This "new economy" is going to create some wonderful opportunities for the fire service. Let me explain. There's an old saying that goes something like this "You don't worry about where your next meal will come from when your belly is full." In other words, it's the hunger that drives our instinct to "hunt" for food. Budget cuts will mean there will be less food (money), forcing us to go on a hunt for new and creative ways to survive.
This can be a good thing because it will force fire administrators to look at solutions that before were not attractive. Again, back to my example, if you're not hungry, ants may not look like a tasty treat. But if you are starving, you may eat it (and might even enjoy them... I hear they're quite good when covered in chocolate). But if you are never forced to consider ants as a meal choice, you're far less likely to even consider them an option.
A fire department who has been able to survive on the budget plan that next year's budget will be equal to this year's budget plus 3% is in for a rude awakening. The new economy is going to force them to go on the hunt for new ways of doing business. What do I mean? Here's an example.
Let's say there's a fire alarm activation in a high school during school hours. Logic (and experience). Using my high school as an example (enrollment of about 2,500). There are no less than 1,000 cell phones in that school (my kids contribute 3 of them). If there is an actual fire in the school, the 9-1-1 phones are going to light up like a Christmas tree. So why is it that some fire departments send 3 engines, 2 ladders, 2 chiefs, a boat and a helicopter (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration... maybe they don't send the boat) to a fire alarm activation at a fully occupied high school. Send one company. If you get additional calls, upgrade. Controversial? Perhaps. But this type of response is, in my opinion, excessive and expensive. Helps to keep the numbers up and justify the staffing levels, for sure. But those staffing levels are going to change in this new economy and departments are going to be forced to hunt for new ways to do business.
Regionalization of services, consolidations, mergers, cooperative ventures... all on the table. Some years ago (age won't allow me to remember the year) we were going through some tough economic times and I wrote an article where I noted the tough economy will force departments to do things in new ways. Unfortunately, the economy turned around quickly and everyone was able to recover before they changed or starved and it was back to business as usual.
I am far less optimistic that this economy will turn around as quickly and we are all going to be forced to go on the hunt for new and innovative ways to survive... and thrive.
Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
This commentary was also posted on the Fire Service Chief Officer's Group on LinkedIn. My thanks to the visionary leadership of Fire Chief George Esbensen (Eden Prairie, Minnesota) for starting this group. I encourage you to join in the discussion here and there. Sharing thoughts and ideas makes all of us smarter.