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What’s the Problem? (Introducing the Capability Gap)

by Dawn Kennedy

EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

There are several major conferences and product shows throughout the year that introduce new widgets to the market of first responders. These products are developed and improved to solve problems. You have problems. But resources are tight or maybe even nonexistent some places. The list of stuff that is necessary to safely and effectively serve the public is extensive. Take a minute and ask yourself, “How does my agency get stuff?” Some agencies are better at the process of getting stuff than others. Some agencies don’t really have a process at all. There are times in the life of every agency and department when a situation arises and you need something that you don’t “organically” have as an available asset. It happens. This frequently leads to a search for the thing that would have changed a frustrating outcome. There should be a way to get what you need, really need, within the budget, or with a no kidding plan to find the money. Over the next few months we will explore a simple but rigorous process that can be adapted to any agency’s particular needs, organizational and political structure.

Capability vs Product

It starts with the gap. That particular thing your agency cannot do, or cannot do as well as you would like. If you are like the majority of agencies, you have a list of gaps. Look across all of the missions or operations your agency is responsible to perform and the gaps will reveal themselves. A “capability” is what you need to be able to do; drive to the scene, get water to a fire, prevent injuries to personnel from a bullet, and communicate with dispatch. The “product” is the thing that provides you a certain capability; the police car, the fire hose, the body armor, the radio. Most of the time, however, there are existing products at your agency, but you cannot do the mission effectively. So the “gap” isn’t that you cannot get water to the fire at all, but that you cannot get enough water, or water fast enough to be effective. It may be because you need equipment. But before we can look into possible ways to fix the gap, you need to make sure you “drill down” the issue.

HOW do we need to do this?

There are agencies that do not need a new product to fill their immediate gaps. It may be because they can use something they already have in a different way. It may be they have a training deficiency and will overcome their gap with additional training. It is easy to decide too early that you can’t do something because you lack a piece of equipment. But before you reach that conclusion, you must answer the HOW you need to do a certain mission or operation safely and effectively. There are regulations, standards and guidelines available for just about any situation that can tell your agency how they should do a certain operation at the local, state and national levels. For national guidelines and standards in the U.S., you can start your search in the Department of Justice (, National Fire Protection Agency ( and the National Emergency Medicine Education Standards ( Don’t forget to look at your local and regional Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as well.

Compare what your agency can do now with what you need to be able do and the difference between the two standards is a gap in capability you can now clearly articulate. If your agency cannot do a certain operation at all, that is also a capability gap. For example, let’s use a hypothetical with communications that may be quite familiar. Your agency has to be able to communicate with dispatch while on a scene (capability). The national standard says you should be in contact with dispatch at all times while on scene. You cannot speak to dispatch using a hand held radio in a “dead spot” out in the county (gap). Your agency uses a cell phone to stay in contact with dispatch while at that spot (how you do it now). The dispatcher must leave the radio unattended to answer the phone, and the calls drop frequently (does not meet the standard). The gap- Your agency does not have the capability to speak with dispatch at all times while on scene. That is a clear and concise statement of what your agency cannot do to the standard, and you can then speak to what happens because you do not have the capability. In this example, loss of communications while you are on a scene affects personnel safety and operational effectiveness (cannot call for backup or mutual aid, unable to track response and scene times accurately, etc.)

But do you need a widget?

The next step is then to ask a series of questions to try and solve the problem. These questions will narrow down the possible solutions, and your agency may find that you can address the gap without a purchase, or perhaps you can reduce the gap while you find the budget to pay for new equipment. The questions should focus on the following: (MTPE)

   MANNER- Can we address this gap with an existing resource in a different way?
   TRAINING- Can we address this gap by training more or differently?
   PROCEDURE- Can we address this gap with a new approach?
   EQUIPMENT- Can we address this gap with new equipment?

Because there are lots of possible answers to these questions, it is often a good idea to present them to several people, perhaps in a group, or provide a piece of paper with the gap and these questions to each shift for personnel to answer on their own. Either way, first encourage all input, no judging any idea as good or bad and just collect the answers. Someone may have a creative way to address your agency’s issue that no one else thought about! Our example above could look something like this:

Manner- we could use a different channel in that part of the county, we could move an existing antenna onto the rescue truck at that station, etc., think of what you already have in your inventory- and be creative...

Training- can’t think of any way to train differently or more to address this...

Procedure- when there is a response to that part of the county, have dispatch always switch to the cell phone during the response and have a second person available to cover the radio, send a second truck to a midpoint to act as a repeater for dispatch on the radio- from scene to truck to dispatch...

Equipment- we can get a repeater out there, we can get new radios, we can get a satcom phone, we can add a cell phone booster, we can...

You can start to see how the progression of ideas starts to narrow down possible solutions that you can compare for efficiency, effectiveness, cost, practicality, and how much each solution addresses the gap. Your decision may ultimately rest on how often you respond to the dead zone. If you respond only once or twice a year, your agency may decide not to address the gap at all. This is how the process becomes unique to each agency and applicable across all departments. It is repeatable across all identified gaps, and your department should have a plan to review the gaps on a regular basis, perhaps annually, because there are regular changes to available resources, agency operations, personnel, and standards.

To succeed in addressing your agency’s gaps using this process requires honesty, creativity, and a willingness to keep an open mind until the end. Stick with it, however, and the solutions present themselves so decisions can be made within the constraints and limitations of your agency, whether it is money, manpower, or equipment. It will prevent purchases or changes to the organization that are “reactive” and don’t solve the problem. The process also helps to define any larger changes that can affect the organization. When you get a new widget, you must train on it, you must decide where it sits in the agency (when not in immediate use) and you (hopefully) have a plan for routine maintenance and other checks to keep it operational and ready for use. Next time, we will discuss how to define and refine your requirements to ensure you go after the right equipment solution.

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