Twenty five years ago I was the candidate for a fire chief’s job and during the interview I was asked by one of the panelists my plan for how to do more with less. This is where I committed a rookie mistake of interview protocol by engaging my mouth before I engaged my brain and before I knew it, I blurted out the answer “I don’t know how to do more with less, but I’d be willing to discuss with you how we may be able to do less with less.” That response sure raised the eyebrows of the person who asked the question.
I pretty much knew right there that I wasn’t going to be getting a call back from them with a job offer and I was right. It was a lean economic time in the region of the country where this town was located and they were struggling with balancing their budget. As I recall it, the situation was not unlike what many fire departments are being asked to do today.
During a recent visit to give a presentation in California I had the opportunity to hear the host fire chief address the attendees. He acknowledged the challenges that many fire departments throughout the state and country are facing and encouraged all leaders to keep their focus on the safety of the firefighters. This chief suggested that department leaders give strong consideration to changing the way they assess the risk of an incident and adjust the strategy and tactics to reflect the reduction in staffing and other resources.
I think this is wise advice. If your budget cuts have included a reduction in line personnel, then your strategy and tactics should be adjusted accordingly. Unless you were flush with resources before your reductions, you are now in a deficit position. Think about a baseball team with 9 players on the field trying to beat the opponent. If the team owners decide to cut two positions from your team and you have to play the game with 7 players instead of 9, it is going to impact your ability to win games.
Likewise, cutting positions from the fire department is going to impact your ability to win against the fire. None of us like to lose against fire. It’s not our nature. But you need to be realistic with what you can accomplish with the resources you have and avoid placing firefighters in positions of elevated risk because of low resource levels.
The fire department is in the risk management business. It’s your job to evaluate the risk of each situation and respond appropriately. This assessment needs to consider the impact of reductions. Most elected officials and appointed city/county administrators I’ve observed are motivated by getting re-elected and doing whatever it takes to keep their elected bosses happy, respectively. They do not care about how their cuts impact the safety of firefighters.
Remember, in most situations it is impossible to do more with less, so engage your personnel in discussions about how strategies and tactics should be adjusted so you are doing less with less and keeping firefighter safety on the forefront of your priorities.
Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Gasaway Consulting Group LLC