan1 on September 8, 2008 at 4:28am
Great response Mike- unfortunately I've been a part of services (and seen plenty) that do plate spin. They believe that a rope and karabiner is enough for rope rescue- this is the point I'm making.

We need to do it properly, or not do it at all. If your (I'm talking generally here, not Santa barbara) is not serious about training, equipping and funding, then we're fooling oursleves and the public.

And if it goes wrong, then both parties will lose out. We run the risk of killing our own or the public we're meant to be there to help.

Folks running the fire department commonly have master degree's in business or finance. The days of good old boy finances are over for most departments. Professional managers make decisions now way over my pay grade.
I just want to jump on this soapbox for a minute Mike- this is NOT the case for many departments the world over. Even to look back through the archives of FFN discussion forums, we'll see topics such as career staff being asked to do public works such as lawn mowing. That why I stress we need to educate these managers.

We need to think smart when dealing with these "fools" as there will always be some little smart arse with a law or business degreee who will see a quick fix to a budget issue by getting FF's to mow lawns instead of train or pre-plan for incidents that may or do occur in their area.

On a ise note about budgets, the service I used to belong to had to do no justification for the money spent- the books simply got auditted to make sure it was accounted for in some way, but that's it. That's a very scary concept and very common here. I've seen (and been a part of) Departments who fork out $100's of dollars a month on mobile phones instead of buying equipment or sending members on training courses. Wrong, wrong wrong! But it happens....
Comment by Mike Schlags (Captain Busy) Retd on September 8, 2008 at 3:59am
* We need to look at our core business. Look at statistics for calls. This will often determine what we need to focus on. If we're only getting 2 calls per year for HAZMAT, why focus so much effort on it?

Why? Well chlorine and ammonia are the two most common gases that are releases after seismic activity or through human error. Both of these hazards are unique because they cause mass evacuations should they get out of the box. Now these incidents are admittedly rare, but working on the philosophy, "failure to prepare is preparing for failure", is a mantra I can live with. We may not deal with a log of MCI's statistically but when one happens, I'm sure glad that we trained for it.

* We need to get in place proper mutual aid agreements- NOW!

Been there done that... since the 1970's... without it we'd be hurting for sure. I can't imagine the issues that Ben has to deal with as far as isolation and minimal resources. Just access and drive time alone sound like a nightmare when you are dealing with limited resources. But like most of us, we don't do this for profit, this is not a business and whether we like it or not, we are an All Risk Department and so is everyone else, so when you call for mutual aid, you get like resources that know how to deal with what is called All Risk, but what we call bread and butter calls.

My department simply prioritizes wildland training just before the season starts, highrise training during Christmas when the kids are on school break, etc. You can get your hazmat refresher, emt refresher done, you just have to be smart about it. Both hazmat and emt refresher training is done online for example to save both time and fuel costs.

* We may need to swallow some pride. We don't have to do EVERYTHING. it is OK to acknowledge your limitations and use other departments that are already equipped and trained to do a particular task.

We are the only other department. Our response area is our response area. Typically, it is our resources that are called upon to help out our neighbors. The saying, "The buck stops here", applies to my department. There simply is no where else to turn or handle the problem. It's my job to make it "go away"...

* We need to pre-plan to determine our drivers. Pre-planning sets the tone for so many benefits to the department and the public.

Another word for this is hazard analysis or risk management, I know that you know this but probably forgot to mention this. WE have spent some significant bucks on a new dispatch system where we can track all emergency units using an active GPS locater on a map. Now, the closest unit responds to the incident verses the old turfwar's orientated response system or responding a specific engine company just because it's their district.

* We need to educate our managers and decision makers. Educate them about core business. Educate them about the real dollars required to properly equip a department to do a job. Educate them about the real time it takes to maintain minimum skill levels.

Folks running the fire department commonly have master degree's in business or finance. The days of good old boy finances are over for most departments. Professional managers make decisions now way over my pay grade.

* We must acknowledge that it is often public money we're pissing up against the wall.

We are not a business. We have annual budgets that you either justify and spend or live without. Getting money is a competitive process considering that you are going up against law enforcement, public works, etc.

* We need to think like a business. As explained, the public has expectations as to what they expect of us. What they look at seriously is response times. We move engines up to cover stations that are down because of a long response. Battalion Chiefs look at statistical probabilities to predict if additional engine companies are needed during certain times of the year.

Bottom line... I don't think we are plate spinning at all, we are just doing what the public expects and pays us to do.

TCSS, Mike
Santa Barbara, CA
Comment by lutan1 on September 7, 2008 at 8:31pm
If you only have 12 people on your department, you're still going to be the first responder to those "Department of Everything" calls. I don't have a problem with a 12-member department not being able to completely handle huge, special hazards calls, but at least the members need to know enough to a) not get injured or killed trying to mitigate incidents that your department doesn't have the internal capability to resolve, b) know what specialized resources are needed, c) know how to access those resources, and d) understand that the first responders are going to have to wait on help, no matter how loud the victims are screaming. Those can be some VERY long waits.
THat's exactly what I'm talking about! Don't plate spin and put lip service and tokenism to it- understand the issues and challenges and plan to do it properly. As I tried to say in my initial post, just becasue you have a descender, a karabiner and a length of rope, doesn't mean you're capable of perfroming rope rescue.

