Study reveals areas of opportunity for Oak Bluffs Fire Department
Photo by Ralph Stewart
On Tuesday, Oak Bluffs Town Administrator Robert Whritenour released a comprehensive evaluation of the town's fire department conducted by consultant and former Brewster Fire Chief, Roy E. Jones III.
The report [see text below] highlights the need for effective leadership by a full-time chief, better training and record keeping on a department-wide basis, and the strong camaraderie and pride the volunteer firefighters share at the company level.
In a phone interview with the Times, Mr. Whritenour said he commissioned the study last fall with the full support of former Chief Peter Forend. He said it had nothing to do with recent upheaval in the Oak Bluffs Fire Department (OBFD).
"The genesis of this study is from when I first came aboard and was working with the fire department and Chief Forend to modernize the department and to evaluate its effectiveness," he said. "We felt that, rather than go in willy-nilly to get up to NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) standards, let's first do a thorough analysis."
Mr. Whritenour said the report will be an invaluable tool in plotting the course of the OBFD. "The first step in modernization is to bring all the information together. The key thing is that he (Mr. Jones) points out we have a dedicated unit of firefighters. I found his recommendations to be extremely sound. There's a huge value for our town. Oak Bluffs has a long tradition of a very effective fire department and it's a source of pride of community. Now we have to figure out how to implement this and move forward."
Mr. Jones's evaluation of OBFD while optimistic about the potential of the department, cited numerous issues that need to be addressed, starting at the top.
Lack of leadership
After extensive interviews with department members, Mr. Jones stated that, "Leadership style, participation and involvement were items that were brought up consistently... The department members are looking for a strong leader who fully participates in department activities, and takes a leading role in training and listens to the membership prior to decision making. The Acting Chief must work to stress that all members should train and work together as professionals in the Oak Bluffs Fire Department."
The report also noted a lack of discipline. One example given was the number of firefighters with beards. "This was brought to the attention of two officers (both in beards) as being a major safety hazard which they acknowledged and nothing more was said — this is a leadership issue," Mr. Jones stated.
Mr. Jones concluded that the position of Acting Chief should be a paid, full-time job, that the Chief should be trained to function as Fire Inspector, and that he or she should also be in charge of Emergency Medical Services (EMS), which is currently a separate job.
Department cohesion lacking
The study repeatedly cited a lack of cohesion among engine companies in the department. Again, Mr. Jones cited leadership, or lack of it, as part of the problem.
"To a person, people talked about their (engine) company first, and then the Department in general which reflects the tremendous camaraderie of the people working and training together." Mr. Jones wrote. "There may be past leadership challenges that did not bring out a greater consideration of the Department as a whole. In looking for records, it was found that response and training information is maintained at the company and not the Department level. It was also noted that to some extent, the companies do their own thing, sometimes even at incidents, which is not good. Without damaging the great company spirit, greater focus must be made on the importance of operating as one Department."
Insufficient data collection
The report was highly critical of the department's unprofessional record keeping, stating, "Many important records are not formally kept which can seriously hinder obtaining valuable information used for decision making."
Mr. Jones recommended that all members of the department learn "Firehouse," a Windows-based software application for fire department records management. At the time of the study, only one person was using the program.
The section of the report concluded, "According to today's requirements for complete information, it should be mandatory that each officer enter all company activity and a complete narrative at each incident which would be a big improvement."
The report noted that no documents were provided that showed any hiring procedures and that recruitment was done primarily by word of mouth. Mr. Jones recommended that a complete package be created outlining the hiring procedure, what to expect in future training, an application, a background check sign-off sheet, and information about requirements for a physical and a non-smoking statement which must be signed.
The cohesion issue was raised again, the report stating that Probationary training should be department-wide with mandatory levels of training and not by individual companies as is currently practiced.
Lax training practices
This facet of department procedures received some of the harshest criticism, stating that. "There is a clear need to improve training practices," the report stated. "It is important to make full Department drills productive, since past experiences have shown that sporadic attendance has been due to unproductive time at drills."
Mr. Jones recommended that two drills a month be held, one company only, the second a multiple company drill or full department drill/exercise.
A number of operational procedures were found lacking, including but not limited to: Fire ground operations, Fire Alarm department-wide polices, Standard Operating Procedure for proper use of the Incident Command System (Barnstable County System), Haz Mat response, Response definition (who goes first, second etc. or what goes when) and Mutual Aid agreements with Barnstable County.
Overall, the Oak Bluffs Fire Department did well in this area. The study recommended that the department create a Maintenance Supervisor position (with a stipend) to coordinate all repairs, set preventive maintenance, pump tests, ladder testing and hose testing. The report reiterated that record keeping is a weakness and has to be improved.
Disharmony with selectmen
The report stated that a number of OBFD members feel that the Board of Selectmen don't fully appreciate the OBFD's work, which is provided at minimal expense to the town. It recommended that the appointed chief and his officers have an informal, ongoing discussions with the Board.
Mr. Jones concluded with an upbeat outlook for the O.B.F.D., albeit with some conditions: "There is great potential to move the department forward...there is a good strong basis for a great fire department which would benefit from some changes as well as open minds to improvements which would meet today's requirements."
