Engine Company, Firefighting, Leadership

Inside a Budget Fight: It Never Ends, and Nobody Wins

By Scott Joerger

In this series, Scott Joerger discusses his and other firefighters‘ opinions about and response to the attempt to shut down his engine company.

What does it take to save an engine company slated to close because of a proposed budget cut? Maybe it takes a cohesive group of officers and firefighters who hit the streets to rally support from the community. Our hope was that the community would demand our service and tell the mayor to cut elsewhere. Despite a huge effort by the company, we had only limited success: phone calls were made to city hall, but very few people actually attended budget meetings and voiced their objections.

Maybe it takes action by the union working with the administration, the firefighters, and the community to avoid the cut. At first, this seemed to work. Our semiannual contract was negotiated; as a result, the proposed cut was taken off the table. But this lasted only for a few months; very soon talk about the cut was back. It seemed to me that not enough firefighters from the entire department were involved in either our local campaign or, something that was never initiated, a coordinated event to rally the public for support.

Maybe the answer to a budget cut is cooperation with compromise and alternatives where the administration and the union negotiate to develop solutions. This can work, but during tough economic times, this might not be possible. I recently heard about a fire chief from the Chicago area who was not able to develop alternative solutions and was forced to cut his department. A real man of character, he could not bring himself to do this, and he quit his job. Unfortunately, most fire chiefs need their job.

What can a captain do to save the company? First, get busy and mobilize quickly. Try to obtain and distribute information, which is easy with cell phones, texting, and the Internet, and especially social media such as Facebook or Twitter. We had off-duty firefighters visit local businesses and residences the day after the announcement. Our goal was to get the community involved. Although we did not succeed beyond getting people in the immediate neighborhood to telephone city hall, we learned how to get the process going and what to anticipate in the future. It is probably best to make the community involvement instant and easy. The neighborhood and business associations were small groups, but they came up big with support. It is too late to try to reach out to them for support after the cut is announced. When dealing with such organizations, you must already know what they are, where they are, and who they are. The members wrote letters and attended meetings, voicing their objections. We also made contact with reporters and received very positive media support in the newspaper and local TV news. It would have helped to have had even more attention, especially if it had been spread out over a longer period of time and closer to budget meetings.

I did not get enough support from the local union. That may have been my fault because I did not know what was needed or how to ask. There must be strong presence from the union to obtain public support and to work with the administration for solutions. I have had the pleasure of listening to our International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) president speak over the past few years on both the Internet and at the Fire Department Instructors Conference. One reason he is the president is that he is a very effective speaker who presents his points very well. If he could have spoken at the scene of our budget fight, I am quite sure he could have rallied firefighters into action, and we would have been favorably judged in the court of public opinion. I understand that the IAFF president couldn’t be here to support our fight because he can’t be everywhere, and everywhere is where budget cuts are happening today.

However, do local union leaders have access to information or a guide to follow from the IAFF to improve communication skills and strategies for winning persuasive debates? The dangers to public protection and to firefighter safety are much the same when there are threats of cutting a fire company, closing a station, or reducing firefighters–occurrences we are seeing frequently throughout United States and Canada. As firefighters from a union, we should stop considering ourselves as firefighters from the city or district we protect and consider ourselves as firefighters from an international association. By being a firefighter from an international association, we would support one another when faced with an ax into our budget; we could exchange strategies, tactics, and advice when trying to fight our cause; and we could use proven, successful media campaigns that don’t make us look “whiny” or “angry” or “overzealous.” We could also share information directed at the company level, such as what company officers should do, what firefighters can do, and also (just as important) what they should not do.

We need this now more than ever. Take a look at what is happening on Wall Street, in Europe, and in other world economies. This recession continues to linger. Budget cuts to the fire department are the wave of the future. Fifteen years ago, nobody cared all that much about firefighters’ salaries, benefits, or pensions; they were more interested in watching their own rising 401k plans and investments. Today, everyone has lost money. It is hard to make a cause to the public about not making cuts to the fire department when people generally are doing more with less. But what the public does not understand is that doing more with less is dangerous when applied to a fire department or that we have been doing more with less for years. In the past 15 years, my fire department has cut positions almost every year while alarms handled by my engine company have doubled! There is no recession when you are talking about emergency responses. By working together as an international association, we may not always be successful, but we won’t be surprised or caught off guard when a budget ax falls our way. Also, by working together, we won’t be starting from scratch for the next budget cut, either.

In our case, the engine is still open, but its future is not good. The union and city settled an outstanding labor contract, and the engine will remain. Of course, something had to give; someone had to lose. Instead, one of the three on-duty battalion chief positions would close, and another engine would lose a firefighter position. A pension buyout was offered; a few members with 30 years or more on the job took advantage of the buyout. This meant no layoffs, but two battalion chiefs were demoted to captains. One of those demoted had seven years of experience as a battalion chief. Shortly after this, two captains and two lieutenants were notified of demotions as well. The on-duty safety officer is a captain, and this position will now be browned when needed to cover other positions and avoid overtime.

It certainly was not a “win” in our budget fight to the save the engine company with losses we did not see coming. By January, the budget midyear, there was again talk about about closing the engine. I am happy to say we are still open and finished the year 2011 responding to just a little over 3,100 responses. I am quite sure that shortly, when the budget numbers come out, we will once again be slated to close. If we are, I frankly doubt there will be any notice like there was last year. That way, there will not be time to hang signs in windows or banners on buildings or walk door to door urging our customers to take action to prevent this cut from occurring. The firehouse and engine will just suddenly close. I know that the mayor and the fire chief do not want this to happen, but people do not want to pay more taxes. My engine company and the firefighters assigned to it are at the far end of the budget–way, way out there in terms of priority. I hope they don’t disappear, but we know where we stand.

SCOTT JOERGER is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and a former volunteer chief of the Pittsford Fire Department. He has worked as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. He has an associate degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in management.