People a lot smarter than me will have to decide whether the stimulus packages being passed by Congress and signed by the President represent good public policy and make economic sense or are a mistake that the nation will be sorry for down the road. We've read so many conflicting opinions, and listened to so many contradictory explanations by pundits and others, many among us have (understandably) gone into a wait-and-see mode.
Even though the jury may be out on the outcome of these efforts, it's easy to understand that the economic condition of the United States is worthy of the concern we all share for the future. Many (if not most) of our state, county and city coffers are experiencing revenue shortfalls that are forcing reductions to what were in many cases already strained budgets. The same is happening in fire districts. Fire departments are not immune to the fiscal axe, and it's coming down hard in many places. These reductions will have significant ramifications that go beyond their economic impact — they will simply cost people their lives.
Cutting resources from an organization isn't easy. Those who have been in positions to do so would be the first to admit that laying off people cuts to the heart of any caring administrator and the organization as a whole. Eliminating the people in the fire department who are responsible for staff support to the system is a blow to the department's ability to support those who directly perform the mission. It's like reducing the ground crews at an airline and then expecting to avoid any negative impact on the effectiveness and safety of the flights and the passengers. There is a direct correlation between staff and line effectiveness in any organization. Eliminating those who are directly responsible for delivering the line responsibilities of public education, prevention programs and emergency response services will have serious consequences on performing the mission. These reductions to staff and line areas of a fire department have two very real downsides: the safety of the public is reduced; and the safety of the firefighters is compromised. Those two probable outcomes provide more than enough reason for all of us to hope that the efforts underway to boost the economy are successful and that signs of that success begin to present themselves soon.
The decision to keep equipment and apparatus a while longer because of reductions in budgets may be frustrating, but unless the aging equipment and apparatus creates a safety hazard, it's usually doable. But cutting the people in staff and line positions who bring the mission of fire departments to life has both immediate and dangerous results. Make no mistake about it, without public education and prevention programs in our communities, calls for emergency response will increase; and with fewer fire stations in the emergency response system, response times to emergency calls will increase; and with fewer firefighters assigned to fire companies resulting in sub-standard staffing levels, our firefighters will be performing their duties at higher levels of personal risk. These are the realities that fire department leaders in management and labor are faced with, and these are the outcomes that they must be able to quantify, qualify, and effectively communicate to policy-makers (at all levels of government), as well as to the public, when funding decisions are being debated and ultimately made.
With all of this said, however, cities still can't print money; the economic situation we face is real and fire departments will be impacted by these economic realities. From the standpoint of public safety, and for the sake of firefighter safety and survival, let's all be on the side of hoping that these stimulus packages are effective in revitalizing the economy and re-energizing revenue for state, county and local governments, as well as fire districts. In the meantime, let's also be developing comprehensive and innovative plans that make a hard case for restoring lost resources when the financial situation does improve. Having this plan, and beginning to sell the plan as soon as the time is right, will serve fire departments well in the future.
We should work together as members of fire departments and managers of fire departments to cause this to happen. During difficult times, and when trying to recover from those difficult times, it's harder to successfully influence decision-makers outside the fire department when we can't even work together in support a critical common cause (i.e., the budget) inside the department. The lives of the public and the lives of our firefighters depend, to a large extent, on the individual and collective capability of the fire service to work through all of this, so let's not let them down.
DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When in Doubt, Lead series. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services. 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.