By Richard Marinucci
This month’s issue includes 2013 fire service forecasts-what we see ahead. Talk about a challenging assignment-this prediction is to be submitted in October! Normally a month or two wouldn’t make much of a difference except that there was an election in November to select the President of the United States. Regardless of your politics, party affiliation, or views on the issue, it is clear that there was a distinct difference in the candidates, particularly on their views of the economy. One could expect the future to be different, depending on the election results. Please take the following discussion with this in mind. Also, understand that I am better at predicting the past than I am the future!
Clearly the state of the economy will continue to be the driving factor in most organizations. The issues that emerged at the start of the downturn have affected almost every fire department, with many seeing devastating changes to the service levels they provide. Changes in staffing levels impact service levels regardless of how many times a politician says they won’t. Besides the personnel matters, the economy has forced many organizations to forego or postpone purchasing apparatus and equipment. This and the staffing issue will need to be addressed in the near future before more frequent problems occur.
The good news is that there seem to be some bright spots in the economy, and there should be continued improvement. Although the pace of economic growth is unknown, even the most optimistic projections indicate that it will be a long time before there is a return to prerecession conditions, if ever. Organizations need to consider this and begin a planning process to rebuild the essential components of their departments that are below acceptable standards.
The election could impact departments through possible changes to federal programs that have assisted many departments during these challenging times. Fire Act grants have allowed many organizations to obtain apparatus and equipment. Without this help, the condition of the rolling stock and protective clothing would be terrible in many places. What may change next year is the amount of funding available. Local departments may not be able to rely on Uncle Sam to help them, so they must prepare to address this, knowing it could be solely in their hands. This could also be true for SAFER grants. It would be wise to plan as if federal grants were not available. Although I don’t believe the grants are going away, I think the amounts appropriated will be less.
The results of the election could also influence privatization and possibly consolidation. Departments and individuals should learn the pros and cons of each.
Regarding privatization, its use to reduce costs is not always successful in the long run. Often promises are only met early on when the real savings can be realized. There are many people seeking public office who “drink the Kool-Aid” and believe all private efforts are better than government programs. This is simply not true. But, just stating that will not win you many arguments. You need to learn as much as you can so you are better able to compete. You will need to know specifics and the benefits that you bring to the table.
Consolidation and regionalization continue to be hot buttons. On the surface they sound good. Unfortunately, when you dig down deeper, the issue becomes more complicated. One factor to consider is the cost savings-but this is not the only thing. If you base your consideration solely on the budget, most people will be disappointed in the end. Although there are savings, one player often pays more to offset the lessor resources that another may bring into the relationship. Again, study this issue and become as knowledgeable as you can. Some consultants present boilerplate studies to communities that often do not include specifics necessary to be successful. In this case, ignorance on your part is not bliss, and your organization may suffer.
Although full-scale consolidation may not always be what it purports to be, there are joint ventures that could be part of your future. Sharing resources among communities will become more popular not only to save money but to also improve service. Group purchasing helps funding go further. Departments also need to consider strengthening mutual-aid and auto-aid agreements. Organizations should investigate ways to share training resources. With the cutbacks made to many departments, training personnel becomes even more important. Unfortunately, the budget reductions have taken their toll on many training programs. This is the reason departments need to get creative in seeking solutions to this challenge.
Technology will continue to have a huge impact on the fire service in 2013. Apparatus and equipment will continue to change, using more technological advances to improve the products. The improvements aren’t automatic and will require adjustments to training programs. There will also be a learning curve. Technology will continue to change the emergencies to which departments respond. For example, there will be more electric vehicles and hybrids on the road. Departments will have to handle incidents involving these types of vehicles differently than the way they have in the past.
Regarding the soft side of technology, the speed with which information travels and the impact of social media will continue to be big factors, both in positive and negative ways. Organizations will need to develop rules, policies, and protocols to minimize potential risks while maximizing the benefits that this technology can bring. Technology offers great tools to improve communications if handled appropriately. Conversely, there are many examples of issues and problems created either intentionally or inadvertently.
Somewhat related will be the continued and expanded use of the Internet for media. Web publications, blogs, podcasts, and other aspects of electronic media will continue to expand. Information will be spread faster than ever. Probably the biggest challenge to the majority of the fire service will be finding the time to stay up on all the information presented.
Science and studies will become more commonplace next year. We have seen the impact of studies conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Underwriters Laboratories, which promise to change the approach departments take to emergency response. Their findings are dispelling previously held beliefs and confirming others. This scientific approach is somewhat new to this industry because most of what has been learned has been through experience. Fire departments that pay attention to this will reap the benefits of the hard work being done on their behalf.
Prognosticating about 2013 is not easy. There are still many unanswered questions at this time. But, it does promise to be an exciting time, and for many the worst is over. The fire service must prepare to do what is necessary to restore some of the lost services and capabilities. Along the way, the topic of the quality of service must return to the discussion so that cost reduction is not the only driving force. There will need to be a balance so that the expected service can be delivered and outcomes improve.
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.