Predicting the future is never easy and probably best left to those who take the time to study the facts to make the best guess. Regardless of how you view the future, you still need to prepare. With or without your permission, the future will arrive. Those who get ready are most likely to survive and maybe even thrive.
Most indications are that the worst of the economic downturn is over and there should be improvement, albeit slow. These predictions are for the private sector. Typically, it takes the public sector a little longer to recover. Recovery cannot come soon enough for many as they have cut to bare bones and, in many instances, past that point. If the anticipated recovery starts to emerge for local governments, it behooves the fire service to be ready to react appropriately.
There is a presidential election in 2012, with many other offices on the ballot. Typically these years see aggressive approaches to improving the economy. When former President Bill Clinton was campaigning, he was very blunt when he said, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Today the economy is much worse, so you can expect it will be the primary focus in the coming year. As such, everything will be done to create improvements at all levels of government.
Even as the situation improves, remember that changes made during the downturn are probably as close to permanent as it gets. Things rarely return to the way they were. The good old days are gone and likely not to be seen again. There is a new normal that requires a new approach toward improving your service. Many organizations have already begun, either through necessity or because they were forced to change. Those that haven’t are either lucky or maybe have their heads in the sand.
What have we learned from other recessions and slumps in the economy? If you don’t know what has happened in your community, it is a good time to do a little research and check on history. Find people who have been through previous tough times. Learn what you can about the previous recovery and how your organization and community addressed it.
One thing to expect is closer scrutiny. Elected officials are more interested in the particulars of everyone’s operations and are more likely than ever to ask difficult and pointed questions. The “rubber stamp” is gone; you will need to justify purchases more than ever. Those looking to buy apparatus will not only have to justify the purchase but also defend the cost. You can expect more questions regarding the specifics and the impact on overall cost. “Chief, do you really need all the emergency markings on the vehicle? Couldn’t we save a little by reducing that number? Have you looked into buying used? Does it have to be custom, or can you buy it off the lot?” You will need to do more research and preparation so you can answer those types of questions—probably in a public forum. You don’t want to be embarrassed by not knowing answers to seemingly reasonable questions. Just because you have not been pressed before does not mean you won’t be now.
As your funds stabilize and possibly increase, it is a good time to do a detailed inventory of your apparatus, equipment, and facilities. Many organizations postponed purchases, leaving organizations behind in their replacement programs. Review your capital improvements plan and evaluate the status of your major purchasing program. Do you now have apparatus that is beyond its reasonable service life? Have your priorities changed? Is there a sense of urgency? If you reduced your staffing, you may need to consider the reduction’s impact. Many departments were forced to lay off current personnel or not replace those departing. You need to consciously look at your model and be prepared to offer realistic proposals.
Though your local economy may be picking up and you may start to see some light at the end of the tunnel, you still need to be thrifty and look for alternate sources of funding. You should continue to pursue grants such as those from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program along with any other sources. The public sector does not recover as quickly as the private sector, so you may need help to bridge the gap between them. Some departments have been placed in a very deep hole and will need a lot of help just getting close to where they were before the economy tanked.
Besides internal evaluation, departments need to consider strengthening their community ties. For various reasons, fire departments are not as revered as they once were. The economy has provided an opportunity for many to attack the service, claiming that the cost of government, including the fire service, has played a huge role in the recession. Some people with extreme views have found their niche and supporters. They are likely to maintain their views as the recovery continues and remain “watchdogs” over spending. They have an audience and notoriety and believe they have all the answers. They are not likely to relent in their push to root out “waste” (however they define it).
Departments must be diligent in service delivery. They need to be conscious of their image and not do things that reflect negatively on the service. The few bad things that do occur create news that spreads rapidly. It takes a lot to overcome perceived abuses of the system. As things progress, make sure everyone is playing by the rules and not doing things to bring undesired attention. It is probably a good idea to review your marketing and customer service programs. Take care of the people so they will be even more supportive as things continue to improve.
Early in my career, I worked with a finance director who would say, “Spend it while you have it.” He was not advocating undisciplined spending but trying to impart some of his experience. He realized there would be ups and downs. When times are good, everyone is supportive and the opportunity to obtain the resources necessary—apparatus, equipment, and facilities—will be as good as it gets. If you are not able to keep up during the good times, you will really suffer when times get tough. Those that entered the recession healthy and stable have been able to withstand the pressures created by the poor economy. Build and rebuild while the opportunity exists. As the recovery continues, sound planning will create greater stability for the next inevitable downturn.
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 three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.
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