If there is one thing about the recession that has caused my heart to ache it’s the reduction in firefighter staffing in many communities. Some economists have argued that economic downturns can force businesses and governments to examine their operations and find more efficient ways to operate. On the surface that sounds good. We want our governments to operate efficiently and we want to be good stewards of the public dollar.
However, the budgets of many fire departments have been chiseled away over the past ten years and all the while these departments were taking steps to reduce expenses and improve their efficiencies. Stated another way, they have become mean and lean, finding creative ways to provide the most essential services with minimal staffing. There was no more proverbial blood in the turnip. So, when cities looked for the next round of cuts there was nothing left to cut except personnel.
Now we’re being told by the economists and the federal government that the recession is over. So what is to come of fire departments in a post-recession (recovery) period? Will the jobs come back? My prediction is they will not (at least not in the short term). I am not a pessimist and I so much want to see the jobs of my brothers and sisters restored.
In my travels I have kept tuned in to what local leaders have been saying, both publicly and privately. This is what I hear them saying… Fire departments have been over staffed and over funded for years and the recession gave elected and appointed leaders the opportunity (a good excuse) to cut out the “excess” with a good reason to propose reductions (the economy). Some of these elected and appointed officials give me the appearance they are actually smug and gloating in their successful attempts to reduce the size of the fire department.
Some fire department leaders have vocally opposed the reductions. Some leaders have resigned their positions or retired out of protest. Union leaders have stood their ground, but only with marginal success.
So when will the jobs come back? My prediction is the jobs will return very slowly, if at all. I also predict that it will take a crisis to reinstate firefighter (and for that matter police officer jobs). We all know this type of reaction is commonplace. There has to be an incident that results in serious injuries or fatalities. Then, and only then, do the elected and appointed officials begin to take grief from their constituents and the calls for action are heeded.
My concern is this: Firefighters are sworn protectors of humankind. Firefighters are wired for action. And unlike some elected and appointed leaders, firefighters will not play politics with the lives of residents. All of this spells the potential for the crisis previously mentioned to involve the lives of firefighters.
I am hopeful that firefighters and their command officers are having meaningful discussions about how the strategies and tactics should be adjusted based on cuts in staffing. I fear that firefighters will continue to fight fires the same way they always have and that is the recipe for a disastrous outcome.
To all my brothers and sisters I ask you that in these challenging times, if your department’s line staffing has been reduced, work smarter and discuss among your colleagues how to adjust your standard operating procedures. Remember that you mean the world to someone… act accordingly and take steps to ensure you safety.
Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP