The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the Great Recession

By Thomas N. Warren

There is not a fire department in the United States that has not heard in one form or another that they have to do more with less. This has become the mantra of the fire service in the first decade of 2000 and it is now stretching into the second decade. The Great Recession had its beginnings in December of 2007 and it was technically termed a retrenchment caused by unsustainable debt burden. This debt burden was borne by the business community, the public sector, and individuals alike. The problem at first seemed to be a simple slump but soon became a global crisis that paved the way for some of the most drastic changes the fire service has ever seen. The recession technically ended in June of 2009 when domestic output stopped shrinking, but here it is the winter of 2013 and the fire service is still reeling from its effects. This time there does not appear to be an end in sight for the fire service, which may mean this economic malaise is the new normal.

'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is a famous Western starring Clint Eastwood that was popular in 1966. The title fits the present state of the fire service because the fire service has elements of all three components (good, bad, and ugly) in our present culture. The Great Recession has brought good things, bad things, and worst of all ugly things into our daily professional lives as firefighters. Being the true professionals that we are, though, we have demonstrated amazing fortitude in carrying on our mission. I would like to highlight our experiences managing the fire service through the Great Recession but I want to reverse the order to the bad, the ugly, and the good so as to leave you with the positive aspect of resiliency that is exemplified by the fire service.

THE BAD

The fire service and the public sector as a whole were the last to feel the effects of the

Great Recession. Municipalities carried on with a "business-as-usual" posture as tax revenues were shrinking because of contractual originations and a lack of political foresight. When the time came to reduce the budgets of the local fire departments, the effect took several forms. There was the financial aspect of reduced budgets, operational changes, and the unintended consequence of damaging the morale of the firefighters. The choices available were dismal and none of them were good for the service that the local departments provided. Fire chiefs did their best to maintain the level of service that had been developed over the years while maintaining the highest level of safety and the operational needs of the firefighters themselves. The fire chiefs were trying their best to do more with less. The first thing that occurred was letting vacancies to go unfilled. This often produced overtime for the firefighters and this practice could be sustained for a short time until the payroll break-over point was reached, as compared to replacing firefighters with new employees. Just as easy as it is to let vacancies go unfilled, it is equally as easy to suspend professional development, training programs, and college reimbursements to the members of the fire department. The effect of this tactic in the short term is minimal but the effect on developing future leaders of the fire service will be felt in the future. The next step was reducing customer service programs and some services. Programs like juvenile fire setter programs, smoke-detector installation programs, building plan reviews, on-site prefire planning for businesses, and fire prevention programs in the schools were eliminated or reduced as the personnel who provided these fire prevention programs were shifted to suppression duties. The all-too-common practice of delaying the purchase of apparatus and equipment began to take hold, forcing fire departments to increasing rely on older reserve apparatus for use as first-line apparatus. Costly breakdowns and response delays because of aging apparatus being out of service for repairs have begun to be part of everyday operations. Fire chiefs began to delay and in some cases reduce uniform issues/replacement. Also on the chopping block was the replacement of worn personal protective equipment and other fire equipment, even while trying to maintain National Fire Protection Association standards. Instituting new programs like thermal imaging and individual portable radios were funded, when possible, by federal grants. Usually nonunion employees (particularly the fire chiefs) were the first to feel the impacts in the forms of furlough days, reduction in the number of paid holidays and vacations, higher co-pays in health insurance, additional duties and responsibilities, and forced early retirements. As the unionized firefighters watched these impacts of budget reduction on the fire chiefs, they all knew what lay in wait for them.

THE UGLY

As bad as things seemed in the early stages of the Great Recession, the worst was yet to come as the economic stagnation continued on unabated. All the steps that were taken to maintain fire department services and reduce costs were now inadequate and more needed to be done. Local fire departments were paralyzed by the lack of funding and in many cases found themselves simply treading water. Treading water soon came to be viewed as the preferred place to be as things became much worse for most municipalities.

