Trial by fire
BY LIBBY ELLIS LOWE
PHOTOS BY GEORGE FETTING
from left: Richard Host, Robert McGowan and Sean Nairn
A FIRE BRIGADES NUFFS OUT AN ARCHAIC TRACKING SYSTEM—AND IS READY FOR ACTION WITH BRAND-NEW TECHNOLOGY.
At the end of the day it was going to happen. But we sold it on the basis of streamlining work practices and did not deliver it as an ultimatum.
IN an emergency, firefighters have to act fast. For that to happen, the people behind the scenes have to send personnel where they're needed at a moment's notice. The New South Wales Fire Brigade in New South Wales, Australia—the oldest and largest brigade in the country—had no way to do that.
Its arcane paper-based systems reflected the brigade's age a little too well. So the squad launched a project to introduce a new high-tech system for tracking the 3,500 firefighters who serve the state's 6 million residents.
The project was a long time coming, says Sean Nairn, program manager, IT department, New South Wales Fire Brigade.
“The idea had been floating around for about eight years, and we had a couple of attempts at trying to get it done, but the technology wasn't there and the team wasn't in place,” he says.
Mr. Nairn decided the time was right—but first he was going to have to convince the rest of the brigade.
For the New South Wales Fire Brigade, it all came down to the boards.
“There were magnetic boards on the walls in zone offices around the state, and duty commanders would move firefighters’ names around to show what station they were working in,” Mr. Nairn explains. “The main problem was that there was no centralized view of that—the information was trapped in an office.”
Zone managers were frequently left without any real-time information, such as the number of firefighters on duty at any given moment. The system also made it virtually impossible to locate firefighters with specialized skills to assist in the event of major incidents.
“A few years ago, we had someone die in an auto accident, and it took hours to see who was on duty at that station,” he says.
Payroll was suffering as well. It could take six to eight weeks to get information about an employee's overtime, personal automobile use expenses or absences.
It was time for an overhaul, but it would come with a hefty price tag—one far larger than anticipated.
“We didn't have a clear understanding of the award agreement between the brigade and the union,” Mr. Nairn says. “And as we did the analysis, it became more complex, and we realized the project would take longer and be more difficult.”
Still, buy-in from senior stakeholders enabled the AU$974,000 project to move forward even as the budget increased quickly in the early stages.
“The CIO was adamant about getting rid of the paper timesheets, as was the head of human resources,” Mr. Nairn says.
It wasn't hard to see why.
There were approximately 20 offices around the state being manned by a single person responsible for ensuring there were enough firefighters at each station. People were feeling overworked and were ready for a change.
Well, at least some of them were.
In an organization with as much history as the New South Wales Fire Brigade, the new kid on the block isn't always embraced with open arms. And that was definitely the case with the new system to automate manual disposition, dubbed SAM.
Despite their obvious failings, the magnetic boards had earned the loyalty of the firefighters who weren't all that fired up about switching.
“This is one of the last of the ‘jobs for life.’ In a bad year we might get five resignations. The firefighters are also very heavily unionized—there is a lot of reluctance to change,” Mr. Nairn says. “Change-management issues were as big if not bigger than the technical challenges—there is a lot of emotional attachment to how we used to do things.”
Cultural resistance had blocked the project in its earlier incarnations, but Mr. Nairn went in prepared this time around. He and his team knew they had to find a way to modernize the system— without losing the look and feel that firefighters had grown to love.
“We looked at commercially available products, but decided to build the system in-house to suit us perfectly,” he says. “The biggest technical challenge was to make the user interface look like the magnetic board while making it simple enough for non-computer literate people to use.”
Despite a long gestation period and initial reluctance from users, the New South Wales Fire Brigade's transition to its new IT system has been fairly smooth.
In fact, the team met all of its goals for the first phase of the project:
■ Create a dependable system
■ Achieve 100 percent use by operational commanders and operational support managers
■ Gain an accurate view of firefighter location down to station level
■ Get firefighters paid correctly and on time
“It's been a win-win for everyone,” says Sean Nairn, New South Wales Fire Brigade.
