Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Lessons in Funding Emergency Services

Brian Vickers uses the characters of "The Wizard of Oz" to assist fire departments in tracking down new funding sources.


There have been numerous theories as to the underlying theme of the movie "The Wizard of Oz." I'm not here to debate any of those, certainly they weren't thinking of the issues surrounding the funding of emergency services that many years ago. But we can take away a few things from that movie to...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

Before you start looking for money, you need to determine what you need the money for, what you are going to do with it if you get the money, and why you are doing this project to begin with. The best means to figure this out is to make a list of everything you think you need to create the best-equipped fire department possible, including equipment and training. Categorize the list based on the problems you are having and group all of the possible solutions for those problems together. For instance under safety issues, perhaps new personal protective equipment (PPE) would decrease the risk of injury, but so would some additional training in many cases. For each item on the list, come up with a cost to implement that solution. Under water supply you may find dry hydrants, large-diameter hose or even a tanker. Continue to build the list based on what you feel is needed for each category that needs addressing.

Now that we have our needs assessment, the list must be prioritized in order of importance. Emotion helped build the list, but this is where the courage and brains step in to keep us on track. Certainly, new trucks are fun to design, and having a big-screen TV might improve morale and increase retention, but they don't always measure up to what the perception of the needs of the organization may be from an outside, public view. This is where we have to compare and contrast the list to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations since those are the measuring sticks used to judge most funding requests, especially those geared to emergency services. It may be best to do this in order of the impact the project would have on the ability of everyone to meet the end goal, to go home at the end of the day. While that new fire truck will help lower your ISO score, and the enclosed cab will shield firefighters from the weather, if the PPE they are going interior with is full of holes, then lack of proper PPE is the biggest safety risk and should be at the top of the list. Certainly bad brakes or a truck that won't always run make the priority discussion more detailed, but that is part of setting your priorities.

Finding the Money

Once you have completed your list, prioritize the items and put a cost on each item. Local funding sources should always be the first stop on your trip. It may be a very short stop, depending on the financial situation in your area, but there is definitely more than one opportunity present in every community. Many think that local taxes or direct donations from residents in the area are the only options. There is a limited supply of both and you're not going to get blood from a stone. No one likes the notion of raising taxes, and winning public support for higher taxes needs a longer discussion than what is available here.

One approach that won't take as long to implement or find much resistance is to try and increase the effectiveness of the existing donations. As an example for volunteer emergency service providers, many companies have employee donation matching programs in place where an employee donates to a non-profit organization and the employer will make a matching donation of varying degree. Nearly every company I have worked for over the past 10 years would match dollar for dollar up to a certain limit per employee or organization. What I have found in many cases is that people don't even know their companies offer a program like this. Using this tool could double the amount of monies received in donations. Simply asking your volunteer staff to find out whether their employers have such a program is a great start.

Don't stop there. Ask the public you serve for its support in doing the same. If most of your budget is donation based, you could theoretically increase your budget by 30% to 50% just by making the public aware that such programs exist. Your list will also help show the public that you have true needs that will help make both the organization and the community safer, and you have a proper basis for those needs.

Communicating with your local government is paramount, even if you don't have much chance of raising taxes. Sometimes, government officials will find unallocated funds that can be spent on any item that comes up. But if they don't know the needs of the fire department or EMS squad are, it won't occur to them to allocate these discretionary funds to your organization. Give your local government leaders a copy of your list. Let them know that you have thought carefully about what you really need over the long term. Give them data on what it will cost to fix the various situations. This way, if they find that they have an extra $1,000 here or there, they know that this relatively small amount would make a large difference somewhere in the public safety sector.