The Problem: No Money!

BY RICHARD MARINUCCI

There is not a department in America that is not feeling the effects of the current national economic conditions. The drop in housing prices has created the biggest threat to budgets at all levels of government. Add the fact that few places are experiencing any new economic development, and you begin to see the tremendous challenges facing the fire service. While some departments are better positioned, for a variety of reasons, everyone is challenged to find solutions to at least maintain services. Even before the current crisis, many departments were not adequately staffed to deliver the expected levels of service. Many had pursued creative solutions such as automatic aid to help relieve some of the strain and generate the necessary labor to do the job. However, those options are not necessarily going to fix what is wrong today.

So what do you do? Unfortunately, there are no real good solutions if you haven’t done some things in the past to prepare. If you have waited until you have gotten to this point without anticipating what could happen, you are going to be in trouble. Although there are some things that you can do (and I will mention a few later) even at this late stage, proper planning and preparation will help you survive this downturn, which, hopefully, is temporary. Those people with a few years in the business recognize that the economy goes in cycles. While this is the most severe I can remember in 32 years, the same principles apply when establishing your plans.

Some of the things that will help are the following:

  • Having influential friends.
  • Getting what you needed during the good times.
  • Good labor relations.
  • A good professional network.
  • Knowing who, what, and where your resources are so that you can access them to get ideas. This would include people outside the fire department, periodicals, and magazines; Internet sources; professional associations; and so on.
  • Creativity.
  • Understanding your budget and the process.

Having influential friends may help get you favorable treatment. When communities expect cuts equally across all departments, they acknowledge that no department is more important than the other. If your past efforts have helped to establish public safety as a priority, then perhaps the policy makers will consider the importance of public safety when cutting the budget and will look favorably on the department as much as possible. On the contrary, fire departments that have butted heads with the policy makers will most likely find unfavorable treatment. Recognize that in good times, it is not popular to bash fire departments. However, in tough times, economic conditions create a “safe haven” for policy makers to use this excuse and, therefore, not be accused of singling out the fire department. Having enough supporters among the policy makers and those that influence the policy makers can lessen the impact on your organization. Also remember the role of the finance and budget departments. Their support is very important. How you get along during the good times will affect your interactions during the tough times.

How did you handle things during the economic upticks? If you have planned well, you maintained and improved your fleet, buildings, equipment, and support functions. You have been aggressive in pursuing training opportunities. You have not been wasteful but have taken care of the essentials. For example, in your private life, you most likely buy the so-called “nonessential” items when your finances are strong. You are probably in a better position to take a more expensive vacation. When your funding gets tight, you cut back on the discretionary spending. Hopefully, the situation is just temporary. Likewise, organizations with sound fleets, buildings, and the rest can withstand hard times better than those that have skimped when they didn’t need to. Also, if your budgeting process allows you to save money specifically for the fire department without its going through the general fund, make sure your “rainy day” fund is adequate.

Good labor relations are essential during challenging times. You will need the cooperation of your employees to seek the best solutions with the least impact. If you have not built good relations during the good times, don’t count on the level of cooperation that you will need. Trust is the most important thing. Without it, you cannot move forward, and it will be almost impossible to establish it during the economic downturn. Labor must believe the severity of the crisis and must also know that its voice will be heard. Likewise, management must trust that reasonable solutions will be offered and that although the solutions will most likely be painful, labor will support them because of the conditions.

Your network can help. If you have been isolated, you do not have anything near the resources that you could have had. Since every department is challenged, many people are working on solutions. Regular conversations with your professional colleagues can generate usable ideas. You may also consider some joint ventures that have not been taken seriously in the past, such as group purchasing and some shared services. Although you may be under the gun to stay close to home, do your best to attend association meetings. Much of the discussion will be about the economy. These unofficial brainstorming sessions can offer you a different perspective.

What resources do you have available to you? Major associations like the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) know the severity of the situation and have committed resources to help their members. Take advantage of it. If your local is an IAFF affiliate, it can access the resources of the parent group, which provides excellent suggestions. The IAFC established a task force to come up with suggestions. Although there is no magic potion in any of this, the diversity of suggestions will help. Also consider what others outside of the fire service are doing. The International City and County Managers Association and the National League of Cities are also faced with the big challenge. Keeping up with their positions will be a big aid to you. Finally, the journals are committed to covering the topic. Keep reading, and visit their Web sites for the latest information.

Now is the time to turn on the creative juices. Gather your most trusted and creative people and begin to look at the problem from different perspectives. Although the statement “think outside the box” may be somewhat of a cliché, it is a good time to take a different view of how things are done. You may not like it, but you need to evaluate your approach to risk management. You may not be able to handle all the risks the way you always have. For example, you may have always sent a full box assignment to an automatic alarm. Now, you may need to consider the savings realized by reducing your initial response instead, as virtually all automatic alarms are false or relatively small. You need to balance the risk with the costs of comparing the likelihood that there will actually be a significant fire on these classifications of calls. You will no longer be able to provide all things to all people.

You also need to look at your human resources and see what they can do to improve any negative perception the public may have regarding downtime, multiple vehicle response to perceived minor incidents, or low productivity or activity. Only you can honestly evaluate your personnel’s available time based on their work responsibilities. If there is downtime, you may want to look at ways to improve productivity not only to improve your operation but also to make sure that the public and policy makers have the proper perception of what your organization contributes to the overall well-being of your community and what is being done to assist in addressing the issues created by the economic crisis.

Finally, know your budget and the process inside and out. Too often, we rely on others to know the details. But in tough times, knowledge can be power. You need to know how your target number is established and the items that are essential and those that are discretionary. Anything considered discretionary will most likely not be funded. You will need to aggressively defend the essentials. You need to assist others in looking for cost-saving measures in areas that probably have not concerned you in the past, such as health care and other benefits. You need to know more than the numbers—you need to know also the reasons behind them. Talk to those trained in budgeting, and do it all the time. Learn all you can so you are better prepared than you have ever been in the past.

If you have waited for the crash, your challenges are much greater. The biggest thing you can do is to engage your entire organization. This is not your problem alone. Everyone will be affected. However, don’t open this up to an “open mike” forum without first doing some preparation. You will need to educate everyone on the basics of the budget and the sources of your income. Get everyone on the same page, or as close as you can, so that you are all starting at the same point. If you don’t, you may get more impossible suggestions, which will frustrate those making the proposals. Providing the proper background will help but will not eliminate most of this. Remember that each member’s sophistication with regard to budgeting and economics will vary.

There is no silver bullet that will fix the current situation in the near future. Everyone will take a hit—some more than others. This is the time to use all of your resources and gain cooperation from all. How you handled the good times will definitely impact your outcomes during this crisis. This is not one person’s problem; teamwork is essential in finding solutions that will have the least impact.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department, Previously, he was chief in Farmington Hills, MI. He was president of the IAFC (1997/98) and acting chief operating officer of the USFA (1999). He has bachelor’s degrees from Western Michigan University, Madonna College, and the University of Cincinnati. He is an adjunct faculty member of EMU and Maryland Staff and Command.

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