Chiefs Call for Creativity in Funding

ATLANTA, Ga. -- It would be a safe bet that there's no fire department or EMS provider in the nation that would say it has plenty of funding and doesn't need another penny.

It would also be safe to say many of same emergency services providers have no clue how to improve their financial status.

Two gentlemen from the Chesterfield County (Va.) Fire and EMS Department were on hand Wednesday at Firehouse Central and EMS Expo in Atlanta to give attendees some information on alternative funding opportunities for emergency service organizations.

Chief of Department Loy Senter Jr. and Battalion Chief Mark Nugent said that while traditional sources of funding, typically tax dollars, are shrinking every day, there are plenty of grants still available and often the money gets left on the table unclaimed.

Additionally, there are lots of civic minded people in the communities who want to help and will make sizable donations, but departments can't be afraid to ask, demonstrate their needs and, above all else, recognize the donors and say thank you.

"Do you have all the funds you need to operate your emergency services organization?" Senter asked. "If you do, you may want to step out and head to another class." Not one person moved.

That's because most departments are funded through municipal tax dollars, which have declined as property values have fallen. And fundraising has become a burden for volunteer departments who have been asked to do more training and equipment maintenance in addition to responding.

"We have to be creative," Senter said. "Money is not growing on trees. Everybody is facing difficult economic times, budgets are being cut back. And all the while, we're being asked to do more with less."

One of the creative ideas Senter offered was an EMS Passport System. Under the program, residents in the providers' coverage area can purchase a "passport" which for a set price -- Senter offered $59 as the set fee -- the subscriber would be given medical care and transport to the hospital for no additional charge.

It works, Senter said, because the people who are proactive typically will never use the EMS system, there by netting the organization pure profit.

Billing for services is an industry standard for most EMS providers, although not universal. Senter said it's a good way to generate revenues for the providing organization.

Less common is billing for fire services, including motor vehicle accidents, fires and hazardous materials responses.

Senter said his department generates about $50,000 annually for hazmat responses by billing for staffing, equipment and clean-up supplies. And, in many cases, businesses are willing to pay for the services provided.

However, not everyone will be thrilled with getting a bill for services rendered.

"Is this process going to be easy?" Senter questioned. "No. It's going to be politically charged and you are going to have to work with your elected officials to make it work." He added that emergency services officers should be prepared to get an earful from residents who receive bills.

 

"I got a bill and I don't understand it," Senter said, imitating an irate customer. "I pay my taxes. I donate to the local rescue squad, why did I get a bill?"

Fire departments might also be able to generate a small amount of revenue by charging fees for permits for burning and for fireworks, and any other permit the organization might issue.

"It's not a sustainable or reliable source of income, and you're not going to collect a lot from it, but it's something to consider," Senter said.

One staple of reliable income is fundraising and Battalion Chief Nugent has become somewhat of an expert in the field, hosting stew and crab festivals, as well as very successful golf tournaments.

The process, however, is not so easy these days, he said.

"You're [already] asking volunteers to give up lots of man hours," Nugent said. "And then, you say, 'by the way, you need to come down and cut up vegetables for the stew.'"

Volunteers are necessary for successful fundraising, but Nugent pointed out that they don't have to be members of your organization. They can be Boy Scouts, Rotary members, Lions' Clubs and even "the little old ladies' clubs," he said.

The key to successful fundraising is to run it like a fire or accident scene, Nugent said.

"I know we all use the incident management system and we need to run our special events and fundraising as if we had a major league motor vehicle crash," he said. "And it works. You've got to have one person in charge. You've got to have planning, you've got to have operations, and you've got to have operations."

Grant money is often available and goes unclaimed for lack of applicants, Nugent and Senter said.

"Foundations, business and organizations have got money to give away and they have to give it away to someone," Nugent said. "It might as well be you. You've got to ask and make your case."

And Senter said it's important to never give up on grants. It's how need is demonstrated to the federal government and to the public in general.

"If there are no applications, there must be no need, so the funding will dry up," Senter said. "And, just because there's not an open spigot of money, don't give up, you need to keep trying."

Many organizations and donors require emergency services providers to have federal non-profit 501-C3 status before they award money. Both Senter and Nugent encouraged departments and EMS providers to do the paperwork and get the official non-profit status.

"A lot of people think that just because they're, say a fire department, that of course they're non profit, but they're not without the paperwork," Senter said.

Outright donations can be a sustaining source of income, but it requires marketing and public education, Senter said.

"Meet your customers on a good day," Senter said. "We too often only meet our customers on their bad days." He said to let the community know what you need and how they can help. Web sites and social media networks like Facebook and Twitter are places where departments can interact with the community.

And when they do contribute something, Nugent had three words of advice; "Recognize, Recognize, Recognize. You have to recognize the people who contribute, because in the end it's all about people and relationships."

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