CAN YOU JUSTIFY THE COST?

SAY YOU WANT TO MAKE A MAJOR PUCHASE OR HIRE MORE PERSONNEL. HOW CAN YOU DRAW ATTENTION TO YOUR NEEDS AND CAPTURE THE FINANCIAL BACKING OF THE DECISION MAKERS?

BY ANDREW CALDWELL

All across the country, local govern-ment budgets are analyzed to an almost microscopic level. Increased taxes to solve budget crunches are taboo to the elected official, as constituents continue with the ever-louder protest “No more taxes!” Even the essential services of fire, police, and emergency medical response are feeling the strangling squeeze of fiscal responsibility from decision makers. Personnel shortages are commonplace; dilapidated equipment is nearly the norm for many jurisdictions; and all government agencies must compete for additional dollars for the next year’s operation.

As elected officials continuously hear the cries from their constituency for better streets, more sewer lines, more landfill space, better police protection, better response from emergency agencies, and better educational facilities, they are continuously under pressure to deliver-to deliver what the limited revenue allows.

Therefore, the public departments under the elected officials and administrators are in a scramble to state their case and reap their reward for the upcoming year. The old adage that the officials hear whoever yells the loudest is not necessarily true in today’s public service; today, it’s “Whoever yells the loudest with the best case wins the prize.”

So, what are rescue services/fire departments to do? How can they compete in a highly competitive market to get the tax dollars they desperately need to survive and provide?

I offer the following suggestions for those emergency service organizations across the country that would like to state their case in a different light.

BACKGROUND
Our society is so technical. We have a formula to design every component of any type of building. We have fire flow calculations to determine necessary water resources for all types of involved structures. Medical examiners have fiber analysis, and prosecutors have DNA evidence. We even have electronic devices that tell us where the fish are in the lake, what those fish are doing, and even what color of lure we should use to catch them.

Our society has also become one of facts, information, and research-a sort of “left-brained” approach to life. Studies from universities continually rain down “discoveries” ranging from plant behavior in space to methane production in cow dung. It seems that with every new day another pill is discovered to cure or treat another ailment or disorder. Coupled with these discoveries is the competition to be the first to obtain the finding (of course, backed with solid, technically responsible data). Just about every blue-collar worker has some sort of computer training or program intertwined in his field. And, there seems to be a consultant for every possible area-employee compensation, diet, policy analysis, and so on. Some of this is good; some is bad.

Nonetheless, this age of technology and facts has affected the emergency services and has thrown us into the competition arena. Everyone wants to be more efficient, more effective, and just plain better than the next guy. I notice more and more that those hoping to just ride tailboard on an engine company have college education listed on their resumes. We truly have become a society of knowledge and information.

With all the guns of fiscal responsibility, public opinion, and technical expertise pointed toward modern-day public service departments-from public works to police to recreation-how can an emergency service provider get the funding it needs to acquire tomorrow’s dollars today?

Let’s suppose your agency wishes to purchase some type of high-dollar equipment or a new rescue vehicle or even hire more personnel. How can you draw attention to your needs and capture the financial backing of the decision makers? Try the following.

THE ACTION PLAN

  • Just the facts. Use statistics, surveys, and other reports from departments in other jurisdictions and union locals. Here is the meat of the justification. Employ the numbers game. Today’s decision makers need data to back up their decisions. That data should be based on a sound statistical analysis. As an example, if you were asked if your fire department consistently averaged a four-minute or less response time, you could answer this question in a number of ways.
    -You could gather the run data over a specific period of time; let’s use one year. Let’s say that in that year, your department arrived on-scene in a mean (or arithmetic average) of 4:45 minutes, based on the analysis of 1,000 fire calls. The mean, or average, shows that the department was not as effective as city administrators would like-the average was greater than the desired four-minute response time. The mean is a very basic but solid statistic that cannot be refuted. Right? Well, let’s look a little closer.
  • Look closely at outlying data. Okay, the city manager is upset: The fire department just received four new custom pumpers, and they are slow getting to the scene. You, as the fire department spokesperson, might be tempted to go back to your desk and pout. However, if you look closer at the runs, you will find, to your surprise, that you missed something the first time around: The 1,000 fire alarms also included 100 nonemergency runs. These runs were service calls to issue burn permits, perform carbon monoxide investigations, assist EMS personnel in loading a heavy patient for transport to the doctor’s office for a routine checkup, investigate a faulty smoke detector, assist in an arson investigation by helping move some furniture around in a burned-out garage area, and so on. After you eliminate these runs from the group of responses, you find that the department’s average response time, based on the 900 emergency runs, was 3:42, which is great.
  • Use statistics to the best advantage. There is more to statistical analysis than the arithmetic average. Statistical analysis could be applied to other areas such as the mean number of firefighters who arrive at a working fire and the average fire flow for a given area. Statistics may be intimidating to those who have little or no experience with their use. Statistics courses are offered at the local community college; some colleges/universities offer these courses on the Internet. You need to learn statistics; their use can help you sell superiors on a new program or the implementation of a new idea.
  • Conduct surveys. If your department would like to start a confined space rescue program and your jurisdiction is facing severe fiscal constraints, hit the phones and the pavement. Determine the need for the program in the community; involve as many people from as many community populations as you can; they are your stakeholders. The type of information you collect might include the following:
    -How many industries operating in your jurisdiction have permitted confined spaces and their types?
    -How many feet (miles) of storm drains in which a child or a worker might become entrapped are present in the community?
    -Is there any other agency or organization that provides confined space rescue services in the community (in other words, establish that there will be no duplication of services)?
    -Which industries, commercial facilities, or public works departments have expressed the real potential for a confined space incident to occur in their respective work areas?
    -Have confined space incidents occurred in the past?
    -What does the general public think of the proposed program?

