County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

County Fire is the 10th department at the County of Santa Barbara to have its inner workings examined with an eye to efficiency and performance, a review ongoing since 2019. County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig described the process of having to look at his department’s flaws as akin to exploratory surgery — painful. He laughed weakly as he recalled having some “direct” conversations with consultant KPMG’s staff: “Much as we were doing things right,” he told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, “we can do things better and that’s important to know.”

Few of the findings in the KPMG examination were a surprise to the department; most just hadn’t been a priority, Hartwig said, with the exception of some station-level information. The chiefs learned that the rank-and-file fire station personnel understanding of performance measures wasn’t what the chiefs understood them to be.

“Okay, that means we need to do better with our folks who perform services and tip-of-the-spear interactions with the public,” Hartwig said, reflecting County Fire’s overall acceptance of the report’s critiques. And the KPMG report wasn’t entirely critical. It opened with praise for the department’s sense of mission, cooperation among all ranks, and high morale.

Improved data collection was a large part of the recommendations, which saw a need for updated technology to replace outdated tech and for a commitment to use it consistently. The data collected showed when and where fire personnel were responding to calls — over 70 percent of the time on medical emergencies, which were much briefer than fire calls. The department was considering rapid response vehicles, rather than fire engine and ambulance responders, and the report showed medical-call “hotspots” in urban areas where they would save on the wear-and-tear of engines, such as Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Isla Vista. For this and an emergency “nurse advice line,” the Fire Department expected that completing the unified radio system, or the Regional Fire Communications Center now underway, would move the idea toward implementation.

Succession planning, mutual aid calculations — they were a draw for the most part — more transparent cost-sharing in the air support unit, and efficiencies in personnel workload were other areas the report covered. In a step toward comparing the cost of services delivered to property tax revenue by station house zone, KPMG assembled a data set dividing County Fire’s $89 million budget among staffing at its 16 fire stations. Collecting the right data was important, Hartwig acknowledged, and that was one way to look at staffing efficiency. But maximizing the time for a standing army of firefighters was something all the chiefs wrestled with. It was inefficient, he said, when you couldn’t schedule for an emergency and also knew you couldn’t wait till the next day to address it.

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