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As budgets have become tighter, many fire departments have been forced to find ways to reduce operating costs. Many of the “20 Tough Questions” are focused on the benefits and consequences that result from creative problem solving. Question 12 deals with the concept of reducing operating expenses by closing fire stations temporarily as staffing reductions dictate.
In some jurisdictions where staffing reductions have been implemented there may not be adequate personnel to staff the apparatus in each station. Permanently closing a station can have serious political consequences, however, as residents and business owners tend to value a certain level of protection from risk that comes from having a staffed fire company that can respond quickly in the event of an emergency.
Where overtime budgets have been reduced and minimum staffing is a standard or contractual obligation, the options become limited. One strategy that can be deployed by city officials to prevent having to endure the backlash of permanently closing a fire station is to invoke rolling brown-outs. This means a fire station is not permanently closed. Rather, apparatus are taken out of service on a temporary basis. The duration can be as short as one shift or for months. The brownout may be slated for a single station or can rotate among stations. It can impact one piece of equipment, such as a ladder company, or it can be rotated among various apparatus. There are no rules for how a department browns out companies.
No matter what name is chosen for it, temporarily closing a fire company or a fire station is, nonetheless, a closure. While the incidence of fire or medical emergencies (for those fire departments that also respond to medical calls) may be greater in some areas of some cities, the occurrence of fires or medical emergencies are not completely predictable. And this begins the discussion on the challenges of brown-outs.
Arguably, it is the role of government to provide equal access to a basic level of services and protection from danger for all citizens without prejudice or discrimination. The periodic closure of a fire company or a fire station denies the taxpaying citizens and businesses served by that company or station the same level of service that those living in the non-browned-out areas receive. Which companies or stations to brown out can be the focus of great debate. This is a decision that should directly involve the elected officials, as it is the elected officials who are accountable to the citizens who elected them.
When a fire company or station is browned out, risk increases. This includes risk to the citizens, risk to businesses owners, risk to visitors and risk to firefighters.
Let’s compare the equivalent of a fire company brownout with examples for how the concept could apply to other services or obligations of government. (Remember, to brown out a fire company means to close it, even if only for short periods.)
• Handicapped-accessible ramps – Let’s say the city decides that handicapped-accessible ramps are going to be browned out, meaning wheelchair-bound citizens will not be able to access City Hall on Mondays. If it is a rolling brownout, then the ramps will be closed on Monday one week, Tuesday the next week, Wednesday the next week, etc. Handicapped citizens won’t know, in advance of arriving at City Hall, which day the ramps are open (much like the citizens won’t know which fire companies are open or closed until they have their emergency). This could be remedied with a telephone call to City Hall each day from a citizen to learn whether the ramps are open or closed, followed by a decision to postpone the visit on any day the ramps are closed. Unfortunately, citizens cannot choose which days they will have a fire or medical emergency based on whether the fire company is open or closed.