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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Fire department leaders should try to engage city management and elected officials on this topic. Doing so may result in limited success, however. Some elected officials and politically minded city managers may balk at the notion of having to prioritize the city's services. For them, such a task may be the equivalent of asking parents to identify which of their children they like the most. They're going to be reluctant to reveal the answer and divulge which programs are their favorites (with emphasis on favorites versus priorities).

While it may not come as news, it is important to acknowledge that some elected officials and politically minded city managers are single minded. For the electeds, they are focused on doing what will ensure they remain popular enough to get re-elected. For some city managers, their focus may be on doing what will ensure they remain popular enough with the elected officials to stay employed. It would not be fair to lump all elected officials and all city managers into the category of being narrowly focused on their popularity, so long as it is acknowledged that such persons do exist and they may be the very people you are trying to get to prioritize city services.

There can be some risk to engaging elected officials in the discussion of priorities. If they are focused on maintaining their popularity, the programs that are most popular in the community, not the ones that are most essential, may rise to the top of the list. Recently, a group of elected officials threw their support behind building a new library while withholding their support for a levy to build a new fire station (even though the fire station was reportedly in much worse condition). Why would this happen? From the standpoint of supporting popular funding options versus essential ones, many more voters are going to use the library each year than use the services of the fire department.

It's always wise to engage your elected officials in these important discussions as they represent the citizens. Just remember the potential risk and do your best to educate them on the potential impacts. Alternatively, the task of determining the core services to be maintained in each department of the city might be left to the professional staffers who possess a better understanding of the impacts based on an established standard of service and the safety to personnel versus politics and popularity.

By whatever means it is accomplished, the department should make a list of non-core services that can be shed and prioritize that list based on public and firefighter safety. For example, say the department hosts birthday parties; while nice, shedding this program will have a comparatively low impact on public and firefighter safety. Such programs can be hard to give up, though, especially when they have been on-going programs whose success is based on the hard work and dedication of loyal members. Deciding which non-core programs or services to discontinue may be the baseball equivalent of having to decide whether to close the concession stand or souvenir vendors. Both are popular, but something has to be cut and the status quo is not an option.

After all the non-core service cuts have been identified and implemented, the next task is to determine whether the core services can be maintained at the same level with the remaining resources. Strategically, this task addresses how to make cuts while preserving safety. If the next round of cuts involves reducing the very resources that provide core services, then the service delivery model must change as well. This can be an emotionally charged decision. Anytime a fire department has to reduce its core services, the loss can hurt — deeply. A loss of this magnitude can also result in members going through a grieving process that entails five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Many fire departments have experienced reductions that impact core services — including staffing reductions that result in fewer front-line personnel providing services, which impacts safety. The cuts have been tangible and department members are grieving. Some are in denial. Others are angry. A few are trying to bargain their way out of their situation and others are depressed.

What there seems to have been far less of (at least to this point) is acceptance of the losses — a curtailment of the anger, bargaining and depression. Perhaps members are still working their way through the grieving process. Experts have not agreed on a pre-scripted schedule for how long a person should spend in each step of the grieving process, though it is generally accepted among mental health professionals that extended periods in any step leading to acceptance can have unhealthy consequences.