Finding The $ To Make The Small Fire Department Work

May 1, 2003
Steve Meyer examines the issue of funding for small fire departments, with suggestions for maximizing resources.
How do you operate a fire department on $10,000 a year with half of the money eaten up by insurance?" That was the lament of the chief of a small fire department as he leaned against the second-hand 1970s-era truck, its once-gleaming paint having long ago lost its luster, a puddle underneath evidencing a water tank that was ready to give out. Beside the old engine in its death throes sat a functional volunteer-built wildfire unit sporting military drab for paint, one of the many government-surplus vehicles handed down to needy fire departments.
Photo by Chris Andrew Many of the country's smaller fire departments, particularly those in sparsely populated rural areas, are challenged by financial limitations. There are ways, however, of overcoming these limitations.

Ask any chief of a small fire department and he or she will tell you the aforementioned chief is not alone in his dilemma. Outcries abound of the funding dilemmas many small fire departments are imbued with, increasingly so in these times when even the most sovereign municipalities are feeling a financial pinch. Couple those limitations with standards and regulations that have driven costs of firefighting equipment to eyebrow raising heights and you have a situation as trying as Wall Street.

Funding in small fire departments runs the gamut of those that would be judged dirt poor and having soup suppers just to put gas in trucks all the way to those that are outfitted with the latest equipment, the nicest uniforms and gleaming new stations.

Finding Needed Funds

Unarguably, though, when small fire departments are looked at as a whole, the financial condition leans toward the deficit side, leaving chiefs and governing body officials with a constant battle to find sufficient funds to operate and make improvements in their services.

The limiting factors in small fire department financing are basically rooted in two sources: limited systems of funding; and leadership. Both can be overcome. It's not easy, but to the diligent it is possible to support quality fire and emergency protection in even the smallest fire district. It may not be possible to accomplish on fixed income in the way of taxes, but it can be accomplished by focusing on elements of the financial puzzle that the department has control over. Those elements fall into seven broad areas:

  • Budgeting Basics
  • Seeking Assistance
  • Alternative Funding
  • Creative Financing
  • Lobbying
  • Marketing and Customer Service
  • Leadership

In this segment we cover the first four topics.

Budgeting Basics

Fiscal management ability is one of the many hats the chief of a small fire department must wear. This article is not intended to be Fiscal Management 101. What even the most fiscally inept needs to realize is that financial management is not an inherited trait; it is a management skill that can be acquired.

Above all else, the chief of any small fire department must realize that approaching the management of the department with anything but a business-wise attitude will lead to disaster. As chief of a small fire department you are a business manager who is likely at the helm of one of your community's largest businesses, and probably one of the longest lived. Assets of small fire departments can easily be in the quarter- to half-million, even million-dollar range. Those assets have been built up by investments of the public's trust over a long period. The public you serve and the governing body you are accountable to are trusting you to be fiscally responsible with those assets.

A lack of financial acuity has been the demise of many a fire chief. Simply stated, financial management skills amount to understanding budget reports, maintaining a fiscal awareness and making intelligent decisions about the use of financial resources. Fiscal awareness amounts to keeping a finger on where the department is in its budget cycle and predicting resources required to meet current and future needs in light of your community's ability to support those needs. If the resources you have are not able to support those needs, then you must look at other strategies to fill the gaps.

A few helpful fiscal management hints will serve the chief of a small fire department well:

  • Spend some time with the city clerk, or whoever writes the checks for your department, to make certain you understand every nuance of your governing body's budgetary system.
  • Remember that a budget is a plan, a plan for your department's needs and expectations expressed in dollars and cents. Project your department's financial needs one year, five years, 10 years into the future and begin making preparations to meet those needs.
  • Budgeting is an ongoing process. As a current year's budget is being worked through a blueprint for the next year's budget develops.
  • Fiscal conservatism bankrolls dollars for big projects and gains respect from governing body officials.
  • A course in basic economics and basic government is a good investment for any fire officer.

