By Rich Marinucci
Recently the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) received notice that their Fire Act grant application to continue with their Near-Miss program had been denied. The initial impact of this news put into action efforts to maintain this program. By all accounts the fire service has embraced the Near-Miss concept and it has proven valuable in educating firefighters in real-word safety incidents. I have been impressed since its inception, and the purpose of mentioning it here has nothing to do with the merits of the program. Instead it should be used as a reminder to everyone to continually monitor funding sources and establish a back-up plan should circumstances change.
Have a Contingency Plan
Organizations that rely on grants or other potential one-time revenue generators must consider the chance of that source not renewing for a particular program. The federal grant programs have been extremely helpful to many departments and organizations in funding apparatus, equipment, and personnel. The challenging economic times facing fire departments have made these programs even more valuable in sustaining and maintaining organizations. However, it is important to remember that eventually these programs may come to an end. As such, departments need to consider what they will do should this happen.
Apparatus and equipment will eventually need replacement. Fortunately, many departments have taken advantage of the grants to make much needed purchases for the benefit of their members and the service to their communities. It would be short sighted to believe that Uncle Sam will continue to cover every community every time they have a shortage of funds. Begin planning now for the next round. This will involve determining future needs and working with the policy makers within your community.
Think Long Term
Departments must establish a long range capital improvement plan. They must inventory all of their apparatus and equipment needs that require significant funding. This would include the obvious such as apparatus. But, organizations must also factor in items that collectively add up to a major investment.
This would include turnout gear, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), any equipment that has a shelf life and is more costly than what can be absorbed in the operating budget, and any special rescue equipment or EMS monitors. List out the items and assign the expected purchase price in today’s dollars. You may be surprised at the overall expenses expected in the not too distant future. You may wish to consult National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommendations on the expected life of these and other items. It should come as no surprise to anyone when it is necessary to replace SCBA, protective clothing, or any other major expense items.
Establishing your plan may be the easiest part of the assignment. Gaining support from the policy makers, i.e. those that approve the funding, is absolutely critical if you want to be successful. Part of the approach must be educational. The policy makers must understand the importance of reliable apparatus and equipment. This seems obvious, but depending on their own frame of reference, they may not totally comprehend the seriousness of it.
The other part of this is the political side of gaining support for your program. I am not referring to traditional politics but am suggesting that relationships are extremely important. You need to continuously and constantly work on building and maintaining a strong working relationship with those that ultimately control your resources. It is also a good idea to view this from a department perspective. It is not solely one person’s job. This is something that everyone in the organization can contribute to. Consciously consider a plan to gain support.
Find Alternate Sources
Consider alternate funding sources. As the saying goes, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Like a good investment policy, diversify. Taxes provide the vast majority of funding to fire departments. Still, take a broader view to see if there are other sources. These sources not only can come through federal grants but potentially through other government or nongovernment programs. You will need to do some research to see what exists. A side benefit of doing this can be additional support from your policy makers. If they see the efforts being made, they may understand the importance more.
Sound budgeting practices are helpful. If your budgeting system allows, establish a savings account to help pay for future purchases. Just like with your personal budget, you should get in the habit of saving for the future. This is not only good at building up your reserves, it can help your borrowing power. Even with the best of plans, sometimes you have to buy things over time. A sound budget process with adequate reserves will provide more flexibility.
Outfitting a fire department with the proper apparatus and equipment is expensive. Often in challenging economic times, major purchases are postponed or one-time sources of funding are used. This must be considered just a patch to fix the problem. Failure to prepare will just postpone the inevitable. Sometimes circumstances are beyond control but your organization will be in a better position if you look down the road a bit and figure out alternative approaches.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.
By Rich Marinucci