In the May issue our focus on the financial aspects of small fire department management dealt with Budgeting Basics, Seeking Assistance, Alternative Funding and Creative Financing. We established a cadre of options available to small fire departments to help keep a small fire department afloat and...
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Illustrations of leadership's influence on a small fire department's bottom line are the wakeup calls fire departments receive when leadership is lax. Stories abound of fire chiefs discovering that the governing body doesn't have a dime set aside to replace the 1964 engine that just died. There are two causes of such a malady: one being that the governing body has not been levying enough funds to replace the engine. Another reason for such a malady is that fire protection tax dollars had been misappropriated into the municipality's general fund and not used for purposes of fire protection.
The reason these horror stories occur is that someone (namely the chief) wasn't paying attention or has been ineffectual in lobbying. True, the chief dealing with the problem may not be at fault and is left with the effects of a previous administrations apathy, but the blame still lies with inattentive leadership.
The solution: take an active interest in municipal budgeting matters and understand the legal parameters influencing your department's budgeting process. Never rely on someone else entirely to watch your department's funds for you and by all means go to meetings! On more than one occasion, some chief failed to see that the fire department was represented at a meeting where critical budget issues were discussed and as a consequence the department missed out on something.
In regard to leadership and financial issues, there is no way around it; it's a game that requires time and effort. It's an arena that the chief of a small fire department often finds himself or herself handling single-handedly. Realize that there will be a relationship between the effort expended and the gains that are made.
In brief, the rules of small fire department funding can be summarized as follows:
- Know and understand the fiscal process and legal aspects of your governing body.
- Don't miss meetings that influence your department's budget.
- Have a sharp pencil - conservatism holds big gains in the long run.
- Lobby whenever and wherever possible.
- Be innovative where possible.
- Take advantage of all funding opportunities that offer a respectable gain for the effort expended.
- Justify your needs and keep them in the public eye at all times.
- Remember, in all things, the small fire department is a customer service. Treat your customers according to the golden rule, in the same way you would expect to be treated.
A looming question that can be posed is, are the times we live in any more challenging than times past? It does indeed appear in this day and age that we are beset with fiscal challenges not encountered by our forefathers. We are asked to do more and to provide more programs and initiatives with equipment that dwarfs the costs of equipment used in years past. Add the increasing costs of insurance, largely in response to liability concerns, and the argument can easily be made that yes, we do operate in times that are more fiscally trying than ages past.
Fiscal challenges, though, have been with the volunteer fire service and small fire departments since the inception of the country's first volunteer fire company. A look at fire department records from decades ago, a time those of us living in this age can think of as times when "things were good," finds chiefs of the era also lamented the lack of funding their departments incurred. The experience of large municipal fire departments over the 20th century reflects the how unyielding fiscal influences have influenced fire departments with the reduction in the size of engine companies from five firefighters to four, then three and sometimes two.
We can all dream of how easy it would be if everything was just handed to us on a platter, and there may be rare instances in small fire departments where it is. Reality is, that's not going to happen anytime soon and probably never will. Answering the fiscal challenge of maintaining a small fire department requires work, dedication, fiscal responsibility and an open mind.
Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.