A copy of the report follows:
Report to the Town Administrator: 5/16/2013
The personnel in the Oak Bluffs Fire Department are a great group of people! After listening to at least 15 members, all with their hearts in serving in the fire service, it was noted that there is great potential to move the department forward and achieve the objectives set forth in this document. In listening to the various members, there were a number of messages noted about ways to improve the department. The members take pride in being volunteers, but realize there are tremendous demands for today's fire service personnel.
In the interviews, it was noted that leadership style, participation, and involvement were items that were brought up consistently as an extremely important part of the role in the appointment of an Acting Chief, and must be discussed, emphasized, and implemented. The Acting Chief must work to stress that all members should train and work together as professionals in the Oak Bluffs Fire Department. Being a volunteer is not a shield to prevent being a professional.
An interesting and important aspect of the interviews was the organization identity. To a person, people talked about their company first, and then the Department in general which reflects the tremendous camaraderie of the people working and training together. There may be past leadership challenges that did not bring out a greater consideration of the Department as a whole. In looking for records, it was found that response and training information is maintained at the company and not the Department level. It was also noted that to some extent, the companies do their own thing, sometimes even at incidents, which is not good. Without damaging the great company spirit, greater focus must be made on the importance of operating as one Department.
The caring and pride of the members provides an outstanding path to help move the department forward. The department members are looking for a strong leader who fully participates in department activities, and takes a leading role in training and listens to the membership prior to decision making.
Most all of the members identified themselves as volunteers, but then agreed that a fire didn't care what they were, and that they have to deal with situations with professionalism which has not been stressed.
1. Appointment of an Acting Chief should be a full time job.
2. Establish objectives and a time line for the Acting Chief as a job measurement.
3. The Fire Chief should be trained and function as Fire Inspector with a view toward a part-time Fire Inspector
4. Rejoin EMS and Fire Services under the Fire Chief
5. Maintain the ability for volunteers to be a member of one or both functions.
6. Create an EMS Assistant Chief/EMS Coordination with a defined operational staff and chain of command.
1. Leadership should guide the department in creating a vision and objectives for the Oak Bluffs Fire Department for the next five years.
2. Involve all the officers in reviewing procedures and objectives.
3. The Chief should meet with the full department on a regular basis.
4. Regularly scheduled Officer meetings must include all officers.
5. Provide strong, open, and participatory leadership.
6. Conduct a brief Post Incident Discussion after each incident which involves more than routine operations.
7. After major incidents, have a formal After Action Report meeting with all personnel.
8. One observation in the interviews was a number of personnel with beards. This was brought to the attention of two officers (both in beards) as being a major safety hazard which they acknowledged and nothing more was said — this is a leadership issue.
DATA COLLECTION AND USE
The program "Firehouse" is capable of keeping outstanding records for all attendance, training and activities as well as full response records. It is a great asset to have the incident basic information entered by Dukes County and it is important that the system be utilized to its fullest extent.
At the first visit, department training and response records were requested and further questioning revealed that many important records are not formally kept which can seriously hinder obtaining valuable information used for decision making. Information indicated that all personnel response and training information is kept at the company level, which will not meet ISO evaluation requirements.
I was told that one person inputs only basic information into the "Firehouse" program. It was strongly suggested at the first meeting with Chief Forend that a "Firehouse" representative be invited to come to the department to do extensive training. One or two people can be designated to obtain extensive training and knowledge of the system, but all officers should be trained to do data input, which covers several great needs of the department.
All data and records should be in one place and in one form, which will allow great statistical information to be available quickly to help make many leadership and management decisions. According to today's requirements for complete information, it should be mandatory that each officer enter all company activity and a complete narrative at each incident which would be a big improvement.
RECRUITMENT AND PROBATIONARY TRAINING
A firefighter who had recently joined the Department said he had completed an application and it was noted that recruitment is primarily word of mouth and there are no documents provided showing any hiring procedures. The Department does have a requirement to complete FFI, CPR and First Responder programs which brings many things to light, such as.
Is there a formal Hiring policy & procedure including the following:
1. A written package outlining the hiring procedure for the new recruit.
2. The package should contain items such as an introduction to the department organization, listing of what is going to be expected in future training and attendance, an application, a Corey Check signoff sheet, and information about requirements for a physical and a non-smoking statement which must be signed.
3. With regard to volunteer firefighters and smoking, it is important to note that according to Chief Joe Maruca (an Attorney very familiar with fire service legislation) information regarding the Heart and Cancer Presumption Law, the "No Smoking" ban applies to all fire personnel hired after 1998, but firefighters on the job prior to that date are not affected.
4. Physicals must be mandatory and follow an accepted format and the Department can develop an agility test to be measured during Probationary Training.
5. Probationary training should be department-wide with mandatory levels of training and not by individual companies in order to assure that a new member can safely function at an incident until he/she has received FFI training. There should be a written book or manual describing training which explanation on how a person qualifies for incident operations. The training should be developed by the Training Officer and Committee mentioned in the Training Section.
