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Tough Economic Times Require Tough Fire Prevention Decisions - Part 1

It seems the trend for the quick fix is to reduce fire prevention and other municipal staff by consolidating inspection personnel with the building department.

At a recent meeting of area fire marshals, many were struggling with tightening budgets. Most fire departments operate such a lean budget there are no significant funds to cut in the operating budget such as commodities, supplies, etc. Almost 85 percent to 90 percent of a fire department budget is personnel so the only way to make significant reductions is to reduce personnel.

It seems the trend for the quick fix is to reduce fire prevention and other municipal staff by consolidating inspection personnel with the building department. Even some fire marshal positions are being eliminated along with reduction in fire suppression personnel. Sure this is a quick fix to balance the budget sheet but the long term impact of reduction in any fire department personnel can be devastating to the services we provide.

As fire service professionals, we continually struggle with having enough people to perform our tasks. This two-part article will examine some questions we must ask ourselves during tightened budgets and how to address being presented with a reduction in force directive.

Can You Justify Your Existence?
Fire prevention divisions perform a variety of services from construction document review, inspections, fire and life safety education and fire investigations. Fire prevention bureaus must do more than just inspections and we need to document the time and services we provide to our customers, both internal and external. We need to focus our efforts to carve our niche in the community we serve.

The primary customers of fire prevention division are the citizens we serve. However, fire prevention divisions must support their internal customer. Internal customers consist of suppression personnel, the municipal building department and the municipal public works department. (Depending on your organization the number and type of internal customers may vary.) The primary internal customer is the fire department's operation and training division.

One of the outcomes of an effective fire prevention program is reducing fire fighter injuries and fire fighter deaths. The elimination of dangerous conditions in a structure is one of the many accomplishments of a fire prevention bureau. This can be accomplished through the fire prevention bureau by overseeing the fixed systems in a building, ensuring adequate fire department access to the building as well as ensuring sufficient number of hydrants. Many refer to this as "shaping the battlefield". Fire prevention must support fire department operations. An effective fire prevention bureau will enable great fire department operations. When the budget discussion of cutting the fire prevention bureau takes place, the outcome will be more than fewer inspections conducted.

What Is The Community's Perception Of The Fire Prevention Division?

Most fire departments are governed by an elected body in the form of a district board or municipal board. The community we serve has the greatest chance to come in contact with the fire department through our emergency medical service or fire prevention efforts. How we interact with the community when we perform our service will determine the community's perception of our department's service. Remember the community will have the greatest voice to the elected officials if they choose to close fire stations or reduce fire prevention personnel. Customer service is extremely important and sometimes difficult to portray in the fire prevention environment. We all have met the "badge heavy" inspector during our careers who demands immediate compliance on every violation he or she encounters.

Many refer to fire inspection personnel as fire cops! However, unlike our friends in law enforcement we have the opportunity to achieve compliance in a tactful and professional manner through education and providing some latitude of a compliance date. We need to take the view point of educating fire code violators and not punishing them. We are always reminded business do not budget for fire inspections. This is especially true during tough economic climates. Use this as an opportunity to sell your service to the business owner. Explain how the correction of the fire code violation will reduce the likelihood of fire. Could the business owner sustain a period of many months with his business closed because of a fire? Where would his existing customers go when he was closed? We may also need to take a step back and evaluate how soon the violation needs to be corrected. Evaluate the true hazard presented and the impact of potential loss of life if the violation is not immediately corrected.

Where possible, we need to look at ways of creating a time frame for compliance. This not only shows a good will on the fire department, but allows the business owner to budget for correcting the deficiency. If we win the business owner over of the "need" to correct the violation, then we have succeeded in our education efforts. Now it is up to us to use our expertise to develop a plan of corrective action which does not put the community at risk but achieves compliance in a reasonable time frame. Working to partner with the business community only improves the perception of the fire prevention bureau. The business community will consider you as the service provider you really are. They may even begin to realize fire prevention services are just as important as the EMS and fire suppression service we provide!

No matter what, fire prevention cuts are inevitable, now what? More in Part 2 next month.

BRETT LACEY, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department and a professional engineer. He has over 27 years in the fire service and has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA committee for Inspection practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. PAUL VALENTINE, a Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department and formerly served as their fire protection engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science Degree in Management and Organizational Behavior from Benedictine University and is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Brett and Paul co-authored Fire Prevention Applications, published by Fire Protection Publications. They also presented a webcast titled Fire Prevention Applications on Firehouse TrainingLIVE. To read their complete biographies and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: