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Cutting Fire Department Costs Without Cutting Safety

In order to operate effectively, departments need to re-evaluate over time and as the agency goes through change.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to work for the Noblesville Fire Department in Indiana. We are a career department with 120 firefighters operating in a growing community. While no two departments or districts are alike, I am confident that many departments face similar issues related to the current state of the economy. It is important to show the public that firefighters care about the financial aspect of our departments and are willing to do something about it.

A fire department, like most other departments within a city or town, is a type of investment. Politicians and managers have the task of dividing the tax money between the different departments. Clearly, the greater the asset, the greater the investment they are willing to make. It became obvious that fire departments are figuring out this concept when so many departments began getting involved in EMS. Now, in addition to medical response, we continue to become even more specialized, showing we are an even greater investment. This is also the reason we keep our trucks and stations clean and in good repair. The public wants to know we are taking care of their investment.

So, if you're not the fire chief, where do you fit into this? By being a member of a department we all owe it to the taxpayers to be as fiscally responsible as possible while continuing to offer a high level of service in a safe manner. What follows are some common sense ideas to get your department headed in the right direction.

In Noblesville, we have taken the first important step in the face of the current economic times by establishing a fire department committee to objectively evaluate our own efficiency. This is where I suggest you begin. It is easy for any one member to sit back and arm chair quarterback their departments efficiency and offer no solutions. A committee such as this is a proactive way to evaluate several key areas and evaluate if certain changes may result in cost effective solutions. It is important with any perceived solution to consider whether the upfront costs are offset by a reasonable return on investment timeframe. If it takes 20 years to see a return on a certain change, it is likely not worth the effort. With any investment, it will likely affect different departments in different ways. This is why a committee is valuable, in that it can objectively evaluate and project the rate of return different investments can make for specific departments.

Fuel Spending
Now, what does this committee evaluate? Fuel costs are a budget factor for any department. Many departments have already taken steps to reduce fuel costs such as limiting responses for certain call types, and limiting non-response travel. Remember to keep safety in mind for all parties when evaluating emergency response. One progressive step my department is currently implementing is setting up video conference capability between stations and with the training division. As we become an increasingly larger department, we are able to reduce travel time and expenses from bringing in outlying districts for centralized training. This tool is only practical for classroom sessions, but will still reduce fuel and maintenance costs in the long run.

Electric And Lighting Costs
Another area that affects all departments is electrical costs. These costs may be difficult to evaluate depending on the type and number of stations within your jurisdiction. Considerations to reducing electrical costs should be evaluated specifically in the area of lighting. Transitioning from standard incandescent bulbs to Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFL's) or Light Emitting Diode's (LED's), can increase energy efficiency and reduce costs. CFL's are considered to be four times as efficient, last up to 10 times longer, and use 50 to 80 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. A CFL bulb is able to replace an incandescent in almost any application. Better yet, an LED bulb will now last 10 times longer than a CFL, and will withstand jarring and bumping better than other bulbs. The LED's are also safer for the environment and even more efficient than the CFL.

A study committee at your own department could establish the return on investment timeframe for switching to these lighting options. Visit for more information about these and other lighting options. As for the T12 lighting that is common in many fire stations, the State of Oregon suggests switching the T12 lights and magnetic ballasts with T8 lights and electronic ballasts. They state that this will reduce energy costs by 17 to 48 percent. They further suggest using one electronic ballast for every two lights previously installed and using specular reflectors to increase light distribution. The overall result may bring 50 percent savings without compromising the quality of light delivered. Transitioning from T12 to T8 typically costs about $20 per lamp. If it is too expensive to replace them all at once, consider replacing them as they burn out.

Another specific area to consider addressing is the use of automatic light sensor controls. These devices are the most cost effective in areas occupied irregularly such as hallways and restrooms. With a wide range of system types and controls, one may be beneficial to your department. Cost savings for these systems are widespread, typically ranging from 25 to 50 percent depending on the type of application. For most fire departments, the restrooms or locker rooms seem to be the most logical place to start when considering these devices. For restroom specific studies conducted by the EPA (the area with the quickest return on investment), the cost savings has been shown to be 73 to 86 percent.

Apparatus Purchases
Another option to consider is purchasing stock or demo apparatus as opposed to custom models. By going this route you could reduce the turnaround time of receiving new apparatus and could reduce some of the time and effort put forth by specification committees. As a growing department, we have recently benefited from grouping apparatus purchase orders from the same manufacturer. Perhaps even further discounts could be received if departments were to group purchases with other departments who may have similar needs and be interested in similar brands.

Other areas to study include implementation of programmable thermostats, implementing air dryers to reduce paper products and waste, and using water saving toilets.

No matter what role you operate in within your department, these issues are worth getting everybody involved in. Let's take the initiative to be as self-sufficient as possible by taking care of our own stations as much as possible. Repairs and maintenance such as lawn care, painting, etc., can typically be accomplished without causing unnecessary labor expenses to the department.

Finally, for the most important consideration in all of this: If a fire department is willing to take the steps necessary to evaluate and implement cost saving initiatives, we should make a big deal about it, publicly! These efforts are something that should not be a secret. A fire department should take every opportunity to educate and inform the public about who we are and what we are doing. Show the public that you understand their tax dollars are valuable, and that they are being used as effectively and responsibly as possible. Tell the local media, discuss on your website, and certainly tell the elected officials/managers the specifics about how your department is tying to reduce costs. Let them know that you are attempting to offer the highest level of service as safely and cost effectively as possible for the firefighters and public we serve.

So, whatever role you play on your department, get involved, and start today! Find the way to start the committee, and evaluate your own department objectively. Perform valid research, and come up with real numbers to determine the return on investment for different options for your own department. Get everyone on board and excited about the ideas, let the public know, and implement the program. Continue to re-evaluate your department over time and as your department goes through change. In all we do, let's strive to operate in the safest and most efficient manner possible. It is our utmost responsibility to our fellow firefighters, and to the public we serve.

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JOE WILSON is a lieutenant/paramedic with the Noblesville, IN, Fire Department and currently assigned to Engine 72. He holds an associates degree in Fire Service Technology from Parkland College in Illinois and is currently enrolled in a BS program through the University of Cincinnati for Fire and Safety Engineering Technology. Joseph was a volunteer firefighter with Lynch Fire Department in Danville, IL. You can reach Joseph by e-mail at