I was one of the people who pointed out less-expensive options for the department that wanted the million-dollar ladder truck. The point is that they can find a way to improve their service and to be able to rescue savable life in their community in a cost-effective way. That doesn't imply that their ROI devalues the lives of that community's citizens relative to communities that do purchase million-dollar ladder trucks. It's more a factor of providing the best, most comprehensive services that your community can afford.
And that's a form of ROI for the community. Your response, and others, to that discussion is exactly what I'm trying to put across- a million dollar truck may be great to do the job, but do you truly NEED a million dollar truck? I thought some of the responses were fantastic alternatives that still achieved the same outcome for the public.

For starters, the private sector has no legal duty to act when the 911 phone rings. We do.
And we have a duty to do it properly. Train for it properly, equip to do it properly, etc.
This is aimed squarely at the bean counters and management who don't take this stuff seriously. They need to allocate funds to do it properly, and allow the time to train to do it properly.

Great responses again...
Comment by Ben Waller on September 7, 2008 at 6:12pm
lutan1,

If you use ANY form of ROI as the basis for providing service, purchasing a new apparatus, or any other facet of your service, then you are implying that you put a given money limit on the value of a human life. That is independent of actually calculating that cost - as insurance companies do - or if you even register the implied cost in, say, an apparatus purchasing decision.

I was one of the people who pointed out less-expensive options for the department that wanted the million-dollar ladder truck. The point is that they can find a way to improve their service and to be able to rescue savable life in their community in a cost-effective way. That doesn't imply that their ROI devalues the lives of that community's citizens relative to communities that do purchase million-dollar ladder trucks. It's more a factor of providing the best, most comprehensive services that your community can afford. The private sector has many more options when calculating ROI than does the public sector. For starters, the private sector has no legal duty to act when the 911 phone rings. We do. That affects the ROI calculations a great deal, whether those calculations are formal, informal, or implied.
Comment by Ben Waller on September 7, 2008 at 6:06pm
If you only have 12 people on your department, you're still going to be the first responder to those "Department of Everything" calls. I don't have a problem with a 12-member department not being able to completely handle huge, special hazards calls, but at least the members need to know enough to a) not get injured or killed trying to mitigate incidents that your department doesn't have the internal capability to resolve, b) know what specialized resources are needed, c) know how to access those resources, and d) understand that the first responders are going to have to wait on help, no matter how loud the victims are screaming. Those can be some VERY long waits.

There are other options that fit with both the Phoenix model, the lutan1 model, and the Ben model. One of the options is to create regional or state teams to handle the high-risk, low occurance calls. We joined with our one close mutual-aid department, our local sheriff's department, and two contracted local emergency physicians to operate three special response teams. We operate a Type II USAR team, a hazmat team, and a COBRA/WMD team. We get some state funding for the USAR team and the COBRA team, but we have to provide the manpower...which isn't limitless in any of the sponsoring departments. We also spend the COBRA money primarily on dual-use hazmat/WMD equipment. If we contaminate a couple of Level A suits on a transportation hazmat call, we get re-imbursed by the transport company under the SARA Title III regs. That lets us have the newest possible suits at all times without requiring a lot of state funding past the initial gear cache stage. The other thing we've gotten our state to recognize is that once we got our initial equipment caches, the most expensive part of maintaining the team is overtime and backfill costs for training, and recurrent maintenence costs to replace equipment with expiration dates such as atmospheric monitoring sensors and calibration gas, Drager tubes, radio batteries, medical supplies and special ops drugs, etc. It took a couple of years, but the state now funds most of those items in order to maintain a higher state of readiness in the regional USAR and COBRA teams.

Obviously, mutual aid and automatic aid are important if you have a 12-member department. On the other hand, Phoenix is the 800-lb gorilla of manpower and resources in the Valley of the Sun, and they run automatic aid/mutual aid with numerous surrounding departments.

Bottom line - we're the initial responder to Department of Everything calls, like it or not.
That's why we see engine companies at medical calls and extrications all over the country.
Comment by lutan1 on September 7, 2008 at 5:46pm
Thanks for a well thought out reply Ben.

Your response highlighted an important step I thought about when writing this, and then completely forgot to include- risk assess your area.

Your example of being on an island is a great example where the risk assessment needs to a be a primary driver. However, the department still needs to be realistic and not get caught in a "plate spinning" model. You're right- you do need to be an "all hazards" agency, especially in your case. If the department has identified HAZMAT as an issue- then make sure it is funded, trained and equipped to do it properly. Not tokenism that many other departments offer.

My point about ROI is not about putting a dollar value on a life- it's about the actual allocation of dollars. The example I mentioned was the person on this forum some time ago wanting to educate the bean counters on why they needed a million dollar plus truck- yet when they raised it on FFN, other members offered alternatives that were going to cost a fraction of the brand new truck.

ROI is important from the public's perspective- it is often their money we're spending. As a tax payer, I don't want to see a million dollar plus truck sitting in a driveway doing nothing. The deaprtment needs to explain and justify to the layperson why they need it, the importance of it's functionality, etc, etc. With tightening of the belts by many many people, it's important to acknowledge that or the day may come that they won't support your next project.

In relation to mutual aid, again the risk assessment contribute to this. Obviously remote or isolated departments won't be able to access mutual aid. That's fine- diversify your role, but do it properly. My point about mutual aid is to highlight why your department should invest in 3 flood rescue boats for example, if the department 10 miles down the road has them? If the risk assessment highlights they can't crew them during the day (for example) and you have a significant risk that requores this response, then go ahead and purchase and train for them, but if not, why spend the money that could go towards an often higher risk or exposure?

I've got to run out the door- I'll come back to this later today...

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