I keep hearing the term “doing more with less” concerning people and organizations that are having financial difficulties these days. It’s an old saying and people just keep on saying it with little thought of the consequences or results. Now, there are lots of people involved in lots of activities that have bought into this idea and there will be little negative effect, except maybe the folks who are doing the work may be working a little harder or longer. Let’s take a look at “doing more with less” and how that may impact us in the fire service.
Say you work for the city transit system. You drive a bus, and times are getting bad – so bad that the city has decided to cut back on the number of buses that serve each bus route. Multiply this by the number of involved routes that will be downsized and you can see some immediate negative results. First, they don’t need all those bus drivers. Your seniority is good, so your job is safe, but some of the younger drivers will soon lose their jobs. Does anybody else suffer? Of course – the bus riders! There will be fewer buses, fewer bus drivers and fewer buses rolling down the streets. People will have to get up earlier, wait longer at the bus stop and push into and stand in crowded buses.
Or you are a teacher and the school district is cutting back. Enrollment is up, but the district is not hiring any new teachers or replacing any retiring teachers. The negative results are immediate. There are more students and fewer teachers. Class sizes are growing. The task of marking exams or reviewing the class work of 20 students must now be accomplished for 30. You are definitely working harder. And who else suffers? The students, who are getting less attention and instruction than before.
How does all of this relate to firefighters? It’s simple. Like teachers and bus drivers and lots of other folks, we are being told (not asked) to do more with less. Many fire departments are browning out companies on a rotating basis. Departments have cut staffing on some companies and other departments have closed companies altogether. If you listen to the people who are making these cuts, it sounds like we didn’t need these companies in the first place. People ask, “Will response times be affected?” The budget cutters answer “No, it should have minimal effect.” The people ask, “But what if there is a fire on my block?” The budget cutters answer, “The fire department has a 78% availability rate. You will be safe.”
But do they know what they are talking about? I’m not sure they do. After all, it’s not their chosen profession. They are not fire chiefs or emergency managers. They are politicians, city managers and mayors. Their job is to effectively run governments, and now they want us to do more with less. Maybe we should tell them that we are going to have to do less with less.
Nobody needs to give us lessons in working hard, working harder, being dedicated and giving 100%. Firefighters turn out rapidly, strive to get to the scene of every emergency quickly and work hard at completing every task at fires, collapses, car wrecks, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes. During these events, we rarely get a break or slow down.
But how can we keep up our high level of service when our resources are being diminished? We are not going to consciously decide to do less with less, but that will be the result. We will and should continue to put a 100% effort into all of our duties, but the bottom line is that reducing staffing, browning out companies and closing units only makes it harder and sometimes impossible for us to achieve our desired and expected excellent results.
What we need to do is make sure the people we protect know that the cuts politicians are making to fire companies do not result in crowded buses or shorter lunch periods for teachers. In spite of our best efforts, the cuts made to fire departments will result in more serious fires, more loss of life and a general degradation of the quality of life in our communities.
These negative impacts may not be immediate. It may take months or even years, but they will happen. Next time you are waiting at a bus stop for longer than you are happy to, imagine waiting for a fire truck if your home was on fire or if your spouse was suffering a heart attack. We will be working hard and giving more, but the results will be less.
JOHN J. SALKA Jr., a Firehouse® contributing editor, recently retired as a battalion chief with FDNY, serving as commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. Salka has instructed at several FDNY training programs, including the department’s Probationary Firefighters School, Captains Management Program and Battalion Chiefs Command Course. He conducts training programs at national and local conferences and has been recognized for his firefighter survival course “Get Out Alive.” Salka co-authored the FDNY Engine Company Operations manual and wrote the book First In, Last Out – Leadership Lessons From the New York Fire Department. He also operates Fire Command Training (www.firecommandtraining.com), a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.