Seeking Assistance

There is light at the end of the tunnel for small fire departments that feel like they're swimming and about to go under. Aside from taxation, probably the biggest assistance that has come to small fire departments in the history of the fire service is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. Initially funded at $150 million two years ago, then at $350 million last year and with $750 million plugged into it, the program is testimony that the federal government recognizes the struggles of small fire departments and is sending a loud statement that such departments are vital entities that must be maintained.

With the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, many small fire departments are securing necessary equipment that used to stretch their resources or were even out of reach. A good example is the Four Corners Volunteer Fire Department in Hayes, SD. The department is responsible for maintaining fire protection in an area encompassing 1,953 square miles - an area larger than the land mass of a major U.S. city! This determined bunch of volunteers was scraping by on a budget of $10,500 per year. Of the 12 trucks the department has scattered around its district, 10 needed replacement and some didn't even have lights and sirens. You can imagine the breath of fresh air this department got with the help of a $56,015 Assistance to Firefighters Grant.

Information about the grant program and tips on how to write a good application abound. Go to the website for the grant application. The on-line application is extremely user friendly.

A philosophy many small fire departments have adopted is that rather than using the Assistance for Firefighters Grant for high-dollar items like fire trucks, they are making application every year to take care of other needs such as protective clothing and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) while saving their resources for big capital improvements. This is a program that looks to be here to stay. The biggest bit of advice for grant applicants is to make certain you have justified your request in light of the objectives for the category you are applying in.

You won't find assistance for building a new station with the Assistance for Firefighters Grant Program, but you can find assistance for new facilities with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Community Facilities Program. The program is specific to communities with fewer than 20,000 residents and can provide direct loans, loan guarantees or grants for a facility like a new fire station. See the website or contact your local USDA office for more information.

State and local grants or trust funds is another avenue worth pursuing. Ask around, or stop at your nearest economic development office to find out what is available. Trust funds are less publicized and more elusive. You'll have to do some legwork to find them. Attorneys and bankers are usually the administrators of trust funds, so get on the phone and start asking what they know about that your department might tap into. Some grants and trust contributions may amount to only a few hundred dollars, but every little bit does help.

High Visibility

There may also be a "sugar daddy" with a kind heart toward your fire department. Your sugar daddy could be an industry or a corporation, a high-profile individual in the community or the quiet older lady down the street from the fire station. Whatever the source, the only way these blessings are found is by keeping your ear to the ground and asking the right question at the right time. Make sure you have a goal or project in mind and be certain adequate recognition goes with contributors from these sources - if the contributor wants it. Many are the stories of a corporation plugging major dollars into some deserving small community volunteer organization. In most cases the only reason it happened was because the organization was visible, had a legitimate need and had leadership aggressively pursuing alternate avenues of funding.

U.S. Department of Justice grants administered through local emergency management agencies have netted some necessary equipment for fire departments, in particular communications equipment. For information about these grants contact your local emergency management office. Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) have provided some funding for fire protection needs in the way of facilities. For information on CDBG grants go to your nearest community development office or contact the CDBG coordinator at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by calling 202-708-1577. The website also has information.

Aid Through Foresters

The Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) program, formerly known as the Rural Community Fire Protection (RCFP) Program under the U.S. Forest Service, provides financial, technical and other assistance to state foresters to train and equip fire departments in rural areas and rural communities. The state forester passes the money along to fire departments.

Eligible fire departments must serve a community with a population of 10,000 or less. Most grants will be less than $5,000. Funding must be matched on a 50-50 basis by non-federal dollars or in-kind, and can be used for fire equipment, training and start-up organization of fire departments. Contact your state forester for information.

Also available to fire departments is federal and state surplus equipment. Thousands of military vehicles have been converted to firefighting use in the United States and many fire departments have received surplus generators and breathing air compressors. Contact your state forester or go to the website for information on federal excess property. The GSA Office of Transportation and Property Management, Property Management Division can be contacted in Washington DC at 703-305-7240 for information on Federal Surplus Property Programs. Your local emergency management office may also have a direct link to securing surplus equipment.

