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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The losses many departments have experienced are not going to be restored. As department members work through the grieving process and get to acceptance, they can begin determining how to adjust to the current situation — their "New Normal." This will be a watershed moment for the department and the starting point for a meaningful discussion about how service delivery should change as a result of this new paradigm.
As core services are cut, the mantra of do more with less is not possible. When the cuts are deep, the only possible outcome is do less with less. If reductions mean having one less truck company on the street, having to close (or brown out) a station or reducing the number of firefighters on a company, there is going to be a corresponding reduction in service. Back to the baseball analogy — a team with eight members on the field cannot play the same game, the same way, as when it had nine. While firefighters can be shifted and their roles shared, strategic decisions must be made for how to avoid overextending firefighters, how to avoid taking dangerous shortcuts and how to manage the increased risk of loss.
A discussion among operational staff about how to accomplish this is essential. The expectations of members must be adjusted and there should be a healthy dialogue that results in an understanding among operational personnel about what the new expectations are and how they impact street performance, the customer and firefighter safety. Expect this to be a difficult discussion.
No firefighter worth the boots he or she wears is going to want to cut street-level service to the customer. But all the pride or denial in the world isn't going put nine players back on the field when the team has been cut to eight. Your fire department did not create the economic issues you are facing and, therefore, you should not feel guilty about managing the impacts in a way that ensures firefighter safety.
If responses to emergencies are going to be slower or entail using fewer firefighters, there is going to be an operational impact. Discussing the impacts and concerns openly and gaining agreement on what the new expectation should be is an excellent step toward reducing overextension, shortcutting and excessive risk taking.
The True Impact of Resource Reductions
As your organization engages in these discussions, it might be worthwhile to work through some scenarios. One example might be a residential fire, using the resources the department enjoyed when times were good (i.e., pre-reductions). Chart out how long it took each company to arrive, how many members were on each company, what each company did, how long it took to perform each task and what the result of each company's efforts were. Then do the same scenario over again applying the resource levels of your new paradigm.
Realistically, the scenario should change and depending on the degree of reductions your organization has sustained, it may change significantly. Staffing levels and response times are two key factors likely to change. These, in turn, impact the pre-arrival fire progression, the risk profile of savable lives and the stability of the structure. This changes everything — or at least it should.
Resource reductions change the rules of the game and your beloved fire service is facing a whole new ballgame. It is vitally important to the safety of your members to accept your new paradigm and discuss how significant reductions in resources can impact street-level performance and make the changes necessary to protect the safety of your firefighters.
RICHARD B. GASAWAY, Ph.D., EFO, CFO, has served 31 years as a fire and EMS professional, including 22 years as a fire chief and 19 years training fire service leaders throughout the United States and Canada. Dr. Gasaway hosts the "Leader's Toolbox" podcast on Firehouse.com, where he addresses leadership issues facing our nation's firefighters. He is president of Gasaway Consulting Group, LLC.