Ask the questions, tabulate the results, and present a report to the decision makers.

SOCIAL AND POLITICAL LEGITIMACY
If you are pushing a program in the fire department, whom is it going to benefit? Determine the recipients of the benefits, or stakeholders, and show how changes will have a positive effect. Present any negatives as well. A decision maker needs all the information so he can weigh the gains against the risk. Let’s say that you want to give every firefighter a pewter coffee cup with his name engraved on the bottom at a cost of $50 apiece. It would be a morale booster and foster members’ pride in their department. These are positive outcomes.

This expense might not be a real issue for a multimillion-dollar department; the budgeters may be glad that you are within financial boundaries. Besides, last year the chief turned $2,000 dollars back to the city at the end of the fiscal year.

However, if the public should see these cups, they might point fingers at the public officials and ask for an accounting. This would be a negative.

If the local manufacturer in town has already laid off 100 workers this year, distributing such a gift may not be a good move socially or politically. Also, there may be legal ramifications to using taxpayers’ dollars to buy these cups

Thoroughly observe your community’s socioeconomic condition. Determine who would be affected (positively and negatively) by the move and implementation of the proposed program.

Don’t forget the political structure. Then there is the political machine. I know ellipse it bothers me to no end. However, the fact remains that the political process is a dimension of decision making that cannot be ignored. When I came to the fire service, my focus was (and still is) on helping people. I become so frustrated when I see political influences effect decisions that I know will compromise service to people in numerous different communities. However, I just couldn’t stop at being frustrated. I had to collect the data; analyze them; and then give the decision maker something to stand on. You need to do the same.

BE OPEN AND HONEST
Ask yourself, Is such a program feasible from an administrative standpoint-in other words, do staff and management have adequate knowledge, qualifications, and other resources to implement the new program? For instance, let’s say that the city council and the public overwhelmingly decide that the fire department should develop a confined space rescue team, the finance department allocates the funds to purchase the necessary equipment, and everything is fine from a technical standpoint (i.e. the existing confined space rescue equipment on the market). Would the department be ready to go? The answer would have to be no, if there are no confined space technicians or operations-level personnel in the organization or if no one in the department can train team members to adequately respond to a confined space incident.

Make sure your department can execute the program before submitting the idea. Get the training and the education before walking into the decision-making arena. Don’t stand in front of an elected official asking for a new program for which no one in the department is qualified, trained, or experienced to oversee. Stand before elected officials with confidence. Know what is needed. Then drive on. If training is needed, go to the decision makers for training funds and with a strategic plan for implementing the program.

HOBNOB
Here’s something we tend to forget. Get your department in personally with decision makers. A school board official once told me that socializing is one of the important keys in the decision-making process. Get on a personal level with commissioners. Invite them to your fire station for an informal dinner. Talk with them. Get to know them. Let them know your concerns. Compliment good decisions made in the past. Mainly, be a friend.

Our department received eight thermal imaging cameras through donations from citizens, businesses, and the local government. To show our appreciation, we invited the city commissioners to a live burn at a donated house in the city limits. We wanted them to see, firsthand, how much the cameras improved a normal “sightless” environment. After we suited up one of the commissioners in personal protective equipment and an SCBA, he told me, “I firmly believe I can do anything until someone shows me something I cannot do.”

The fire was set in the corner of the living room. Blackening smoke filled the room and hallways. Then the door was opened, and the shift captain beckoned the commissioner to come in. The commissioner went on air and entered the smoke- and heat-filled atmosphere. Within 10 seconds of entry, the commissioner began to frantically search for a way out. He left his partner and scrambled to the door. I assisted him through the door to the front yard. I quickly helped him remove his facepiece. He looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve shown me something today that I cannot do.” He smiled and said, “I appreciate what you’ve shown me here. I don’t see how you guys do what you do.”

From that time on, the fire department sincerely felt it had made a new friend. Since then, the commissioner has donated a rental home he owns. He wants the fire department to use it for another live burn (and, hopefully, get those other commissioners out there).

SUPPORT OTHER AGENCIES; SEEK THEIR SUPPORT
If you are thinking of diversifying your department and are attempting to get into another realm of service, chances are there is an agency just around the corner that can offer big, big help. Here is an example of what happened to me.

