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Hard Times

Posted on February 9, 2010 by Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator, Glenn A. Gaines

There is an old saying that I encourage the next generation of fire chiefs to consider: “If you are looking for a big opportunity, look for a big problem.”

When financial times are good, we tend to lean forward, contemplating our next move to expand or improve operational readiness, augment mitigation and prevention programs, and enhance organizational infrastructure.  In 2010 we are facing a challenging economy and we are forced to reconsider or justify the very core of what we do.

I served as a fire chief during the recession of the early 1990’s in Fairfax County, Virginia and today’s situation is far more severe than the one I experienced. Many who sought the position of fire chief in the past may now be rethinking their long term career goals. One cannot blame those who are tacking away from this honorable but challenging position and choosing an early retirement.

It is a challenge to put a positive spin on the environment fire chiefs find themselves in today but I am an optimist so I am going to try. I do not mean to oversimplify but I offer these suggestions based on the hard lessons I learned during my time as chief.

Step One – Role and Task Identification

First, set priorities and identify the critical roles your organization is uniquely capable of performing. Ask yourself, “What is our role in our community and what is expected of us from the political leadership?”

Local jurisdictions should take a hard look at what they expect of their fire and emergency medical services (EMS) department and systems. Each role or service brings with it costs and risk to citizens, firefighters, and EMS personnel. For example, rapid water rescue requires specialized vehicles, water craft, equipment and training (initial and continuing). Minimum staffing of these specialized personnel is also a consideration. The cost and risk to firefighters providing this service compared to the frequency of service demand is but one of the considerations when determining continuation of this service. Are there other agencies available to provide this service such as the Coast Guard or law enforcement, and are agreements in place to utilize their resources?

There are numerous lines of business that are often viewed as adjunct to the core role of fire and EMS departments and when considering budget reductions these services tend to be targeted for elimination. Hazardous materials response and level ‘A’ entry, ice rescue, high angle rescue, below grade rescue, fire investigation, code enforcement, public education, paramedic level EMS, and citizen CPR are just some examples.  For many departments these are considered core services so some organizations have attempted to reduce funding for all services rather than service elimination.  That may be a viable solution for the short term; but for the long term, reducing funding in all services or roles can increase safety risks for emergency personnel and erode the quality of service.

Step Two – Seeking Alternatives or New Thinking

Identifying innovative, low cost yet effective solutions to fulfilling critical roles is the next step. Options include privatizing, handing off to another agency (State or regional authorities), or seeking partnerships with private or not-for-profit organizations to reduce the cost while continuing to provide overall management of the service. The chief must stay in constant contact with political and employee group leadership as options are developed and considered. Rumors will run wild (such as we are eliminating jobs and giving them to the private sector, etc.) and good communication will minimize misunderstandings and help you manage the situation.

Alternatives

Look for high dollar costs and develop alternatives for consideration by the political leadership. Be familiar with labor agreements, Federal laws (OSHA regulations where applicable), and national standards that have been adopted by the State or local jurisdiction. Use geographic mapping of high service demand census or fire box districts to help set priorities for units that can be stood down until financial times improve.

I do not subscribe to the brown-out theory where high run companies are considered of equal importance as low run companies in low risk districts. It is clear that many fire chiefs are essentially ordered to use blanket policies across the board even when it can empirically be shown that low income populations suffer disproportionally from the effects of fire and fire-related incidents.

Whatever choice is made during hard times, it is imperative that we monitor impact such as response time, fire loss, injury, and save and death rates to citizens and firefighters.

New Thinking

Keep in mind that all local agencies are under the same pressure to serve their constituents with less revenue so they are equally motivated to find alternatives for working smarter and more efficiently through collaboration. 

Whatever decisions we make today may be in place for a significant period of time so think these innovations through for the long term. Be willing to step up to the plate with your innovative ideas for saving money while retaining services. Political leaders remember staff and agencies that do this, which will pay dividends later.


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