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.
Kirsch cautioned that departments should not rely on federal grant money which he calls, "a total crapshoot" and not a sound way to build budgets. The same holds true for fundraising too. "How can you ask people for money if they're paying taxes?" he asked. Some departments are having success with requesting payment for services, particularly for motor vehicle accidents and extrications.
"They bill the insurance company and if they get something, that's great, but they're not going after individuals if they don't get paid," he said. It's also important to show that calls and request for services are increasing, if they indeed are. "You really want to convince them that your calls are going up and your funding is going down," he said.
If the politicians are bent on cutting the budget, make sure they understand the ramifications of such actions and don't be afraid of suggesting cuts be made to popular programs, or those that might be favored by the decision makers. "But don't ever get caught in saying 'If it's not fully funded, don't fund it at all,'" he said. "That makes it too easy for them to cut. ...You don't want them to cut anything at all."
Kirsch also offered a practical tip for departments that might already have funds and just don't know about them. Often, there's left over money in accounts for capital purchases that just gets left on the books, but never spent, he said. A project might cost less than anticipated and money remains, he said. "If you don't get anything else out of this class get this," he said. "Go back to your communities and ask about old municipal ordinance money."
He explained that's money left in an account after its purpose has been completed. "I found thousands of dollars that way," he said, noting that he was able to clear out the accounts, and with a resolution by his city council, he was able to re-allocate that money for a thermal imaging camera back when they were new to the market.
"Just go back and ask about old money. You might be really surprised."
Kirsch said the economic challenges for departments are expected to last to 2013, so now might not be the best time to advance new proposals or seek expansion. Nor should departments shy away from asking for what they really need, but they'll need to be well prepared to back up their requests and document the needs.
"If you're prepared, you might not get cut and they'll go looking to cut someplace else," Kirsch said. "...Right now, no cut is a win."