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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These are the kind of numbers that can make elected officials set up and take notice. The numbers don’t lie, right? Or do they? We are reminded of a quote by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (later popularized in the U.S. by Mark Twain): “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” What was meant by that is statistics, taken out of context or with a certain “spin” added to them, can be made to say just about anything. For example, if it is determined that a fire department’s average cost per call is $1,300, it may be assumed that half the calls for service cost more than $1,300 and half the calls for service cost less than $1,300, where, in fact, a closer look may reveal that 99% of the calls may have cost $500 per call and 1% of the calls for service cost over $20,000.

What the statistics say

Clearly, statistics do not tell the whole story. Yet, elected officials often find themselves having to make decisions with limited time and information. It can be an easy trap to fall into – believing the statistics at face value. This is especially true when a certain “spin” is being put on the statistics and most elected officials are not statisticians. In the hands of an artful spin master, a statistic can be made to say just about anything.

Before looking to contract or consolidate, it is important for officials to set the expectations for service levels and then to determine if those levels can be provided through contracts or consolidation.

The fundamental question that city administrators should ask is, “what do we wish to gain from sharing services (at any level)?” Is the goal cost savings; improving service through the elimination of duplicative service, perfect efficiencies within the system, fill service gaps or reducing “waste”; or a combination of fiscal and service delivery? The desired result of staying the same, merging or the sharing of resources must be identified up-front. For example, if the expectation is a cost saving of $500,000 in capital expenditure (apparatus cost) without a reduction in service (maintaining agency benchmarks) would an increase in response times, despite a reduction in cost, be acceptable? Our experience has shown that many consolidations and mergers fail because of poorly established expectations for outcomes.

If the level of service is less, then hard decisions must be made about service level expectations. Is the potential financial savings worth the corresponding reduction of desired levels of service? Some may argue it is a decision to be made purely on economic premise. However, the family or business that suffers a greater loss from the reduction in service may not see it the same way.

Emotions will impact the decision as much as economics. However, we encourage fire service leaders to avoid making statements like “babies will die and buildings will burn.” Such tactics rarely endear the leader in the eyes of elected officials who are already struggling to make tough decisions. Rather, go down the path of educating and engaging the elected officials in discussions that lead to establishing what level of service they feel comfortable with providing for the citizens they represent.

Ideally, the response to a fire would be instant and the responding resources would quickly overwhelm the fire, saving all lives and minimizing all damage. This is the mission (and passion) of every fire department. It would also endear the resident or business owner to the elected official for their excellent allocation of tax dollars to ensure their safety and economic security. But we don’t live in an ideal world and there is a clear and measurable trade off between efficiency and effectiveness. The trade offs represent the tough decisions elected officials are put into office to make.

Weighing the choices

What are the alternatives to a community having its own fire department, completely funded by tax dollars? The options are many. However, there are factors (laws and geography, for example) that may prohibit certain options. For example, a special taxing district to create and fund a regional fire department may be an option – but only if that laws of the state allow it. Contracting with the neighboring community may be an option – but only if the community is geographically close enough and has the capacity to absorb the additional call load.

Despite city budgets that continue to register the effects of the economic downturn, there are alternatives that won’t contribute to an increased use of public funding. Consideration should be given to public and private partnerships. Opportunities with private entities should be sought, especially when the partnership benefits both parties. One example of this type of partnership may be in communications. Having a civilian authority provide dispatch service may result in a cost reduction, while improving response communications within the agency. The phrase, “necessity is the mother of invention” speaks to the future of private and public endeavors. Business and public officials will need to be innovative in their approach when structuring joint partnerships.