The Budget Debates Continue

Even as many local and state budgets have begun to stabilize, fire departments continue to find themselves in the middle of discussions by elected officials and other policy-makers relating to future funding – and they always will.

Since 2008 (and even before in some cases), fire department budgets have been significantly reduced by eliminating positions, cutting salaries and benefits, delaying expenditures for equipment, apparatus and facilities and other actions. Reasonable people would acknowledge that there was no choice but to take drastic steps to balance budgets over the past several years. It’s interesting that as local and state finances are looking somewhat better, the debates about how much cities should pay for fire departments go on.

Focus on affordability

In a recently published newspaper article, one city councilman was quoted in a budget discussion as saying, “The point is, how much public safety can the city afford?” Fire departments have heard this before, but this councilman’s position has an irresponsible twist. Instead of having a discussion about levels of public safety, he said, “Let’s look at it strictly from the standpoint of the budget.”

As the article continued to frame the city council debate on this matter, what really stood out was this one councilman’s willingness and insistence to have a budget debate on cutting public safety funding without allowing the decisions to be driven at all by the impact of those cuts on the day-to-day safety of the public. Frankly, that is absurd, but it’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that fire department leaders find themselves in the middle of that type of conversation.

The next step for the city referred to above could be a recommendation by someone on the city council to propose contracting with a consulting firm to conduct a “financial, efficiency and performance audit” on the fire department. One firm has for several years advertised its consulting services through a marketing tool titled “20 Questions to Ask Your Fire Chief” (see “20 Tough Questions for the Fire Chief” on page 88). The document is less than flattering to the fire department and is designed to put its leadership on the defensive – and it typically does.

The results of the firm’s studies are always the same – you can reduce staffing and make other deployment decisions that will significantly cut the budget, and you can do it without having any negative impact on public safety. Then, the fire chief is instructed to put his or her stamp of approval on the recommendations from the study, assuring members of the public that they are just as safe, if not safer, even with the reductions being made.

Another point of view

I would propose an alternative set of 20 questions that should be posed to the city manager, city council and the community at large when reductions in fire department budgets are being considered:

1. Are call volumes and response times important to decision-making?

2. Are unintended socio-economic impacts in the community a consideration in service reductions?

3. Is the community aware of the 21st century all-risk deployment model used by the fire department?

4. Are there data from surveys to validate the public’s opinion of fire department service reductions under consideration?

5. How do fire department safety standards and related regulations impact policy decisions?

6. Is the impact of response times on human survivability part of the decision-making process?

7. Is the community aware of the consequences of substandard fire protection?

8. Do decision-makers understand and value the role of fire prevention and public education in the fire department service-delivery model?

9. Are decision-makers aware that the size of a structure fire doubles every two minutes and that irreversible brain damage occurs within four to six minutes?

10. Is the community aware that understaffed fire and EMS response companies are unsafe and ineffective?

11. Are training, maintenance, pre-planning, physical training, community involvement and other non-emergency activities valued by city leadership?

12. Do city leaders value the input of organizations like the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and others?

13. Does the city recognize national fire department deployment standards?

14. How much value is placed on fire department accreditation?

15. Do city leaders use only comparably sized cities and fire departments to analyze issues and make comparisons?

16. How much emphasis do city leaders place on maintaining the overall effectiveness of the fire department when making budget decisions?

17. Are decision-makers aware that most cities who have tried consolidating fire and police operations have abandoned the model due to ineffectiveness?

18. Is a positive and productive relationship between labor and management a priority in the decision-making process?

19. Does the city participate in federal fire service grant programs like FIRE and SAFER?

20. Has the city embraced fire service-based EMS, including the transportation component, as a possible revenue source?

Exploring the issues

These questions are not intended to be sarcastic or defensive in any way. The point is this: When involved in such a modern-day political debate, which can have real operational consequences on the fire department and the community, it is important that the issues are explored from a broad perspective and that the discussion is appropriately framed for those involved as decision-makers.

The answers to these questions could improve the quality of the public discussion and the decisions that emerge as a result. The budget debates will continue. Perhaps the answers to these questions (and others) will be helpful and add value to the process in some way.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a speaker and the author of Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools, the When in Doubt, Lead! books, the book Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, and many articles, chapters and other publications. He was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and assistant fire chief in Phoenix, where he served for 27 years. Compton is past chairman of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s National Advisory Committee. He is currently chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors.