chief concerns | Richard Marinucci
Forecasting the future is not an exact science, and even futurists who have special abilities have challenges.
It is sort of like being a weathercaster in that you gather as much information as possible, but in the end, things can change rapidly, and you may miss the mark. But, there are benefits in trying to figure out what may happen and plan accordingly. One cannot go into the future prediction business expecting to be correct on all issues but can be better by doing the appropriate research and corresponding homework.
As always, there are a couple of considerations when forecasting—past practices and private sector developments. You can look to the immediate past to see what likely will continue. Those who study history may have an advantage in looking toward the future. While not always true, history has offered insight as to what can be expected. Another indicator of the future in the public sector is the private sector. Mostly because of resources and the free market, the private sector changes more quickly than government agencies. Those in the fire service can look at trends in the business world to make educated guesses as to what to expect. So, let’s get started.
It is a safe bet that in 2020 the Presidential election will impact what happens—locally, statewide, and nationally. If the past three years have told us anything, it is that this will be a very contentious election and will create some strong divides. When this happens, many discretionary programs are postponed or even discontinued. They become pawns in the political gamesmanship. One such program that could come into play is the AFG grants. While the fire service has been very successful at keeping this from becoming a partisan issue, it could become collateral damage. I don’t think they go away but more likely will be delayed. Members of the fire service and their supporters (those who benefit from the grants) need to pay attention and exert whatever influence they have to keep these programs going. Other federal programs could also be affected in the short term.
National politics can trickle down to states and localities. The partisanship seen on the federal level most likely will seep into any political race, regardless of which government positions are being contested. The fallout of this is that new initiatives get delayed or denied. Anything that can be perceived as giving the competition an edge will be tabled. For the most part, the fire service is generally not considered controversial in any way, but this does not mean that even if there is merit there will be support during the election season. As with national issues, the fire service needs to be diligent in its efforts and make sure it is properly prepared. Just because there may be varying positions on issues does not mean that the right actions must be deferred. It is just more challenging because of the added influences of campaigns.
Politics is one of the key elements to any budget process. As many know, there are two parts to developing budgets—the politics of getting a number assigned and the math problem of getting the numbers to add up to the budget target. For the most part, the math problem is the easy part. Getting politicians and policy makers to establish the amount (target) is much more challenging and critical. Fire chiefs and chief officers know what it takes to staff and outfit a department. Others control the resources needed. It is through politics that the funding amount is established. In election years, this can take much more effort on the part of the fire department to get what is needed.
Outside the political issues, the fire service will continue to be challenged to find applicants for the job—both on the career side and as volunteers. The challenges to volunteer and on-call organizations will continue. Society in general has changed, and many similar types of organizations that require volunteers and/or part time help are facing similar issues. It can be part of a “perfect storm.” Unemployment is down, people value their spare time, and the demands of the job (training, time commitment, etc.) are continuing and not going away in the immediate future. This is an issue for most of the volunteer service regardless of geographic area with a few departments doing better than most. The next year will continue the trend.
As for the career side of the aisle, many departments are getting fewer applications than they had become accustomed to. Again, many issues contribute to this. While some parts of the country haven’t experienced this, the trend should get people’s attention. Some of the contributing factors have been changes in perception of public safety personnel that have changed some of the pay and benefits associated with the job. Also, expanded roles, especially in emergency medical services, have led many departments to increase their prerequisites for the job. They may require fire certifications, paramedic licenses, and even some college course work. While it is good to boost the professionalism, there will be a reduction in applicants who can meet the new standards. Appropriate planning is needed to address this potential issue.
Firefighter safety will continue as a significant issue in the fire service. This will include more work on reducing the risk of cancer and mental health. There are so many organizations that have participated in various projects that these issues will be institutionalized. The roles will expand, looking at all aspects of the job to develop best practices that are beneficial to individuals and organizations. The improvements implemented to address these issues will also have spinoff benefits that will improve firefighter health and wellness from a holistic perspective. This is a good thing, and members of the fire service must realize that they will be doing the bulk of the work as those outside the industry don’t have an interest, don’t have the time, or are focused on their situations.
The challenges facing the fire service never go away. There will always be a need to work to better the service, and there may not always be champions outside the business to help carry the mail, so to speak. The future continues to promise optimism but only to those who embrace the challenges being presented. While generalizations for fire departments can be made, each fire department should look to the future and anticipate the major issues that are likely to change the way they do business. After doing so, they should consider the possibilities and actions needed. This will require that they have a plan A, a plan B, and at least a plan C! Look for options. This will apply to issues that are election-related and others. But regardless of the outcome of the election, fire departments will still respond to 911 calls and will be expected to deliver quality service. Prepare as best as you can.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). 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 and Fire Engineering 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.