Salvage and overhaul of damaged fire department budgets appear to be a way of life for the foreseeable future. Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editor-in-Chief Bobby Halton recently stated, "The fire service is soon going to come to grips with a new word: austerity, the responsibility to complete the mission with the absolute minimum funding possible." He went on to say that meeting this challenge will require "focused principled leadership."
Where should our leaders focus? First and foremost are our internal and external customers. As Retired Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief Alan Brunacini aptly stated: Mrs. Smith, our customer, should be "polar north" in every decision-making process. The question that must be asked and answered is: Is what we are about to do in the best interest of Mrs. Smith? Add to this is the question of whether this decision compromises the safety and health of the internal customers, the firefighters.
There are areas the collective fire service should embrace, as well as localized opportunities for individual departments to embrace.
First I'll take a look at the internal customer. At a fire service conference, Dr. Stephan Svensson, a firefighter from Sweden and a research and development engineer, said that the United States fire service is doing a lot of talking about firefighter safety but actually doing very little for improvement. He provided three areas where we need to focus:
1. Health and fitness: Far too many United States firefighters are not in shape and have cardiovascular problems.
2. Knowledge: Our knowledge of fire behavior is based too much on myths rather than science (there are recent studies that support this idea), which leads us to take unnecessary risks.
3. Culture: Our culture rewards "stupid behavior."
If we can address these issues in a positive manner, we will do much to take care of the internal customer and look a lot more professional to the external customer–keeping Mrs. Smith "polar north." Attempting to get mileage from emotional reactions or arguments to the budget ax has lost its effectiveness.
Take Care of Your Own
Taking care of the external customer should not be at the expense of the internal customer and vice versa. For example, many of you may be familiar with The Container Store, a storage and organization retailer with 49 stores in the United States. The store does in excess of $650 million in sales annually and has averaged about 20 percent growth since its inception in 1978. The company is one of the best examples of Conscious Capitalism®, Inc.–a nonprofit corporation organized to advance the integration of consciousness and capitalism. CEO Kip Tindell describes his company's internal and external customer relationship this way: "By taking care of the employee better than anybody else, the employee will take care of the customer better than anybody else."
Make Yourself Visible
The image of a well-educated, well-informed fire service is essential. Every fire officer should be armed with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) reports on quantitative impact of reduced staffing for fire suppression and EMS delivery. Remember, smart money goes to the side with the best data. Every chief fire officer should be involved professionally and socially with the "movers and shakers" of the community. Company officers and firefighters need to be involved with activities of the community such as soccer games, little league baseball, and other community events that attract voters. Never let an opportunity pass to remind Mrs. Smith that she is "polar north."
What Do Your Peers Think?
Volunteer fire departments might consider an independent study of the impact of their service. For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers conducted a fire research report on behalf of the New Zealand Fire Commission titled "Describing the Value of the Contribution from the Volunteer Fire Brigade" in 2009. The report was remarkable in that it went beyond the economic impact–i.e., benefit–to the small communities in New Zealand, estimated conservatively at $79 million. The report also noted that the volunteer brigades "contribute to social cohesion and act as the social glue for retaining the community identity and spirit." It also identifies a key societal benefit to the communities by "sustaining a quality of life for volunteers and their families by providing social opportunities and personal intrinsic value." It is a 67-page report that most any volunteer fire department would love to have conducted for its community. Or, maybe a county or region could commission such a report for a group of volunteer fire departments.
Career departments could do well by looking at how they are perceived by other organizations, such as the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). This organization communicates a great deal to its membership. For example, there were two presentations at its Annual Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last September that were noteworthy.
The first was, "Using Data to Right-Size Police and Fire." This title is a typical example of how "governments" spin words to hide from the truth. Why don't they go ahead and be up front and say "downsize"? Based on scientific studies, "right-sizing" would cause cities to hire firefighters faster than their HR departments could process the paperwork.
The second was, "Asking Your Police and Fire Chief the Right Questions to Get the Right Answers." This title is interesting in that the presenters, in this case, recently published an article about the fire service's reluctance to use Class A foam. The article says that despite compelling evidence to its advantages, the fire service is too "traditional" and suffers from a "lack of knowledge" about compressed air foam systems (CAFS). The fire service's counter arguments to the benefits of foam are not quantifiable or based on scientific data. Be aware that the National Fire Protection Association's Fire Research Foundation, in conjunction with California Polytechnic State University, has announced a project to "investigate the capabilities and limitations of CAFS for interior structural firefighting to produce a better understanding of its effectiveness and safety implications." The report is scheduled to be released in July 2013.
What Does the Community Think?
How is your department perceived? Does your community think you could be supplanted by inmates? Remember that perception is reality. No matter the endeavors a fire department takes to salvage and overhaul its budget, always keep Mrs. Smith "polar north."
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).