These are not pleasant economic times. First, the housing marketing slumped and foreclosures became the order of the day. Next, the banks and the credit markets got bailed out from the federal government. Then, the automobile industry demanded a bailout or else it would go out of business. Economists are speculating that other industries, such as the airlines and print media, will be the next to line up and look for a bailout. Now, as I write this, the Obama administration and the Democrats are planning for a huge stimulus package to get the economy rolling again.
It seems like everyone is getting a bailout except the fire service. In fact, large and small fire departments are looking at budget cuts this year. Large cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia and Phoenix are looking at major cuts, including closing fire stations and reducing personnel and community service programs. Other cities such as Omaha are staving off the closing of fire stations by delaying a recruit class of 24 from November 2009 until 2010.
In an effort to stop the cutting of fire services in Philadelphia, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 22 sued the city to stop the closing of five engines and two ladder companies. The union contends that cutting services jeopardizes lives and reduces the fire department to "precariously unsafe" levels.
In San Francisco, to save $71 million, some decision-makers have proposed $3.9 million in cuts for the fire department.
In Los Angeles, to cut $74 million from the mid-year budget, the mayor has proposed reducing the fire department's budget by cutting a fifth of the 48 EMS fire captains who supervise the work of paramedics. Originally, there was talk of eliminating 18 of those captains, but the department proposed cutting nine of them and achieving the rest of the savings by eliminating four city ambulances staffed by firefighters on overtime.
Large fire departments are not the only ones affected. The Austin, MN, City Council voted 6-1 to eliminate overnight staffing. Since Jan. 1, no firefighters have been on duty between 10:30 P.M. and 7 A.M. In Sparks, NV, the fire department is reducing the minimum number of firefighters on duty each day to help with the budget deficit. What this means is that four-person staffing on an engine will now be reduced to three on some days.
Most fire departments rely on tax revenue to support their operations. The severe recession we are in means that people spend less. When people spend less, there are fewer sales of goods. Fewer sales of products translates to less tax money. Real estate taxes also provide revenue for government. More homes have become vacant because of foreclosures and the downturn of home values also means homes are of less value. All of this also means less property tax revenue for government.
Unfortunately, as fire departments face budget cuts, the workload will not decrease. In fact, you should expect more fires and more EMS calls. Some unethical people who face foreclosure of their property will take what they think is an easier route and try to collect the insurance money by burning their property. In other communities, increased foreclosures means increased vacant properties. Increased vacant properties escalates the possibility of vandals or children starting fires. Of course, vacant properties are usually vandalized, which compromises their structural integrity. This increases the opportunities for firefighter injuries and deaths.
Another downside of a recession is that people have less money to spend because of getting laid off or less money coming into their business. People who have less money will sometimes look toward other means of heating their homes, including illegal heating sources, bypassing electric meters and increased use of space heaters. All of this also translates to increased fires. Recession also means more homeless people moving into vacant structures, where they will find alternative heating sources to keep warm.
Bad economic times also affect EMS, since people who lose their jobs also lose their health benefits. Because they have lost health benefits, they will put off their health care needs until it becomes too late. Then they usually call 911. And since they have no health insurance, they usually do not have any money to pay the ambulance bill if your department seeks reimbursement for transport.
As stated above, a bad recession will create more homelessness. Homeless people are more apt to call 911 since they have no insurance or money to go to a doctor's office. Again, all of this translates into more 911 calls for EMS, but possibly with fewer resources because of budget cuts.
Although these are difficult times, they are not expected to end anytime soon. As they say, "Prepare for the worst and hope for the best," since there will be no bailout for the fire service.
Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, a FirehouseÂ® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire-rescue service experience. Ludwig is chairman of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master's degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally, and can be reached through his website at www.garyludwig.com.