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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Sometimes when looking at an issue that can be as emotionally charged as safety to the community and safety of firefighters, it is beneficial to use an analogy. The analogy chosen here is to compare a fire department to a baseball team. Granted, the consequences of a bad outcome in baseball (the loss of a game) pale in comparison to the potential consequences of a bad outcome (injury or loss of life) at an emergency scene, but follow the analogy through before passing judgment.

On a baseball team, each player fulfills a specific role on the field and performs specific tasks assigned to each position. Each role is so specialized it prohibits the positions from being interchangeable. Further, it is impossible for any one player to effectively fulfill multiple roles on the field at the same time. It is common, however, for two or more players to work in tandem to perform a task or to back each other up. At no time does a baseball team ever operate with fewer than the prescribed number of players — nine.

Hypothetically, say the team's owner and management have determined the revenues collected were not going to sufficiently cover the team's expenses. The fiscal shortfall facing the team can be addressed in essentially two ways — increase revenues or decrease expenses.

To increase revenue, the franchise could take several courses of action or combine several simultaneously. The club could increase ticket prices. While this would increase the revenue per ticket, the overall revenue may decrease if fewer people buy tickets and come to the games. Less attendance may also impact the revenue from concessions and merchandise. The club could increase the price of concessions and merchandise. Again, this may increase the revenue per hot dog, but the overall revenue may remain constant (or even decline) if fewer people buy hot dogs.

Organizational Integrity

As with the revenue options, to reduce expenses, the franchise could take several courses of action or combine several simultaneously. The club could cut operating expenses by controlling utility costs or by reducing the quality (and subsequently the cost) of food, merchandise and supplies. It could reduce personnel costs with staff reductions in a variety of areas, including administrative staff, ticket sales, concessions, merchandise, field maintenance and parking attendants, or reduce the number of players on the team.

I want to focus my discussion on the hypothetical reduction in the number of players. While reductions in other areas bring their own issues, if a team makes significant cuts in the number of players and subsequently begins to lose games, the core purpose for the existence of the organization begins to erode.

When a team cuts players, the decision as to which players get cut may be based on contractual obligations. Therefore, it may not be the poorest performing players who are the first to go. Rather, it may be the newest players on the team if, say, the contract says cuts are made in reverse seniority order.

If the team cuts players whose performance is marginal or cuts players who see little field time, the impact may not be so significant. However, what happens when the cuts are so deep that the team can no longer play the game with nine players on the field? Maybe the team has to take the field with eight players. Such a short-staffed situation would surely have an impact on the performance of the team.

In some fire departments, the cuts have been so significant that core services are being provided with less than adequate staffing — the equivalent of a baseball team taking the field with eight players. This team is not going to be able to perform the same as it did when it had nine players on the field. The vacant position is going to lead to an impact on team performance.

The team is going to have to assess the impact of the loss and determine which position it is going to leave vacant. It is hard to imagine any position on the field that is not vital to team success. Arguably, there may be a few positions that are absolutely essential for the team to even be functional. For example, a team without a pitcher would forfeit the game immediately when they took the field. No pitcher means no game. What about a team without a catcher? Under this scenario, every pitch thrown would become an opportunity for runners to pass the bases with no concern of being picked off by the non-existent catcher. Perhaps the team cuts the first base position? If a ground ball were hit to the infield, there would be no one at first base to receive the throw and runners would most assuredly earn a single. It's easy to see these three positions are absolutely essential to team success. All other positions are up for reduction consideration.