Firefighting: It's a Whole New Ballgame

  There is little doubt the recent recession has had a significant impact on the nation's fire service. Hardly a day goes by when there's not some news about an organization that has downsized, rightsized or capsized. There are all kinds of terms...


  There is little doubt the recent recession has had a significant impact on the nation's fire service. Hardly a day goes by when there's not some news about an organization that has downsized, rightsized or capsized. There are all kinds of terms being attached to what is happening. One I...


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There is little doubt the recent recession has had a significant impact on the nation's fire service. Hardly a day goes by when there's not some news about an organization that has downsized, rightsized or capsized. There are all kinds of terms being attached to what is happening. One I heard recently was "The New Normal." This term seems to be fitting as the fire service faces changes unlike anything most have experienced and it's likely to stay this way for a very long time.

Is this a pessimistic view? Or a realistic view? Many fire service leaders are not confident that fire department budgets or firefighter positions are going to return to their pre-recession levels. If they do return, it may be a very slow process. Thus, the situation many fire departments find themselves in is "The New Normal" or what some might call a "paradigm shift."

Joel Barker, credited as being the person who popularized the concept of paradigm shifts, shares a story about Swiss watchmakers — renowned crafters of some of the finest timepieces in the world. As the story goes, the person who discovered digital watch technology first pitched their idea to Swiss watchmakers who shunned the inventor's idea, quipping, "Who would ever want a watch that did not use moving parts to ensure precision?" The dejected inventor, with his head held low, left Switzerland and traveled to Japan to see whether anyone there would embrace his digital watch technology. The rest, as they say, is history. The paradigm for watch wearers changed and the Swiss watchmakers found themselves in tough times.

The paradigm for the fire service has also shifted and unless ways are found to improvise, adapt and overcome, there may be consequences. The consequences most concerning are those associated with firefighter safety. The do-more-with-less edict can only go so far. Can fire departments find ways to be more efficient and effective in response to these trying economic times? In many cases, the answer is yes. When economic times were good and budgets and staffing were increasing at healthy rates, some organizations capitalized on those opportunities and became resource abundant. However, the economy has dealt many communities some tough cards that now require a tightening of the belt and has created a call to find new or different ways to provide service.

However, there is a limit to how much better an organization can become based on the benefits of becoming more efficient. That point (termed the point of diminishing return for the economics-minded readers) is where each incremental decrease in a budget (or staffing) will result in a corresponding impact on the organization's ability to safely and effectively serve the community. The size and complexity of the organization and the services it provides, coupled with the complexity of the community, means the point of diminishing return can be different for every organization.

Depending on these factors, the point of diminishing return may come with the reduction of a single line or staff position. In very large organizations, the point of diminishing return may not come until a dozen or more positions are reduced. Whatever the size of the organization, however, that point does come. It is at that point that bad things can begin to happen if the organization does not fundamentally change the way it does business.

The safety impacts of a budget or staff reduction cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. There are other forces in play. For example, lightweight construction and hydrocarbon-rich contents are contributing to earlier rates of flashover and earlier building collapse — a significant safety concern for firefighters. There are also growing challenges being faced by fire-based EMS organizations as their aging communities increase the demands for medical services. High-volume demand for EMS services may reduce the number of firefighters available for a structure fire response — another significant safety concern for firefighters.

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