"Recession" Signs Mean Trouble's Ahead for Departments Nationwide

April 1, 2008

While many political leaders and economists are reluctant to publicly use the "R" word, it seems pretty clear that this country is in a "recession." For months now, it has been called "an economic downturn," "a sluggish economy" or just plain "hard times." But whatever you call it, in firehouse terms the nation's economic misery has escalated from a two-alarm to a four-alarm and past experience warns of trouble ahead for every fire department, large or small.

In recent columns, we've reported on the federal fire programs - how they came out in good shape last year and may survive the 2008-09 budget axe as Congress and the White House battle each other in an election year. The big trouble facing the fire-rescue service is at the local level, with their own city and county governments who have the power and the responsibility for fire, police and emergency medical services. In the past, whenever a recession hit town, the fire department often suffered a financial kick in the stomach.

In the last few months, we've noticed that more local governments - from the villages to the big cities - have been complaining about "shortfalls" in their tax revenues. Even those that raised taxes find they're not collecting as much as they expected because weakening economic conditions have resulted in fewer business and property owners being able to pay their tax bills. Those that handed out tax breaks a few years ago are in even worse shape and those in regions hit hard by the mortgage banking scandal have become disaster areas.

Experience also has shown that an arson wave seems to accompany a recession. In fact, an increase in arson cases is one way of confirming that a recession has arrived. It's the so-called "solution" some people turn to when they're about to lose everything they own and all that's left is the insurance on a business or a home. And, just when a fire department needs more trained arson investigators on the street, some have to cut back in order to put every available body on the under-staffed engine and truck companies. Get ready for more and bigger fires.

Some might object to my using the word "scandal" to describe the financial crisis caused by homeowners and businesses defaulting on the high-interest loans that were handed out like free pretzels at a beer party. The average person couldn't see the danger in loans with floating interest rates, but the banks and mortgage companies knew exactly what they were doing and what the risk factor was going to be. They were driven by greed and a lack of supervision or self-control.

For fire departments, a recession could mean a return to the draconian budget cuts that led to the crippling manpower reductions of the 1990s. It's only been in the last few years that some departments finally got the money to restore the firefighter positions that were lost in that orgy of budget cutting. Some have not recovered. Today, every fire department needs a hard core of supporters in the city and county councils that will look out for its needs like others protect the schools and the police.

Towns and cities that depended on federal fire programs, such as the FIRE Act, to give them what their local government could not or would not will be in for a shock if this recession lasts very long. As we reported last month, the Bush administration's proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year cuts federal aid in half for local and state first responder programs, but it's expected that Congress will restore most of those cuts as it has done in the past. Maybe they will, but with a war, a recession and an election year, you can't count on anything being certain.

This also could be one of those years in which the budget becomes a "continuing resolution" because the Democrats who control Congress and the Republicans who hold the White House can't reach a compromise. If that happens, this year's budget will be carried over to next year, with the same spending levels, and it will be left to the new president and the new Congress to come up with a 2009 budget. What it might look like is anybody's guess since there's no way of knowing which party will be in control, who the players will be or what will be the state of the economy.

It seems to me that the recession warning is clear for the fire-rescue service. You cannot count on the federal programs for anything and the major lobbying effort has to be focused on local government. Put your energy into getting whatever you can in the competition for every tax dollar. You can be sure that the police and the schools will be grabbing their share and more. The same applies for any state aid that's available to assist local fire departments. And, beware of any government scheme to "borrow" money that's earmarked for fire-rescue programs or pensions, but get's "temporarily" diverted to other priorities. Fight that one of with all the strength you can muster - it's about as trustworthy as a floating-rate mortgage.

HAL BRUNO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and recently retired as chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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