By Chris Mc Loone
As I write this, I am listening to the news as presidential election results roll in. As I've spoken with fire equipment suppliers recently, one prevailing theme has been that the results of this presidential election will help define how good or bad 2013 will be for them. The results are close. One candidate will take the lead and moments later multiple states are projected for his challenger. There's a lot riding on this election.
When you think about it though, 2013 budgets in many municipalities have by now been submitted and approved. So, although the results of this election will help make the direction of the economy more clear, departments across the country already have an idea of how they will spend the money in their budgets next year. What won't change just yet is that fire departments are being held accountable for every cent spent throughout the year, and requests for capital expenditures will continue to be scrutinized more closely than many of us have ever experienced.
The budget crunches we are all going through right now are not necessarily the result of diminished goodwill toward firefighters and the work we do. Quite simply, cities and towns are hurting, and if we are truly honest with ourselves, they are well within their rights to say, "But that fire truck over there seems to work fine. Why do you need us to buy you another one?" On the volunteer side, depending on how your particular company operates, you may not have to ask your municipality. However, you will be held accountable by your residents, who might ask for justification for the expense when your fund drive letters go out. Your answers to these questions will directly impact the level of support you get from whom you need it.
I think an emerging problem isn't going to be replacing your first-out piece though. We often discuss how to justify new purchases when we talk about buying apparatus and equipment. But, what about that engine that never moves, that isn't on anyone's boxes, that belches thick exhaust when it gets started because it's been weeks since it went out on a run? These are the trucks whose existence you may have even more trouble justifying.
All around the country there are three-piece fire companies. And, when personnel numbers were high and times were good financially, there were no issues staffing these units with an appropriate number of people. These days, the trucks don't move. They don't get out. But I bet these trucks are on someone's list to be replaced.
Last month I said not to fear technology but to embrace it. Part of the technology I'm talking about is data collection, and it is a critical component of any department's operation. However, be careful. Data can be manipulated by either side. Justifying the existence of that third rig isn't going to be easy. Someone at some point is going to look at the data and say, "Of the 500 incidents your company responded to last year, that unit was only assigned to 130. Why are we paying for fuel, preventive maintenance, insurance, and parts for a truck that doesn't go anywhere?" How will you answer your governing body? More important, how will you answer the public? Mr. and Mrs. Joe Public notice far more than you think they do.
Case in point: Somehow during a conversation between my wife and an acquaintance of hers, it came up that I am a firefighter with Weldon Fire Company. The acquaintance lives in our district, and she enthusiastically told my wife how good our response times are. My wife asked how she knows our response times. She replied that when she hears our whistle blow, she calculates the time between when the whistle blows and when she first hears the siren on one of our trucks. I'm not sure how she reacts when we are "recalled in station" and there is no siren to be heard. But, I figure if someone is putting that much effort into monitoring how quickly we respond to an incident, she's also the type who will pay attention to what trucks go out the most if given the chance.
As I look forward to 2013, regardless of the results of the presidential election, I look forward to a year that features an economy that gets stronger and a fire industry that begins to rebound as demand for new apparatus and equipment increases. Municipal budgets have been squeezed, but my hunch is many departments have put off capital expenditures for as long as they can, and safety will trump holding off on an apparatus purchase for another year. Make sure you back up any request you make with data to support it. Organize it, make it easy to read and comprehend, and know that data better than anyone else.