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Even as many local and state budgets have begun to stabilize, fire departments continue to find themselves in the middle of discussions by elected officials and other policy-makers relating to future funding – and they always will.
Since 2008 (and even before in some cases), fire department budgets have been significantly reduced by eliminating positions, cutting salaries and benefits, delaying expenditures for equipment, apparatus and facilities and other actions. Reasonable people would acknowledge that there was no choice but to take drastic steps to balance budgets over the past several years. It’s interesting that as local and state finances are looking somewhat better, the debates about how much cities should pay for fire departments go on.
Focus on affordability
In a recently published newspaper article, one city councilman was quoted in a budget discussion as saying, “The point is, how much public safety can the city afford?” Fire departments have heard this before, but this councilman’s position has an irresponsible twist. Instead of having a discussion about levels of public safety, he said, “Let’s look at it strictly from the standpoint of the budget.”
As the article continued to frame the city council debate on this matter, what really stood out was this one councilman’s willingness and insistence to have a budget debate on cutting public safety funding without allowing the decisions to be driven at all by the impact of those cuts on the day-to-day safety of the public. Frankly, that is absurd, but it’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that fire department leaders find themselves in the middle of that type of conversation.
The next step for the city referred to above could be a recommendation by someone on the city council to propose contracting with a consulting firm to conduct a “financial, efficiency and performance audit” on the fire department. One firm has for several years advertised its consulting services through a marketing tool titled “20 Questions to Ask Your Fire Chief” (see “20 Tough Questions for the Fire Chief” on page 88). The document is less than flattering to the fire department and is designed to put its leadership on the defensive – and it typically does.
The results of the firm’s studies are always the same – you can reduce staffing and make other deployment decisions that will significantly cut the budget, and you can do it without having any negative impact on public safety. Then, the fire chief is instructed to put his or her stamp of approval on the recommendations from the study, assuring members of the public that they are just as safe, if not safer, even with the reductions being made.
Another point of view
I would propose an alternative set of 20 questions that should be posed to the city manager, city council and the community at large when reductions in fire department budgets are being considered:
1. Are call volumes and response times important to decision-making?
2. Are unintended socio-economic impacts in the community a consideration in service reductions?
3. Is the community aware of the 21st century all-risk deployment model used by the fire department?
4. Are there data from surveys to validate the public’s opinion of fire department service reductions under consideration?
5. How do fire department safety standards and related regulations impact policy decisions?
6. Is the impact of response times on human survivability part of the decision-making process?
7. Is the community aware of the consequences of substandard fire protection?
8. Do decision-makers understand and value the role of fire prevention and public education in the fire department service-delivery model?
9. Are decision-makers aware that the size of a structure fire doubles every two minutes and that irreversible brain damage occurs within four to six minutes?
10. Is the community aware that understaffed fire and EMS response companies are unsafe and ineffective?