In every fire department's future - doing more with less.
Photo credit: David Fornell Photo
In 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was warned by a fortune teller that things were not going to go too well for him around the 15th of March. This meeting was dramatized in William Shakespeare's play when the soothsayer warned him, "Beware the Ides of March."
Well, he ignored their advice and thinking he had things in control, went on to the Senate where he was stabbed (23 times) to death by some folks he thought were on his side. This gave rise to the famous saying, "Never bring a verbal agreement with a politician to a knife fight."
Things are changing in the fire service and we too need to beware of the effects of these changes, which seem to be coming from every direction nowadays.
For example, environmentalists have succeeded in preventing the U.S. Forest Service from using slurry drops to fight fires in nearly 47 million acres of American forests. The USFS issued new guidelines last December that identifies roughly 12,000 avoidance areas in the National Forest System that will be off limits to air drops of fire retardant. Some western lawmakers are saying that the restrictions will hamper the efforts to contain and control wildfires and elevates the welfare of animals and fish above people and property. One has to wonder where protected species such the Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet are going to live once their habitat is burned out. Maybe there should be a new Federal program to set up housing for them.
Many of the changes occurring in the fire service come from the realization that there is no money left in budgets to pay for them. Like no administrator or elected official could see this developing over the years?
Recently in Charleston, WV, the president of the city council said he wants police officers cross trained to fight fires. He says that the proposal will save money in the police and fire departments, both of which are strapped by ballooning pension liabilities. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder is pushing for merging fire and police departments, even proposing financial incentives for local governments to do so.
While this might help cut costs in the short term, at some point, something will happen (disaster comes to mind) that will prove that the scheme will cost taxpayers and building owners more in the long run.
Simple criminal logic tells us that if consolidation comes to pass and you want to knock off a liquor store, just torch a garage a few blocks away and you can be in and out before the police get there.
How about cross training city council members to be city administrators, thereby eliminating an entire layer of excess management? Or maybe letting police officers run the street sweepers. They could keep their eyes open for criminal activity when driving the streets and can keep their gun belt in a locked compartment, ready for instant use if an emergency arises.
One Wisconsin town a few years ago actually put snow plows on police patrol SUVs so they could clear the streets while driving around town. We're told that did not last very long.
Both the police and fire departments are like insurance policies-you never know when you are going to need them.
One Midwestern city is contemplating laying off 12 firefighters and replacing some engines with mini-pumpers operated by two firefighters. One justification is that there just are not as many fire calls as there used to be so downsizing makes sense and the city manager was quoted as saying, "They use them in Europe, they save a lot of money."
This is similar to you reducing the value of your home's fire insurance policy because you haven't had a fire recently.
Is replacing a big rig with mini-pumper and ideal situation? Probably not. Is it better than closing down an engine company and increasing the response districts of more distant companies? Probably so, but it does have limits. Two floors of fire and people trapped on the third comes to mind.
What amazes me is how, all of a sudden, governments find themselves without funds. Like, they didn't see it coming? Like they didn't realize at some point that if they under funded pension contributions, the day would come when the fund went broke? Now, these folks are scrambling to make ends meet, which usually means severe cutbacks especially in the fire service.
It's time to be proactive. One of the size-up tips I was taught by a big city chief, is to look at the fire and ask yourself, what is this going to look like if I do nothing for 10 minutes. So to, what is your budget and funding and staffing situation going to look like if you do nothing for 3 years?
For example, the 128-year old Santa Ana, California fire department will be merged with the Orange County Fire Authority in April. While some are upset over the change-over, the consolidation was accomplished with no one being laid off, although the pay may be a bit different. The city simply could not afford to pay the fire protection bill is its present form so contracting with OCFA, which will not be closing any stations, was certainly preferable to brownouts and service reductions.
You can read the comprehensive proposal here: http://www.santa-ana.org/documents/Santa%20Ana%20Proposal.pdf
Other northern Orange County departments in the Anaheim, CA area are studying consolidation as well and consultants tout the savings as being in the millions.
You can get an overview of the plan here: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/fire-339743-anaheim-study.html
Being proactive is simply anticipating what we are going to do with the elephant in the kitchen before it moves its bowels and we're left to clean up the mess.
Our growing list of bewares needs to include our taking a close look at how we intend to do business.
For example, Illinois passed a law that became effective last month that exempts riders in emergency vehicles from wearing their seat belts. While it is perfectly legal to not belt in, does it make any sense to allow personnel to be bounced around like ping pong balls or shoot out a window in the event of a crash? Is the chief going to tell the widow that her husband's death was not his fault and pass the buck to the state legislators?
Beware of the Ides of March, and be wary of those outsiders who say that they "have your back."