How do you operate a fire department on $10,000 a year with half of the money eaten up by insurance?" That was the lament of the chief of a small fire department as he leaned against the second-hand 1970s-era truck, its once-gleaming paint having long ago lost its luster, a puddle underneath...
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How do you operate a fire department on $10,000 a year with half of the money eaten up by insurance?" That was the lament of the chief of a small fire department as he leaned against the second-hand 1970s-era truck, its once-gleaming paint having long ago lost its luster, a puddle underneath evidencing a water tank that was ready to give out. Beside the old engine in its death throes sat a functional volunteer-built wildfire unit sporting military drab for paint, one of the many government-surplus vehicles handed down to needy fire departments.
Photo by Chris Andrew
Many of the country's smaller fire departments, particularly those in sparsely populated rural areas, are challenged by financial limitations. There are ways, however, of overcoming these limitations.
Ask any chief of a small fire department and he or she will tell you the aforementioned chief is not alone in his dilemma. Outcries abound of the funding dilemmas many small fire departments are imbued with, increasingly so in these times when even the most sovereign municipalities are feeling a financial pinch. Couple those limitations with standards and regulations that have driven costs of firefighting equipment to eyebrow raising heights and you have a situation as trying as Wall Street.
Funding in small fire departments runs the gamut of those that would be judged dirt poor and having soup suppers just to put gas in trucks all the way to those that are outfitted with the latest equipment, the nicest uniforms and gleaming new stations.
Finding Needed Funds
Unarguably, though, when small fire departments are looked at as a whole, the financial condition leans toward the deficit side, leaving chiefs and governing body officials with a constant battle to find sufficient funds to operate and make improvements in their services.
The limiting factors in small fire department financing are basically rooted in two sources: limited systems of funding; and leadership. Both can be overcome. It's not easy, but to the diligent it is possible to support quality fire and emergency protection in even the smallest fire district. It may not be possible to accomplish on fixed income in the way of taxes, but it can be accomplished by focusing on elements of the financial puzzle that the department has control over. Those elements fall into seven broad areas:
- Budgeting Basics
- Seeking Assistance
- Alternative Funding
- Creative Financing
- Marketing and Customer Service
In this segment we cover the first four topics.
Fiscal management ability is one of the many hats the chief of a small fire department must wear. This article is not intended to be Fiscal Management 101. What even the most fiscally inept needs to realize is that financial management is not an inherited trait; it is a management skill that can be acquired.
Above all else, the chief of any small fire department must realize that approaching the management of the department with anything but a business-wise attitude will lead to disaster. As chief of a small fire department you are a business manager who is likely at the helm of one of your community's largest businesses, and probably one of the longest lived. Assets of small fire departments can easily be in the quarter- to half-million, even million-dollar range. Those assets have been built up by investments of the public's trust over a long period. The public you serve and the governing body you are accountable to are trusting you to be fiscally responsible with those assets.
A lack of financial acuity has been the demise of many a fire chief. Simply stated, financial management skills amount to understanding budget reports, maintaining a fiscal awareness and making intelligent decisions about the use of financial resources. Fiscal awareness amounts to keeping a finger on where the department is in its budget cycle and predicting resources required to meet current and future needs in light of your community's ability to support those needs. If the resources you have are not able to support those needs, then you must look at other strategies to fill the gaps.