We Don't Lose "Non-Essential" Lives

A recent newspaper article reported on a major fire department in our country being faced with the challenge of submitting a 15% budget reduction to the city council for consideration in the 2010–2011 budget process. This was in addition to the nearly 15% the department lost in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Fire department budgets in many parts of the nation are being decimated by the current economic environment. The realities of the revenue reductions being experienced by states, cities and fire districts have resulted in the elimination of staff and line positions. In all of this, the critical need to provide the services necessary for fire departments to adequately and safely protect the public and their firefighters remains at the center of the core mission.

There are serious questions for policy-makers to address concerning how, and to what extent, these critical services can be provided based on available financial resources. One strategy that continues to be communicated is that fire departments should cut all "non-essential" services and positions, and that doing so should not negatively impact public safety. That premise may be valid for a 5% budget reduction, but when budgets are being reduced by levels of 15%, 20% and even 30% in some places, the organization is cutting essential people and services - and public safety and firefighter safety are being compromised. As a result of the economic crisis, fire departments may need to decrease their operating budgets to achieve a pre-determined bottom-line reduction, but it can be misleading to the public to do so under the false belief that public safety is not being negatively impacted.

Part of the challenge of educating decision-makers and the public concerning the impact of significant fire department budget reductions is to clearly explain how the fire and life-safety service delivery model actually works. This will help all parties and stakeholders make more informed decisions. We regularly hear people who provide services such as prevention and public education incorrectly described as "non-essential." This is bad enough when it comes from elected officials and city management, but when it comes from fire chiefs and/or labor officials, it is extremely troubling. Fire departments may not be allocated the funding to deliver these essential services in the ways they have in the past, but that in no way diminishes the importance of those services to the safety of the public and firefighters.

The line services provided by a fire department within its core mission typically include prevention, public education and emergency response. These are supported by staff responsibilities such as logistics, training and administrative services. However, it is these three line services that serve equally important roles in the fire and life-safety system of almost all fire departments:

  • Prevention — The best emergency situation is the one that was prevented. For example, there are some occupancies in our communities that absolutely cannot be allowed to have a fire occur in them because the fire department emergency response resources simply could not successfully handle such an event. This can be because of the extreme life hazard, size, configuration, contents or other factors. Therefore, fire prevention programs and built-in protection (such as automatic fire sprinklers) may be the only strategies available within the fire and life-safety system to manage those occupancies. These ongoing prevention efforts are essential to the safety of the public and firefighters.
  • Public education — The behavior of humans is the root cause of many of the emergency situations to which fire departments respond. Arming members of the public with the skills and knowledge they need to keep themselves safe from a full range of harmful situations is essential to their safety. Injuries and deaths that could result from a fire, drowning, fall or myriad other causes are prevented through essential and ongoing public education efforts. The public must also be taught how to deal with certain life-threatening emergencies while awaiting the response of the fire department. This service delivery strategy saves lives.
  • Emergency response — Whether it's fire, EMS, hazardous materials, technical rescue, disaster or any other emergency incident, the public depends on the fast, skillful, professional and caring response of the fire department. The customer's expectation is always that firefighters can effectively handle whatever comes their way, perfectly, every time. Emergency response is a critical component of the fire and life-safety system.

These three components of the fire and life-safety system are all essential. If prevention and public education positions and programs must be eliminated, fire stations closed, fire companies eliminated, staffing levels reduced or response times increased, so be it, but let's not eliminate any of them under the guise of "non-essential" personnel and services. In the interest of public and firefighter safety, even if funding is eliminated, the fire department must create a model within which to deliver each of these three essential services to the fullest extent possible with whatever resources are available. The need doesn't go away because the money did.

Whether advocating for financial resources at the national, state or local level, it is important that the consequences of the decisions that are arrived at in these political processes are made clear to the decision-makers up front in a concise and accurate way by fire service leaders. Let's be careful how we use the term "non-essential." The people we serve and our firefighters never die in a "non-essential" way.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When in Doubt, Lead series: Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, and many other articles and publications. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services and the author of the soon-to-be-released book Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is the past chair of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. He is also chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and the chairman of the Home Safety Council Board of Directors.