There was a lot of agreement that training is an important issue, and it would be helpful for the Training Officer (previously filled position) and Training Committee to set a curriculum. It is important to make full Department drills productive, since past experiences have shown that sporadic attendance has been due to unproductive time at drills. Company officers reported that on some occasions, two companies have drilled together. It was noted that initial training has been done by assigned companies, including driver training, which may not provide department-wide consistency. There are no full training records to be found on a Department level, and I was not shown any personnel files which should include information regarding certification, although there was an indication that a record was kept of First Responder, CPR, & Firefighter I.
There would be great input and participation if the position of Training Officer was filled and worked along with a Training Committee made up of a representative of each company
1. Develop a total department training program with written outlines which may be done by the Instructors.
2. Move to two drills a month: A) One a company drill only; B) the second, a multiple company drill or full department drill/exercise. Consideration might be given to using the Company meeting night more effectively as this would keep the time committed to present time used. The Companies could be given a limited time prior to the drill to get together.
3. Develop and run a Departmental Probationary Training Program. There are some available.
4. Develop a full Driver Training Program for all members with levels of driving skills defined and cross training on vehicles and full records kept centrally. This program must include an outside certificate program every few years.
5. Develop a Standard Pump Operator program as well as an Aerial Ladder Certification program which are open to all and are required prior to driver training on apparatus.
6. HazMat Operational Training and Refresher is also another area for department-wide training.
7. Maintain a full training records system as required by Insurance Services Office. and NFPA.
8. Review Incident Command training and maintain at a high level.
It was noted that operational procedures are contained on only one sheet, and despite personnel descriptions of what their company did for some types of incidents, no Department-wide SOP's or SOG's were provided. It is important to develop Standard Departmental Operating Procedure's and Guidelines based on National Operational Standards and Guidelines. It is important that all operational issues work toward stronger department operations vs. Company operations.
Operational procedures found lacking or not shown include the following:
a. Fire ground operations and responsibilities.
b. Fire Alarm department-wide policy.
c. SOP for proper use of the Incident Command System (Barnstable County System).
d. May Day procedures.
e. Handling of CO alarms, with and without symptoms.
f. Haz mat responses.
g. MVC fire operations.
i. Rehabilitation Policy.
j. R.I.T. policy and procedure.
k. Apparatus position definitions.
l. Response definition: who goes first, second, etc. or what goes when.
m. Establish (as required under NFPA 1710 and 1720) a full set of Running Cards for the notification of apparatus for Second, Third, and Fourth Alarm up to when indicated that Mutual Aid from Barnstable County would be required.
n. Complete an agreement as originally suggested with Barnstable County to provide a working Mutual Aid to Oak Bluffs. (Island would be best).
The vehicle check system seems to work pretty well at this time, but there seemed to be some issues about follow-up to write ups.
Protective clothing must be provided, replaced as needed and second sets provided to speed incident response. This issue should be researched and a regular replacement program developed.
Establish a Maintenance Supervisor position with a stipend to coordinate all repairs, set preventive maintenance, pump tests, ladder testing and hose testing. It is important to maintain a full record system for follow-up and budgeting.
Review and coordinate equipment on each unit and maintain uniformity (i.e. same forcible entry tools).
Add Standpipe Packs to each engine and provide the ladder with one for extension and additional lines.
Pressurized Water Extinguishers should be provided for all apparatus with two on the Ladder and Rescue.
Establish a part-time Fire Inspector position with training, using stipend plus inspections.
Consider a summer part-time firefighter/EMT assigned to fire as his primary responsibility.
Set EMS shifts to give one trained firefighter all weekdays (Primary EMS). I understand this is done to a degree now but would should be formalized with SOP's.
Offer a night or day shift to department personnel with a compensatory stipend.
One message that came out was the question of appreciation and how it is demonstrated by the town. Some of the members feel that the town and Board of Selectmen don't fully appreciate the effort and work provided at so little expense. There is some feeling that the fire service demands of today are not understood by the Selectmen. Meet with the appointed chief and his officers informally to discuss any issues and ideas. Appoint a Selectmen's liaison with the Fire Department to learn the ideas and needs and keep an open door which could be in terms of greater acknowledgement and looking to provide additional financial reward for defined work, training and responsibility required today.
It would be important to totally review the Fire Chief position and provide compensation as a full-time position.
Review of the West Barnstable Stipend Program in understanding a working system to appropriately reward personnel for putting forth the time needed in today's fire service.
Work with other towns to seriously consider a Dukes County Fire Prevention and Inspection System which could be done as a District with all towns represented.
These comments represent ideas that came forth in meetings, discussions and observations in multiple visits to the Department. The objective is to provide a basis for further discussion and provide ideas to help the Oak Bluffs Fire Department serve the Town of Oak Bluffs.
In summary, there is a good strong basis for a great fire department which would benefit from some changes as well as open minds to improvements which would meet today's requirements. Time must be spent sitting and discussing these observations with the author, and hopefully refining them into short- and long-term objectives for the department leadership.
Roy E. Jones, III
Fire Chief (Retired)