In 1999, I was presented with the challenge of getting a budget for a proposed operations-level urban search and rescue team. I was as “green as a gourd” in the budget process. So I first obtained some United States Fire Administration literature on technical rescue and put together a list of essential equipment and training needs for a team. From there, I spent hours and hours tracking down costs. Finally after a month of work, I was done except for meeting with the local emergency management office to see what it had. It turned out that this agency had a stockpile of equipment that met exactly what we needed. Moreover, the equipment was being stored right across the street from one of our fire stations! The director was excited about our undertaking, and he went with me to take a look at the equipment.

What a shock! Not only did the individual take me on a tour of the equipment, but his office happened to be in the process of developing a county technical rescue team. He invited the fire department to come onboard and help get the team together. My only regret was that I didn’t check with local agencies before I began putting the information together for the budget. What time I would have saved!

To add even more pack to the above punch, the emergency management office is also helping the fire department in its endeavor to put together a hazardous materials response team for our city. It is assisting us in obtaining equipment for this team.

Work with other agencies. Many have expertise, equipment, funds, and other resources that may help your cause, and vice versa. Avoid what is known as “turf wars,” in which one agency may become concerned about another agency’s taking over, looking better, or having more power. All organizations must work together if the citizens are to be successfully served.

Don’t worry about which agency will be called to respond or who will be in control. Instead, be concerned that the call will be effectively and efficiently answered with everyone’s working together toward the common goal of resolving and mitigating the emergency.

IT’S ALL IN THE PRESENTATION
I can’t say enough about the presentation. This is certainly the key to making a successful drive for a new program. Impress the decision makers with your professionalism. Prepare so that you will deliver your presentation with impact.

  • Rehearse. Make sure you put the final product together and present it to your peers beforehand. Don’t give them something to laugh at after you make your presentation in front of the council and other audience members and perhaps even cameras. Talk out the strengths and weaknesses; accept constructive criticism without taking it to heart. Memorize your talk; don’t read from a piece of notebook paper. Wear your Class A uniform or a suit with a tie to the presentation.
  • Deliver the mission statement. Reiterate the reasons the fire department exists in the first place. Show that your department is motivated by the objectives of protecting life and property. Let your presentation reflect this mission–from introduction to proposal, to budget needs, to conclusion. Let the mission be seen and heard.
  • Present the need. Clearly and firmly establish that a need exists and must be addressed. Be careful not to blame, point fingers at, or belittle any agency or individual. Instead, include the positives and exclude the negatives. It may be helpful to have additional agencies present to confirm the need for the program and indicate their support.
  • Deliver the facts. The facts, statistics, and survey results constitute the meat of the presentation. Put them together in a grouping of graphs under charts that summarize and deliver “the punch.” Make absolutely sure that the facts you are using are unbiased and accurate. Do not be afraid to admit certain shortcomings or lacks in collected data. If you don’t do this up front, I promise you the commissioner will find them. Nonetheless, deliver the well-thought-out and well-analyzed facts. Let the numbers do the talking!

Using some type of software program (such as Microsoft Power-Pointâ„¢) will add to the professionalism of the presentation. Transparencies and an overhead projector may also be used. The best presentations I’ve seen included having a computer image on the screen. This looks sharp and seems to hold attention. Make your graphs colorful and concise. Don’t put more than two or three lines of reading on a slide. Too many words in small print will lead people to look for their glasses instead of listen to you. This is your first impression. Make it memorable.

COUPLE THE BOTTOM LINE WITH THE MISSION
Although cost is important in today’s market, we should not forget that you get what you pay for. This is certainly true in the fire service. Don’t be afraid to present costs. However, when you give the cost, reiterate that public safety is paramount to your department and that the associated costs are merely an obstacle to overcome. Better yet, present the costs as an investment in improved public safety for the future.

DON’T STOP AT THE BUDGET HEARING
After you receive permission to purchase the new equipment or implement a new program, go back to the decision makers and show them the results of their investment-the increases in effectiveness and efficiency. If you were granted permission to purchase a thermal imaging camera, for example, give a quick follow-up presentation; illustrate how the camera was instrumental in saving lives and property and made your search more effective and safer.

***

Remember, your department is there for a purpose. You are not merely a burden to the taxpayers or an entity that does nothing but cost money. You are rendering an essential service. You have the responsibility to save lives and property wherever disaster may strike. No one else but you has that responsibility, and the public demands that service. You must fulfill this mission by doing whatever it takes, whether it is preparing a presentation, collecting data, or rolling up hoses. Local government officials are looking to you for answers; they need something to stand on when they vote for new fire department expenditures. Be an expert in your area, and go out and show them the justification for the cost or, better yet, the reason for the investment.


ANDREW CALDWELL, a seven-year member of the fire service, is a special projects coordinator and EMT-B with the Johnson City (TN) Fire Bureau. He has a B.S. degree in civil engineering from Tennessee Technological University and is pursuing an M.S. degree in fire and emergency management from Oklahoma State University.

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