Some things to remain on the vigilant outlook for are the millions of dollars rumored to be coming back to emergency first responders through Homeland Security. Another place is the new farm bill, which has provisions for fire protection funding. Funds have not been appropriated as of yet in the farm bill for that purpose, but Washington bureaucrats are unpredictable and there could be a rule change that suddenly makes millions of dollars in funds available.

Don't forget to contact local media to do at least a news brief, maybe even a feature story so you really grab the spotlight when you are selected as a grant or trust recipient. By doing so you will not only give recognition where credit is due, you will also focus more attention on your project and needs, quite possibly snaring even more funding.

Alternative Funding

There are alternatives worth considering to ease fire protection financial burdens. Many fire departments are turning to service fees for additional funding. The public may initially raise an outcry at the action, but here again, the key lies in informing them of why this is happening and justifying it. The main philosophy behind service fees is that taxes are used to provide the service and fees are used to pay for the service when it is used. A year or two following implementation of service fees, they become the accepted norm and the bickering dies down.

Purchasing in larger quantities normally means cost savings. Fire departments have used this strategy to their advantage by agreeing to joint purchases of commonly used equipment such as hose or foam concentrate in larger volumes. Getting everyone to agree on a standard specification to anything jointly purchased is the trick. Reaching an agreement on such items as bunker gear or even apparatus can be challenging, but is achievable.

Sharing resources is a much-lamented option for reducing expenses. For example, does every fire department in the parish or county need its own breathing air compressor? Perhaps a single compressor shared by two, three or even more departments will satisfy the need. The same could be said about high-dollar rescue tools. The only way to make these determinations is an objective analysis of use patterns. It seems to happen all to often, where East Overshoe gets some expensive piece of equipment that could well satisfy the needs of neighboring West Overshoe also. But, because East Overshoe has it, West Overshoe can't be upstaged and they've got to have it. The funds expended may very well have had a more pertinent use.

There is also the possibility of downsizing. Gasp! Pray tell, not the fire department! The mere mention of such an action is apt to raise the ire of any firefighter. It's time to take a lesson from American business. What do businesses do when confronted with an economic crunch? They tighten the belt and find ways to carry on the business with less. It's not an easy thing to think about, and this is not an option applicable to every fire department, but cases exist where fire department rosters can be selectively reduced and acceptable staffing levels can still be maintained. The department would realize savings in the way of insurance and outfitting firefighters.

What about that antiquated truck that's shoved into the back corner of the station for that "just in case" situation? Additional insurance costs as well as maintenance and upkeep cost savings could be realized if it was sold. As a city manager once stated in regard to fire departments, "I'm amazed at how much money is spent just to maintain someone's ego trip."

The argument is often made that consolidation is an answer to small fire department financial dilemmas. Viewed as radical by some, progressive by others, small fire department consolidation has been achieved successfully in many instances across the United States. Anyone taking a look at consolidation must be extremely analytical. Most pertinent are the local issues. In many instances with schools consolidated into larger jurisdictions, the local volunteer fire department is the last entity that a community can identify itself with. The history of school consolidation itself has been that it doesn't always result in cost savings as there are trade offs in mergers. The same may very well be true regarding fire protection. Like school consolidation, the biggest advantage of fire department consolidation is that it increases available equipment and personnel resources and services.

No fire service administrator should venture into the realm of consolidation without first reading the book Making the Pieces Fit: Cooperative Service Through Consolidation, Mergers and Contracts by retired Fire Chief Jack Snook and Fire Chief Jeff Johnson. Several sources for the book can be found on the Internet.

Creative Financing

Creative financing may be a contemporary theme in American business, but the volunteer fire service has been creatively financing since its beginning. Creative financing has more limitations in the public sector than in the private sector, where one does not have to worry about the sanctity of money held in the public trust, but there are opportunities for fiscal innovation even in small fire departments.

Most often, what creative financing entails in small fire departments is fundraising. Fundraising is a fact of life in small fire departments and is the lifeblood of progress for many of them. Though many may disdain the small fire department's reliance upon fundraising and donations, no matter how we look at it, the volunteer fire service is a long way away from separating itself from this means of support.

