20 Tough Questions For the Fire Chief: Are You Prepared To Answer Them? Question 11

In many communities, the number of structure fires has been trending downward. The reduction in these fire responses can be attributed to many factors, not the least being effective fire prevention programs, active inspection programs and aggressive...


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In many communities, the number of structure fires has been trending downward. The reduction in these fire responses can be attributed to many factors, not the least being effective fire prevention programs, active inspection programs and aggressive code enforcement – the proactive efforts many fire departments use to prevent the occurrence of fire.

While some may argue that better designs and detection and suppression systems have contributed to a reduction in fire responses, this is not accurate. While early detection and early suppression improve victim survivability and reduce fire losses, the fire department still responds.

The central question is: When does the number of fire responses become low enough to consider consolidating or contracting with another community for fire protection? The core issue of this inquiry may not be one of quantity. Rather, it may be one of quality. When looking to consolidate or contract with another community, the elected and appointed officials should first and foremost give consideration to what impact that will have on the level of service the residents and businesses receive post-contract or post-consolidation.

Assessing risks

Before evaluating the impact of contracting or consolidating, elected and appointed officials should first establish the acceptable level of service – or standards of coverage – for the community. While the number of fires may be declining, they are not being eliminated. It is important to keep in mind the residents or businesses that do have a fire are not going to be concerned with the downward trend in overall fire responses when their home or business is on fire. They are going to expect, and deserve, a prompt and effective response and resolution to their emergency.

Also, give some thought to who best will be able to provide service even when fire call volumes dip. Consideration should be given to the type and level of service provided to the community. Fire departments deliver a host of comprehensive services that are designed on an all-hazards approach. The services may include fire suppression, hazardous materials, technical rescue, emergency medical, community education, code enforcement and disaster preparedness/management. We are also called upon to provide first response to natural and manmade disasters as well as our newest threat; domestic and international terrorism. Once again, understanding community expectation of service as well as your internal benchmarking to demonstrate impacts when evaluating service changes. Thus, it all boils down to finances and risk management: How much risk a community is exposed to and how much money a community can afford to expend to reduce the level of risk exposure. Where funding is not a concern (and yes, there are a few pocketed areas around the country that seem to have been immune from the impact of the economic downturn), the elected and appointed officials may be comfortable with funding a fire department to a level that ensures a prompt and effective response to all emergency calls, even where the overall number of actual fires has been declining.

In communities where finances have been hard-hit, all services have been subject to review and tough decisions are at hand. For the fire department, that means asking: At what point does the combination of reduced fires and economic hardship compel a community to consolidate services or contract for services?

There is no formula for figuring this out. There are benchmarks that can be used for comparison (e.g., calls per resident, the cost of fire protection per capita and the incremental cost of a fire call response per capita). However, a word of caution is necessary here. Ratios and statistics are just one component to be used in the decision-making process and, arguably, may not be the best. For example, one community’s cost-per-call may be $1,300 while the neighboring community’s cost-per-call is only $700.

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