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he first part of this question insinuates that a change in governance structure is the precursor to enhancing service levels. The second part of the question concludes significant additional investment is required to improve service. In most cases, neither assumption is accurate. Of course, there are many factors and depending on the governance model being used, a change may be necessary to improve service. And, depending on the fire department’s budget, an additional investment may be necessary to improve service quality.
“Begin with the end in mind.” We borrow this principle from the late Stephen Covey. It’s one of his seven habits for highly effective people. To begin with the end in mind, start by having conversations with citizens and elected officials to determine what level of fire department service is appropriate for the community. This includes determining community expectations and evaluating the community’s ability to pay for those expectations.
There is often a gap between expectations and the ability to pay because many elected officials (and most civilians) have no idea what services cost. All they know is when they need the fire department, they want the firefighters there fast; they want them to have the resources (apparatus, equipment and personnel) to handle their emergency effectively; and they want them to have expert problem-solving knowledge and skills.
The governance roadblock
Once the level of service is determined and the cost of service established, the next step is to determine whether the governance model facilitates or prohibits the service-level expectations. If it is determined to be prohibitive, then the department and elected officials could work to identify how to fix the problem. It may be a new governance model isn’t necessary. Rather, making adjustments in the existing model may be sufficient.
Developing a new governance model can be a costly and labor-intensive process. Additionally, it may solve one problem and create others. For example, it may be determined that several jurisdictions should combine and the new governance model would be a fire district board of directors. Who makes up the board, what interest they represent and how voting powers (control) are assigned may create a challenging environment in which to enhance service. If two communities combine and each have an equal representation on the board, it could become messy if one community wants to enhance service quality when the other does not.
Occasionally, based on the laws of a state, county or municipality, governance could present a roadblock that requires the implementation of a new model. If this is the case, take your time and consider all the stakeholders. Talk with other communities that have adopted similar governance models to glean what works well and what does not. Try to avoid the mistakes they may be regretting.
Does a fire department need more money to improve the level of service? The short answer is: It depends. We encourage you to look back on the previous issues as we have discussed, extensively, how to evaluate the efficiencies of your department.
In some cases, it may be possible for the department to improve service levels with no additional investment. This may be accomplished by seeking ways to provide existing services more efficiently. Some additional ways this could be accomplished include:
• Reducing or eliminating services that are no longer mission-critical (we are referring to those “nice-to-provide” services that some departments started offering when they expanded their mission during good economic times)
• Partnering with other departments within the municipality
• Partnering with neighboring communities to share resources
• Outsourcing services to private entities