Fundraising has more advantages than raising money. Fundraising keeps the fire department in the public eye (marketing) and it gets the public into the fire station on a lot of occasions. Fundraising also boosts camaraderie and binds fire department members together in their purpose.

Success Stories

Fundraising opportunities run the gamut. Volunteer fire departments involve themselves in everything from fish fries to horseshoe tournaments to bingo. Fundraisers falls into two categories: those that raise a meager to fair amount of funds and those that are substantially successful. The common threads of those that are major success stories are innovation and promotion.

A discussion relative to all the means of fundraising available is a book of its own. The first question the department needs to ask regarding a fundraising activity is, is the return worth the effort? A large investment of time and resources in a fundraising event that nets only a few hundred dollars will burn members out. Volunteers want to see a good return on the time and energy they invest in a project. They don't mind putting a lot of time into something if the return pushes the department toward a goal.

Finding a niche is the key with fundraising, and once the niche is found, be consistent. If it's a monthly steak fry or an annual pancake breakfast, make sure it's there with the same quality and service when it's supposed to be. If the fire department's annual request for contributions is mailed out every May people, begin to anticipate it every year and they plan for it. If you've been effective at marketing (to be discussed in the next installment), the mindset of the public will be, "I've got a little extra set aside for those guys when they come around this year."

Another aspect of fundraising is ethics: how acceptable is the event to the public? An unfavorable view of fundraising events that the community regards as unethical or in poor taste will ultimately cause more harm than good in terms of support for the department.

Another consideration is, who else does the same kind of fundraiser you propose? If other organizations are already doing the same thing, then you're in a position of taking business away from someone else - something that will require a larger investment of resources and may create unhealthy rivalry. If you're competing with a local business, your initiative will likely not be well received either.

The success of a fundraiser is inextricably tied to some purpose perceived as necessary and beneficial by the public. Make sure you keep that information in front of them at all times. Start your promotion early, and remember that fundraising profits can be vastly expanded by finding a source that will match the money raised. The psychology of people is such that they are more willing to contribute if they know they are getting more bang for their buck.

Hiring Professionals

As a final note to this segment of the series, mention needs to be made about using professional grant writers and professional fundraisers. If your department does not have the resources or someone with the time to take care of writing grants, by all means seek outside assistance. The fees may seem extravagant, but the gains may prove worthwhile. Even if you have completed a grant such as the all important FEMA grant it may be worth it to have a professional grant writer look it over to make sure you've adequately covered all of the points necessary for a successful grant application.

A local development group is the best place to start in seeking such services. In some cases grant-writing assistance is available for free through such services. The downside of using a professional grant writer, in addition to the costs, is that the person may not be familiar enough with your local situation to make the grant a real standout. This is where anyone using professional grant writers has got to work very closely with them every step of the way.

Some small fire departments have used professional fundraisers to assist them, most specifically with large projects such as the construction of new fire stations. Again, like professional grant writers, their service comes with a steep fee, usually a percentage of the funds they raise.

What a professional fundraiser can do though is the legwork and put the time in that uncovers avenues of funding the small fire department overlooked or doesn't have the time to pursue. These are the people who find the retired business executive millionaire living half the country away who grew up in your community and hasn't been back for decades, but still has a kind heart for the community. A professional fundraiser will know what kind of angle to take with this person to get a substantial contribution from them. A professional fundraiser will also know what is available as far as grants or trusts that can be tapped for the specific project at hand.

Time Is A Premium

Perhaps the biggest advantage of professional grant writers and fundraisers is the time savings they can spare a small fire department. Volunteer time is a premium and becoming a more limiting factor all of the time. Time that volunteers must spend fundraising is one of the most frequent complaints of volunteers in small fire departments. Anything that can be done to relieve the amount of time volunteers in small fire departments must focus on extraneous efforts such as fundraising spares members from extra stress.

This segment on funding for small fire departments will conclude in the next installment of this series of articles, when we delve into Lobbying, Marketing and Customer Service, and Leadership.

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.

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