By Richard Marinucci
As I begin to write this article attempting to predict the future, the federal government is shut down because of elected officials’ inability to reach agreement on a budget. Regardless of your political affiliation, you are probably disgusted over this major issue. A prognosticator probably could have predicted this a few months ago. Yet this relatively recent development will have a huge effect on the economy and will impact recovery. This demonstrates how some actions that are out of most people’s control make it very difficult to see too far in the future.
In spite of our elected officials’ current action in Washington, D.C., the economy is improving, and indications are that this should continue for the foreseeable future. Based on this belief, organizations should anticipate what is coming and plan accordingly. Some believe that government lags behind the private sector in the economic realm. As many indicators point to better times in the private sector, it would seem that governments should be following shortly.
The recent recession’s severity has created a new normal for many fire departments. This has affected service levels-some to the point that operations have changed significantly. One should not assume that an organization will automatically return to prerecession levels. In many cases, the actions taken changed the culture and structure, meaning it is no longer business as usual. Departments were forced to change, and some things clearly have had a negative impact on the ability to deliver service.
Organizations have changed staffing, training, apparatus and equipment acquisition, and prevention. The coming year will see efforts to begin restoring programs that had been greatly reduced or eliminated. Those in the profession know that a continuation of inadequacy will ultimately lead to poor service, even if nothing tragic has happened in the short term. The fire service is now challenged to change the discussion from economic survival to fire departments’ needs to improve quality, efficiency, and effectiveness.
Staffing across the board has been reduced-in career, combination, and volunteer organizations. Many departments have used SAFER grants to supplement staffing and keep from getting to levels that would make them unable to function. These grants will end for many departments in the coming year. Local funds will be used to maintain staffing, or service levels will again be reduced. The leadership in these organizations must have a plan for maintaining or increasing staffing to the levels needed to provide service that truly makes a difference. This will most likely be a combination of an improving economy that increases the tax base and a request from taxpayers for more money to fund minimal levels.
One of the biggest challenges will be convincing policymakers that they need to return to investing in their labor force if they want to provide bare minimum levels of service. Unfortunately some people now believe that the reductions forced by the economic downturn proved that many organizations were overstaffed. Fire departments need to develop a strategy to reverse this thinking.
Many fire departments postponed making capital investments to save money and possibly protect personnel from layoffs. The fallout from this is that organizations are past due on replacing apparatus, protective clothing, self-contained breathing apparatus, and other vital equipment. Some departments have been fortunate in that they received federal grants to help with these purchases. That is a good thing. Yet those who have not been successful with grants are now in a position where their apparatus are approaching or are beyond their life expectancy or are becoming more unreliable every day. One thing to consider if you have not been in the market for too many capital items is that things have changed in many areas. Apparatus and equipment are much different now than five years ago, and some standards have changed. Do your homework to see what is different and what is now required.
Capital improvement programs need to be restored. Departments must get back to establishing regular and routine replacements for vital apparatus and equipment. This is a good time to inventory the entire stock of capital items and adjust the plan to replace as quickly as possible-bearing in mind that you should replace the most important, not necessarily the oldest, first. The success of this plan will be a combination of politics, marketing, and available funding. Energy and effort must be used in all of these areas to create the best chance of success.
Training and Prevention
When times got really tough, two things were drastically cut: training and fire prevention. Regarding training, this has led to many organizations eliminating all but the most basic and essential. In-house training should have continued but with some limitations. Limited staffing can affect the amount of time available between calls and the ability to assemble crews. Most likely, training outside of the department and “soft” skills training suffer. There is clear value in improving personnel through training and education. One should expect that an improving economy should help create better training opportunities. Take an inventory of what is needed and develop a plan. One thing that has occurred in some areas of the country because of the economy is a high staff turnover. This led to promotion of personnel who did not have the time to obtain training for the new position or gain experience. Do not accept the deficits created by the economy. Restore training to the levels needed to be an excellent organization.
Poor fire prevention. Too often it does not get the credit or status that it deserves. As such, in times of service cutting, fire prevention programs are treated disproportionately. Now this could be appropriate for some programs. For example, if a community is not experiencing new construction or development, it is difficult to justify maintaining staff. If no plans are being submitted, a municipality does not need plan reviewers. But, many know that inspection programs, public education programs, and fire investigations have been reduced well below departments’ abilities to provide the services needed in a community looking to be more fire safe. Unfortunately many highly qualified fire prevention professionals are no longer in their original roles in the department. As such, replacements must be found and the abovementioned comments regarding training will be applicable.
For most, the future looks more promising and offers opportunities to reengage the community and policymakers to best promote the needs of the fire service. Even though a somewhat new normal has been established, many organizations know that the cuts made during the hard times have overly challenged their capabilities in a lot of areas. As the economy improves, departments will begin to recover. This must be done in a planned manner and must be done such that the new structure is best able to handle the challenges departments are certain to face.
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.