And the feedback about the new system has been so overwhelmingly positive that plans for phase two are already under way.
Within the next year, Mr. Nairn hopes to move the system down to the station level so each station head can enter data, a task currently handled only by duty commanders.
Some of these firefighters had been using the old system for 25 years, and we targeted them with extra training and support because we felt if we could win these people over, the newer managers would follow.
While developing the software, Mr. Nairn hosted a number of forums to update employees about the project, get suggestions and give them a sense of ownership.
He also brought in one of their peers, Robert McGowan, to advise the developers from an operational perspective.
“I explained how the duty commanders and managers do their daily human resources management/change of shift and suggested how it would be done in SAM,” says Mr. McGowan, inspector at the New South Wales Fire Brigade. “We tried to base a lot of the SAM functions on the paper-based processes so the change wouldn't be too great.”
Using the new software, for example, a manager can fill gaps by clicking on a firefighter's name and dragging it to the station that needs a resource. The next day, that firefighter would automatically return to his or her base station.
Despite the benefits, Mr. Nairn knew he still had to get people to actually use the system.
“The IT section would never have been able to do this alone,” he says. “I needed someone to be a front man and sell SAM to his or her peers to ensure they would use it.”
That front man was Mr. McGowan.
His background as a teacher, and his long and varied career as a firefighter meant that he had a rapport with his colleagues. And that made him the obvious choice for training and supporting the staff members as they learned the new system.
“I am definitely not an IT guru, which I think was an advantage in my role,” says Mr. McGowan.
He developed lesson plans and scheduled three two-hour training sessions for each of the approximately 200 duty commanders and managers.
“I chose to go one-on-one rather than have a classroom-based training system,” he says. “I felt the trainees would benefit more. I had a team of up to four other inspectors to assist at various times in the training.”
Mr. McGowan decided to take on the toughest customers first. “Some of these firefighters had been using the old system for 25 years, and we targeted them with extra training and support because we felt if we could win these people over, the newer managers would follow.”
Mr. Nairn also recruited advanced users who touted the benefits of the system throughout the brigade and trained their less-experienced peers.
But even with the training and preparation, problems were destined to crop up. So Mr. McGowan and his team made themselves available with live tech support for approximately three months after SAM went live.
Encouraging user input from the beginning inspired early adoption— and made using the system feel like a voluntary choice.
“At the end of the day, it was going to happen,” says Mr. Nairn. “But we sold it on the basis of streamlining work practices and did not deliver it as an ultimatum.”
The payoff is clear. New South Wales now ranks as the first fire and rescue service in Australia to implement an automated system to track frontline operational staff.
“We can see at any point in time exactly where all our firefighters are,” says Richard Host, the brigade's CIO. “If we have an emergency, we can accurately mobilize our forces to save lives and property.”
Change-management issues were as big if not bigger than the technical challenges—there is a lot of emotional attachment to how we used to do things.
The system also helps clear up the complicated payroll process. In the past, firefighters would complete a paper timesheet every two weeks, and commanders would check those before manually entering everything. Then they would have to calculate overtime, personal automobile use expenses and time off.
“Pieces of paper would be filled in, checked, couriered, collated, checked, couriered, collated, checked and entered into the data system. All of this took time,” Mr. Host says. “Now, the data are in the system and all the way through to our payroll system before the day is out and we know it is accurate.”
Mr. Host estimates the new system will save “hundreds of thousands of dollars in data-entry clerks” every year.
“However, the real saving will be in releasing thousands of firefighters from filling in pieces of paper and moving magnets on a whiteboard so they can do what they signed up for—saving lives and property,” he says.
And that seems to be the burning issue.
“Firefighters are down-to-earth people and they will tell you what they think,” Mr. Host says. “The success of the project can be measured in the fact that firefighters of all levels continue to thank us for the system.” PM
PM NETWORK AUGUST 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG