Lt. James Kirsch of the Bergenfield (N.J.) Fire Department said there's no panacea, or magic bullet, that will miraculously make fire departments' economic woes disappear. He does, however, have a bunch of tips to help lessen the pain. "
In these tough economic times, staying flat is a win," Kirsch said to a large gathering of firefighters and officials at the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore, Md., on Thursday.
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Kirsch, who is a former volunteer chief, said budget preparation is key to securing funds departments need to operate. City administrators, councilors, mayors and politicians elected by the people more often respond to budget requests when the information is organized and presented clearly.
"Go in and hit them with a booklet, or a three-ring binder," Kirsch said in his presentation called: Understanding and Creating Fire Department Budget Proposals.
"Give them a DVD or a CD of all the information and tell them to look at it when they can and give you a call if they have questions." That practical information not only has helped Kirsch get the funding he needed for his department, but it impressed the councilors and the police chief as well.
"The police chief was like, 'Oh, wow,'" he said. He added that it makes sense to look the part and be dressed professionally. Be prepared to answer questions the decision makers have about your operations, both good and bad, and have no secrets, he said.
"They're going to find out anyway," he said. "It's better they get the answers from you than someone else." Tell the decision makers why you need the funding and how you will use it, he said. If the standards set by federal agencies or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) require certain equipment or programs, make sure the supporting information is readily available and in the hands of those who need it.
"If you don't have the information, it's easy for them to put you off and delay you, asking for more information, hoping you go away," Kirsch said. Be prepared to negotiate and don't be afraid to put up a "straw man" to give up in order to get what you really want, he said. For example, if the department really wants new computers and mobile data terminals (MDTs) and would like to have new chiefs' cars, but don't really need them, be prepared to forfeit the vehicles to get what you want, Kirsch suggested.
Don't wait until the end of the year and file a flurry of purchase orders and acquisition requests, he recommended. "You don't want someone saying, 'What the hell is all this? We must have given them too much money,'" he said. "It would be too easy to take it away."
Kirsch said he treats his budget like an allowance to be spent throughout the year. "If you put 30 requests in on Dec. 15, they just might take something away from you next year." Creativity is also required in creating budget proposals, he said. Think about strategic planning and knowing when it's time to make purchases, and know how to promote your department, he said. Departments shouldn't overtly promote themselves, but decision makers need to know how well the department is performing and the kinds of services it provides.
"If you don't receive funding for a particular service, like water rescue, or high angle rescues, or any other kind of service, you probably ought not to be providing those services," he said, noting the niche services shouldn't be taken from normal operating budgets.
Kirsch offered an acronym for strategic planning: SWOT, which means Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Knowing the department's strengths helps promote the services provided, while knowing the department's weaknesses can help the chief be ready to answer questions about performances. Looking at opportunities to provide news services, or expanding service can help secure more funding, and knowing the kinds of risks departments may face can also do the same thing, he said.