Firefighters refine approach

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2007, 12:00am

One Hong Kong government department may have about 9,300 staff, but when considering issues of human capital management, it regards its total headcount as far higher than that.

'For us, human capital is not limited to the people in the organisation; it also includes the public,' said Joe Kwok Jing-keung, director of the Fire Services Department. 'To control expenses, our slogan is 'Do more with less'. And to put that into practice, we have to partner with the community to make the most of our resources.'

Mr Kwok said no matter how quick firefighters were, some time would have elapsed before they reached the scene of an incident.

To contend with that, the department has trained several 'ambassadors' from the community to use fire extinguishing equipment installed in public areas. If a fire broke out, they would be on the spot and could take appropriate action in the critical few minutes before a fire crew arrived.

There have been other initiatives along the same lines. For example, in co-operation with property management companies, the department has helped to train security guards employed at residential buildings and shopping centres. They are taught cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques and how to use a defibrillator, vital skills considering that heart disease is the second-largest killer in Hong Kong.

'The first five minutes are crucial,' Mr Kwok said. 'If a trained security guard reaches the patient before us, it increases the chances of survival. They are on duty around the clock, so are the most suitable group to work with.'

The training is provided free of charge.

The department is also working with the Hong Kong Road Safety Patrol to prevent traffic accidents. It organises courses and demonstrations for schools and the public to explain how accidents happen and where firefighters get involved. The main causes of road accidents are speeding, drink driving and not wearing safety belts.

'We want to warn the public by showing them how serious an accident can be,' Mr Kwok said. 'When people are more aware, it helps reduce the number of accidents and places fewer demands on our services.'

To serve the public more effectively, the department is continuing to implement reforms. In February this year, two dogs, specially trained to sniff out the source of a fire, joined the team. Already, they have proved fast and efficient, and three employees have volunteered to take care of them. 'These staff look after the dogs at home and bring them to work,' Mr Kwok said. 'If the dogs are needed when they are off duty, they receive extra pay. The best thing is no additional manpower is needed, and we can provide better service.'

The Fire Services Department has also learned from the private sector. Similar to the concept of after-sales service in the commercial world, Mr Kwok said there was now 'after-fire service' to help the poor and elderly renovate and repair their homes after an accident.

When the idea was first proposed, staff expressed some concern about giving up their free time. However, when Mr Kwok explained the importance of offering something extra, volunteers soon came forward.

This group is now registered as a charitable organisation and has received additional support from the community.

'We have raised more than HK$1million and received free paint from a manufacturer,' he said. 'It proves that if you have a good idea to improve your services, you will get support.'

Mr Kwok said it was important to keep looking for new ways to contribute to the public good and provide extra services. With this came the need to increase all-round accountability, introduce best management practices and adopt a positive attitude towards change.

'Whenever there are changes, employees may be worried,' he said. 'However, once they understand the benefits for the public and the department, they are willing to do it.'

To ensure that quality standards are continually upgraded, the department is co-operating with the University of Science and Technology and Chinese University to redesign recruitment tests.

'To be a real firefighter, you need certain qualities,' Mr Kwok said. 'Starting from next year, we will use new personality and aptitude tests to select the right people.'