Safety and the Budget Ax

Recently the local news media in Kershaw, South Carolina, reported that two members of the Heath Springs (SC) Volunteer Fire Department and one member of the Kershaw (SC) Fire Department were inside a house with a buildup of smoke and haze when there was an explosion (possibly a backdraft) that engulfed the firefighters in flames. They were able to escape with only minor first-degree burns thanks to “quick thinking and top-of-the line safety gear.” All three of the firefighters were wearing newer, safer gear thanks to a federal grant received in 2009. Fire Marshal Richard Blackwelder says, “It protected them and gave them the critical seconds they needed.”

First, kudos must be extended to FEMA’s AFG program. Imagine if all government programs could claim a cost/benefit analysis like that. Second, let’s ask a few questions. What might have happened if there were insufficient funds to properly protect the firefighters? Would the firefighters still have conducted their search for victims? Assuming they would, what if they had been critically burned, permanently disabled, or even killed?

Second guessing aside, almost every fire department is facing tougher decisions about where to allocate funding. Firefighter safety has to be a part of that decision-making process. On the surface, that may sound simple. But, safety is marbled throughout a fire department’s budget. At the end of the day, a fire department must be able to substantiate any spending that might compromise firefighter safety. That requires leadership.

Editor in Chief Bobby Halton provides insight into the funding dilemma of the fire service with a compelling column in the September 2011 issue. He opens by saying, “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.” Austerity is the term coined to describe the United Kingdom’s plan to manage its financial crises. As that process unfolded, it mirrored the current political “debate” in the United States—emotional contentiousness. Halton points out that our customary reactions to the budget ax will not work, just as they did not work in the United Kingdom. What is now working in the United Kingdom, and needed in the United States, is “focused principled leadership.”

A few years ago, I received a call from a member of an apparatus committee describing a situation in which the apparatus committee wanted to specify an antilock brake system (ABS) on a new truck it was to purchase. This was prior to any ABS requirements by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The department knew the apparatus bid prices were going to be very close to the budget and any final tweaks would result in tradeoffs. As the committee was about to solicit bids, the chief nixed the ABS in favor of a new model deck gun he had learned about from a “back-door” salesperson. The committee was upset because the equipment for the truck was going to be purchased using the following year’s budget since the truck would not be delivered until then. In fact, the committee had specified the plumbing for the removable deck gun so it could add it as “loose equipment” before the truck went in service. Of course, the chief was on the prevailing end of this discussion.

Ironically, during rainy nighttime conditions, the apparatus was involved in a multivehicle accident a few months after the department placed it in service. Another vehicle ran a red traffic light and the apparatus slid through the intersection as the operator tried to bring it to a stop. Fortunately, there were no deaths or serious injuries, but the truck was out of service for many weeks for repairs.

Safety took a back seat because the chief failed to heed good input from his staff and made a conscious decision to disregard firefighter (and public) safety when there was an alternative. In this case, what were the focused principles of his leadership?

In one of Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini’s discussions on fire department customer service, he succinctly states that every decision, at every level, on every day should be based on customer service delivery to Mrs. Smith. He said she should be “polar north” in every decision-making process. The simple question that must be asked (and answered) is, Is what we are about to do in the best interest of Mrs. Smith? I suggest that this is a great example of “focused principled leadership” and a golden rule for getting funded at the appropriate level.

A lot of the real and perceived problems we face as a fire service are based on a failure to follow polar north when making decisions. Generally speaking, there is a tremendous amount of time and energy used focusing on internal things that have nothing to do with Mrs. Smith. On the other hand, angry and disgruntled internal customers (firefighters) cannot be expected to deliver “wow” performance to the external customer (Mrs. Smith). If either the external or internal customer focus gets out of balance, the conditions are right for compromised safety to firefighters and to Mrs. Smith.

Speaking of emotional contentiousness, firefighters in Hialeah, Florida, were victims of political gamesmanship that ended up with a city council’s unanimous vote to eliminate almost 40 percent of the city’s firefighting positions. The mayor insisted that the citizens would still receive the same services by consolidating duties and reorganizing the department; he provided no details. And, according to reports, council members refused to answer questions about the impact on service delivery. Which direction was their decision-making compass pointed when this vote occurred? As comedian Ron White’s famous line states, “You can’t fix stupid.” And, in politics, you can’t always vote it out.

ROBERT TUTTEROW is safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and 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.).

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