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It should never be assumed that service-level improvements automatically require additional funding. Some enhancements may be achievable within the limitation of the existing budget and staffing. For example, if the fire department wants to enhance service by promoting community wellness, it could (in most cases) conduct blood pressure clinics, on-site blood sugar screening or drive-through flu shots at a very low cost. If, on the other hand, the desired service-level improvements include reducing the average response time for the arrival of first-alarm companies to a residential dwelling fire (e.g., two engines, a ladder, a command officer and 13 firefighters) to under 10 minutes, it may require an additional investment for on-duty staffing or entering into an automatic aid agreement with a neighboring community.
A lesson in
Everything the fire department does (or does not do) has a cost. There are several ways to evaluate the cost of services including:
• Fixed costs – This is what it costs taxpayers to have an operational and functional fire department. These costs would be incurred even if the fire department did not run a single call for the year. Examples include buildings, utilities, apparatus, equipment, non-usage-related maintenance and repairs, training, insurance and on-duty staffing. Using a personal example, if you own a vacation home, there are fixed costs associated with the purchase price of the home and payment of property taxes regardless of whether you ever use the home.
• Variable costs – Sometimes called incremental costs, this is what it costs taxpayers for the fire department to actually provide services when called upon. This includes fuel, usage-related repairs and maintenance, callbacks and fire and medical supply replacement. Using the vacation home example, this would be the cost of travel to and from the vacation home, utilities and the cost of activities you incur while using the vacation home that you would not have otherwise incurred if you did not use the home.
• Direct costs – These are the costs that can be directly attributed to a particular service. For example, when there is a structure fire, there are costs associated with that response. In other words, just like a company can determine the cost of production for a product (e.g., the labor, raw materials and machining cost to produce a widget), a fire department can determine the cost for each service provided. Using the vacation home example, these costs may include upgrades like new carpeting or installing a swimming pool.
• Opportunity costs – The cost of opportunity lets the fire department determine the cost of what it cannot do because the members are busy doing something else. For example, if the fire department provides full-service EMS with transportation and this service is very busy (e.g., 10-plus calls per day per company), there is an opportunity cost for the other tasks these firefighters could otherwise be doing if they were not so busy providing EMS services. In other words, if the firefighters were not providing EMS (or providing a scaled-down version of EMS), what else could they be doing? What is the cost of not providing the alternative service? Using the vacation home example, the opportunity costs are all the other things you could have done with the money you invested into your vacation home. It also includes all the other things you could have been doing with your time while you spent it at your vacation home.
Getting what you need
The bottom line is, governance and funding levels are rarely determined by the fire department’s administration. The elected officials are the ones charged with the responsibility for both. However, this does not preclude the fire department from advocating for the best governance model and appropriate levels of funding.
This advocacy begins by having good working relations with elected officials, educating them on the fire department’s needs, educating them on those needs and their costs and working with them collaboratively to provide the best model and funding that meets the needs of your community. n