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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There are alternatives worth considering to ease fire protection financial burdens. Many fire departments are turning to service fees for additional funding. The public may initially raise an outcry at the action, but here again, the key lies in informing them of why this is happening and justifying it. The main philosophy behind service fees is that taxes are used to provide the service and fees are used to pay for the service when it is used. A year or two following implementation of service fees, they become the accepted norm and the bickering dies down.
Purchasing in larger quantities normally means cost savings. Fire departments have used this strategy to their advantage by agreeing to joint purchases of commonly used equipment such as hose or foam concentrate in larger volumes. Getting everyone to agree on a standard specification to anything jointly purchased is the trick. Reaching an agreement on such items as bunker gear or even apparatus can be challenging, but is achievable.
Sharing resources is a much-lamented option for reducing expenses. For example, does every fire department in the parish or county need its own breathing air compressor? Perhaps a single compressor shared by two, three or even more departments will satisfy the need. The same could be said about high-dollar rescue tools. The only way to make these determinations is an objective analysis of use patterns. It seems to happen all to often, where East Overshoe gets some expensive piece of equipment that could well satisfy the needs of neighboring West Overshoe also. But, because East Overshoe has it, West Overshoe can't be upstaged and they've got to have it. The funds expended may very well have had a more pertinent use.
There is also the possibility of downsizing. Gasp! Pray tell, not the fire department! The mere mention of such an action is apt to raise the ire of any firefighter. It's time to take a lesson from American business. What do businesses do when confronted with an economic crunch? They tighten the belt and find ways to carry on the business with less. It's not an easy thing to think about, and this is not an option applicable to every fire department, but cases exist where fire department rosters can be selectively reduced and acceptable staffing levels can still be maintained. The department would realize savings in the way of insurance and outfitting firefighters.
What about that antiquated truck that's shoved into the back corner of the station for that "just in case" situation? Additional insurance costs as well as maintenance and upkeep cost savings could be realized if it was sold. As a city manager once stated in regard to fire departments, "I'm amazed at how much money is spent just to maintain someone's ego trip."
The argument is often made that consolidation is an answer to small fire department financial dilemmas. Viewed as radical by some, progressive by others, small fire department consolidation has been achieved successfully in many instances across the United States. Anyone taking a look at consolidation must be extremely analytical. Most pertinent are the local issues. In many instances with schools consolidated into larger jurisdictions, the local volunteer fire department is the last entity that a community can identify itself with. The history of school consolidation itself has been that it doesn't always result in cost savings as there are trade offs in mergers. The same may very well be true regarding fire protection. Like school consolidation, the biggest advantage of fire department consolidation is that it increases available equipment and personnel resources and services.
No fire service administrator should venture into the realm of consolidation without first reading the book Making the Pieces Fit: Cooperative Service Through Consolidation, Mergers and Contracts by retired Fire Chief Jack Snook and Fire Chief Jeff Johnson. Several sources for the book can be found on the Internet.
Creative financing may be a contemporary theme in American business, but the volunteer fire service has been creatively financing since its beginning. Creative financing has more limitations in the public sector than in the private sector, where one does not have to worry about the sanctity of money held in the public trust, but there are opportunities for fiscal innovation even in small fire departments.