By Chris Mc Loone
It’s not easy to turn on the news without watching or listening to a story dealing with the federal budget. Many fire departments rely on various grant programs to secure funding for apparatus upgrades, personal protective equipment (PPE), firefighting and rescue equipment, and other aspects of their operations. One piece of good news recently is that sequestration will not affect FY2012 or prior grant awards. FY2013 is another story, however. For any fire department that has not sat down to take a hard look at how it operates, now is the time. Sequestration and fiscal cliffs are simply examples of the dangers of operating without a plan for what to do if government funds evaporate.
I recently spoke with Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment “To the Rescue” columnist Carl Haddon on my radio show, Talking Trucks & Equipment. I asked him to come on the show to talk about the challenges rural fire departments face regarding apparatus and equipment. As the show got underway, Haddon related how his department is prepared to operate at a structure fire for at least the first 45 minutes because the closest mutual-aid company is 22 miles away. Additionally, its first-out apparatus is a 1982 Ford/Darley. The conversation turned to personnel, funding, training, and equipment. In short, it isn’t easy running a rural fire department these days.
That is not to say that it’s any easier running a large municipal department or a medium-size volunteer department. We’re all experiencing the same issues, but for our rural departments, these problems are exacerbated by their locale, population, and tax base.
What struck me during our conversation is that Haddon’s department is not slowing. It continues to move forward, maintaining what it has, taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, and doing this always with the safety of its firefighters in mind. There is no question his department uses aging equipment and may at some point be forced into a situation where it has no choice but to bite the bullet and upgrade an apparatus based on need, not desire.
No fire company should be operating based on an influx of federal funds that could, realistically, disappear at any time. Grant funding isn’t easy to come by. There are fewer dollars, and the requirements to qualify for them are more stringent today-many times tied into training, which is a whole other piece of the puzzle. Whether it is equipment, apparatus, firefighting equipment, or PPE, fire departments should be planning responsibly.
With that said, Haddon cited an example of how things do happen unexpectedly that force companies to completely reevaluate their plans. His department had been saving for some time to replace one of its apparatus. All of a sudden, it found itself in charge of the Mustang Complex fire of 2012. In one day of paying for mutual-aid resources from outside the area, the company wiped out $100,000 of its savings for a new truck. So, even the best-laid plans can be blown up when you least expect it.
Operating a fire department goes beyond funding. Even well-funded fire departments can easily find themselves in trouble if they are not responsible and they do not plan. Planning is key. Set budgets and stick to them. Applying for grants can be part of any plan, but don’t base the rest of your strategy on securing the funds. Grant funds should be part of Plan B.
Look into group buys. Another point Haddon made was that he discovered there are many fire departments just like his. If you look around, I’m sure you’ll find fire departments similar to your own. Contact them. Meet up with them and investigate how setting up a group purchase might help you replace some of your PPE or self-contained breathing apparatus at a reduced cost.
The next time you spec out an apparatus, don’t build a parade piece. There are many “nice to have” options, but are they “need to have” items? Building a functional apparatus does not have to break the bank. Take a look at tagging on to large apparatus orders. There are many opportunities out there, and tagging on doesn’t always mean you have to go with whatever design is spec’d out in the main order. There are certain levels of customization.
When it comes to funding, now is the time to look inward at your operations and work out ways to keep moving forward without federal funds. Grant dollars should be gravy.