The effects of the housing bubble burst created lost tax revenue, the global economic conditions exacerbated the U. S economy, and stubbornly stagnant local economic conditions caused an even further dire budgetary crisis for local fire departments. Fire chiefs had reached the point where labor contracts had to be adjusted. If no help from labor unions was forthcoming, the chiefs had the choice to act independently and face the possibility of bitter labor relations. Some labor organizations were enlightened about the economic place they found themselves in with possible municipal bankruptcies on the horizon and acted proactively to secure a future for their members. Negotiations centered on financial givebacks that produced immediate savings for the municipalities while leaving the door open to restoration of conceded givebacks at some point in the future. Other labor organizations did not see the wisdom in this philosophy and decided instead to fight each and every cost-saving measure, claiming that the safety of the citizens and the firefighters themselves was at stake and that local politicians may be trying to use the economic crisis as a method to break long-standing labor contracts. Labor organizations that negotiated the financial givebacks found themselves in somewhat better circumstances than those labor organizations that did not negotiate, but this was not true in every case; sometimes the financial conditions deteriorated so quickly that the fire chiefs and the labor organizations could not keep up. When the end of the fiscal year was looming and there was still a sizable deficit, drastic steps were sometimes taken with or without negotiations or the fire chief's approval.

Brownouts and rolling brownouts began in some departments. Fire companies were closed based on the personnel who reported to work on any given shift. This program is very disruptive to the operational integrity to any fire department as all semblance of organization is lost, resulting in inconsistent responses by fire companies. Fire companies can never be sure if a back-up fire company is coming or who it will be. An alternative to this method of saving money in the fire departments is to simply cut the number of fire companies in service all the time by closing selected engine and ladder companies. Another cost-saving method introduced is changing a 48-hour work week with four rotating shifts to a 56-hour work week with three rotating shifts. This allows for considerable personnel cost savings by reducing the size of the local fire department. This method saves a considerable amount of revenue even when the firefighters receive raises to offset the extra hours. Reducing the number of firefighters assigned to each piece of fire apparatus brings quick savings to fire departments and most citizens do not really see any difference as their neighborhood fire station is still active and the fire department is viewed as actively addressing the budget crisis.

One of the more menacing tactics employed to reduce costs is eliminating apparatus testing and preventative maintenance. Short-changing testing and maintenance of emergency vehicles will produce cost savings in the short run, but when there is a failure is it usually catastrophic and costly.

One of the less-visible ways that fire departments raise revenue is by increasing fees for services, whether it is for emergency medical service, plan review, copies of reports, inspections, hazmat incidents, and confined-space operations. Politicians are reluctant to advertise this method of revenue enhancement because the public views it as a tax increase and no politician wants to be associated with any tax increase in this economic climate. For many politicians, it is more politically expedient to derive funds from active firefighters than to add additional fees (taxes) to the public.

THE GOOD

Yes, there are some good things that have occurred as a result of the Great Recession, albeit very few. Fire chiefs have been forced to scrutinize their budgets and their operations for improved efficiency. Programs and positions that no longer serve their intended purpose have to be eliminated. In the department where I served, we had a two-person carpenter shop that was very active when we used wooden ladders and wooden ax handles. We no longer used either of these wooded tools, and the services of these two people could be better used elsewhere in the department such as expanding the IT services. We have become more proficient at finding and applying for grant funding to keep up with new technology, such as acquiring thermal imaging cameras and 800 MHz communication equipment. Fire chiefs are no longer simply extending budgets from one year to the next. Performance-based budgeting forces fire chiefs to analyze the costs of providing the expanding services demanded of our fire departments. Expanding the services that a fire department provides will insure the fire department's place in the future; we can no longer sit around and wait for the bell to tip. We have been forced to look to the future needs of our communities and prepare for those needs and, more importantly, not allow other agencies to provide the services that belong to an emergency response agency such as the fire department. Fire chiefs have become more business-savvy, which allows them to fight for and validate the fire departments' share of the municipal budget and perhaps be more successful in holding off budget cuts. Firefighters, local municipalities, and labor organizations are learning that to survive in today's globalized economy they also must adapt to the economic conditions around them. In short, everyone is in the same lifeboat as the fire chief, and everyone must row together to move forward. These may be hard lessons for everyone, but we all know that simply doing more with less will never work--we are left with working together.

Thomas N. WarrenTHOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor's degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.

 

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