Annual Budgets: Understanding the "Business" of Running a Fire Dept.
While attending the FDIC show in Indianapolis, I had the opportunity to speak with literally dozens of firefighters from all parts of the fire service. Whether career or volunteer, chief or firefighter, big city or small, one key issue spanned the spectrum of concern. At times, I felt as if I was having the same conversations over and over again. The key issue was that of funding.
Many firefighters, especially volunteers, act as if owning a thermal imager is little more than a pipe dream, something not likely to happen in the near future. In these times of ever-decreasing budgets, many departments are finding it difficult to allocate funding for a thermal imaging program. Yes, it is a program. A properly run thermal imaging program consists not only of selecting and purchasing a thermal imager. It also considers maintaining, upgrading, expanding and, most importantly, providing training on how to use the thermal imagers.
A thermal imager is an investment and should be treated as such. It is an investment in more efficient scenes. It is an investment in rapidly locating and removing trapped occupants. It is an investment in firefighter safety. While I certainly understand the frustrations of dealing with municipal budgeting as well as volunteer fundraising, the benefits of owning a thermal imager clearly justify the difficult task of securing funding.
There are essentially three sources for funding your thermal imaging program: annual budgets, grants and fund raisers. Your department may decide to pursue just one of these options or seek assistance from all three. Whatever method(s) you choose, hopefully I can offer some assistance as to how to go about being successful in your pursuit. Due to the complexities of these issues, I will dedicate this month's column to discussing budgetary concerns and issues.
While securing budgetary set-asides can be complicated, they are without a doubt the best way to fund your thermal imaging program. Thermal imagers are expensive. Not as expensive as they used to be, but more expensive than most equipment bought on a regular basis. Direct budgetary consideration places the value of thermal imaging front and center in a department's decision-making process.
Although year after year the fire service is asked to do more with less, equipment intended to enhance firefighter safety must be retained. Politicians, taxpayers and even some fire department administrators must be educated to understand the "business" of running a fire department. Return on investment (ROI) is used in the corporate world to justify the outcome of investments. ROI is essential to understanding the true value of certain budgetary actions.
Take Florida, for example. A recent repeal of a long-standing property tax has resulted in significant cuts in municipal budgets. In some fire departments, the net loss exceeded 60% of annual budgets. Recently, an NBC news affiliate decided to "investigate" a southern Florida fire department's decision to pay additional funds to place high-visibility striping on a piece of fire apparatus. The reporter asked the department's public information officer (PIO) if the striping represented a good use of taxpayer dollars, to which the PIO responded, "Absolutely. What's it worth to save a firefighter's life?" Kudos for standing up for what is right. That, folks, is ROI in action. What that PIO is saying is that yes, striping packages can be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as paying for a work-related injury or firefighter death. This type of tenacity is what must be exhibited under times of severe budget tightening. Your thermal imager can mean the difference between life and death for citizens and firefighters alike. Please ensure that your budget covers the equipment needed to make sure that everyone goes home at the end of the shift.
Where can you go for help? Talk to your thermal imaging manufacturer. Most will help you establish a planning cycle for equipment maintenance and replacement. They may have preventive-maintenance programs that can extend the life of your equipment. Manufacturers may offer free training. They may have suggestions for battery replacement and daily inspection and maintenance that can protect your investment. They understand the ROI concept and may be willing to help you craft a message targeted to whoever pulls the budgetary strings in your organization. There are countless ways your manufacturer can help. It is worth the phone call.
Over 75% of the fire departments in this country are volunteer and to many a budget of any type is a foreign concept. I have worked too many chicken fries and pancake breakfasts to miss out on that fact. Next month, we will talk about grant sources and allocation, as well as fundraising ideas and concepts.
BRAD HARVEY is the Thermal Imaging Product Manager at Bullard. He is a veteran of public safety as a firefighter, police officer and paramedic and is certified through the Law Enforcement Thermographers' Association (LETA) as a thermal imaging instructor. Harvey has worked as a high-angle rescue instructor and is a certified rescue technician and fire instructor. If you have questions about thermal imaging, you may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.