Some cities are experiencing budget problems. The reasons vary from city to city. The Midwest has been hit hard. In Ohio, Cleveland and Dayton have had major cuts in staffing because of layoffs. Other parts of the country are struggling as well.
In December, the Toledo (OH) Fire Department was scheduled to lay off 23 firefighters and two civilian dispatchers. That represents almost 0.05 percent of our authorized strength. Today, we were notified that there would be no cuts to uniformed employees in the fire department. However, the two civilian fire inspectors were laid off December 31.
Toledo has been in a budget crisis for several years now. In 2004, we experienced a $4 million deficit. During the year, several civilian employees were laid off in the department. Civilian dispatcher vacancies have not been filled, and more than 13 staff firefighters were transferred back to field operations. My uniformed fire prevention staff (including three full-time public educators) was cut by more than 50 percent. Officers in communications were cut, and vacancies in training and the EMS bureaus were left unfilled. Although we dodged a major bullet in alleviating firefighter layoffs, 2005 does not look bright. Additionally, we have not purchased a new engine in three years. (Prior to this budget crisis, we purchased two new engines annually.)
The city still has a slight deficit, and if revenues for the city (through payroll taxes) remain flat or decline, we may have to contemplate some types of cuts in the future.
-John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Question: Many fire departments are having to downsize and cut back to reflect budget cuts in their city. Has the budget ax hit your department? If so, to what extent?
Bobby Halton, chief, Coppell (TX) Fire Department
Response: Our department has just added a truck company, which will have four-person staffing minimum, so we are recruiting 18 new firefighter paramedics. We are blessed with a fantastic management team and a great city council that see the value of proper staffing and good equipment.
A book I recommend for fire department officials facing managers who look only at the dollars when proposing budget cuts is A Plague on Your Houses. It is a scorching indictment of the decision to close fire companies in New York City in the 1970s and a frightening study of the way misguided and malevolent social policy can spark a chain reaction of enormous and unforeseen urban collapse. Using an approach more commonly associated with epidemiology, Deborah and Rodrick Wallace paint a terrifying picture of “rampant social collapse spreading in the patterns of a pandemic plague.” This is science, not emotion and conjecture. Buy the book, and send it to the people who have to make the decisions. All decisions have consequences, and some may not be immediately obvious.
I hope that over time our focused political efforts and our constant pursuit of excellence will protect us from the shortsighted who call themselves leaders and then cut their most valuable asset, firefighters. We may not turn it around today. It is going to be a long fight, and some of us will get discouraged. Read the book, and stay focused.
Michael J. Allora, lieutenant, Clifton (NJ) Fire Department
Response: The budget ax has hurt us in some areas. Our department lost the deputy chief position. This chief was in charge of the EMS division and of the department in the absence of the chief. Once this position was vacated because of retirement, it was eliminated. We have since placed a civilian in charge of the EMS division; however, there is no longer an administrative chief officer to replace the chief in his absence. Our administrative staff is composed of two captains and the chief.
Our training budget was also cut, which made it difficult to train in the required areas such as bloodborne pathogens, EMS recertification, and so on. Our department has been shrinking while the city continues to grow. Our table of organization has gone from 155 to 139.
On the other hand, some positive things have taken place. Our union negotiated a decent four-year contract. We have been hiring new firefighters to fill vacancies, although that process never seems to happen fast enough. We have also established a minimum staffing level of 27 per shift. To save on overtime costs in the past, we would just ride with two on an apparatus. We received a grant from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program the past three years as well as grants to enhance our Hazardous Materials Division.
Christopher J. Weir, division chief, Fort Lauderdale (FL) Fire Rescue Department
Response: Like many departments across the country, Fort Lauderdale experienced a budget shortfall during fiscal year 2003-2004. Some of the main factors straining the budget were the ever-rising health insurance costs, pension benefit contributions, and less-than-projected income on franchise fees from utilities. All city employees, directors, and managers were required to take six unpaid leaves of absence. The Fire Rescue Department cut 16 job vacancies and made cuts in training, fire prevention, support services, and the EMS bureaus. In Operations, one engine company was taken out of service when staffing fell short; the quint assigned in the same station rode alarms. The good news out of all the challenges met by Fire-Rescue during this painful year was that not one firefighter job was lost.
We are in a recovery phase in fiscal year 2004-2005. Taxes and special fees were increased to meet the budget demands and strengthen areas in which cuts were made. We are in the process of filling vacancies from the past fiscal year. In addition, our citizens last November voted overwhelmingly to approve a $40 million Fire Safety General Obligation Bond to provide funding for a new fire station and to rebuild and properly equip our old and outdated fire stations so we can meet the needs that will be created by future growth.
Thomas Dunne, deputy chief, Fire Department of New York
Response: FDNY is in the unusual position of having both gained and lost resources since 9/11. We have obtained new fire apparatus to replace those destroyed during the terrorist attacks. In addition, our training programs are more active and diverse. The incident command system, haz mat, and terrorism training all have received great emphasis. A number of fire units have had their equipment and capabilities expanded to include hazardous-materials monitoring and mass decontamination responsibilities along with their standard fire response duties.
However, at the same time, the city has mandated cutbacks in the fire department budget, and a number of engine companies have been closed. We also have fewer fire marshals (investigators) than we had a few years ago. Unfortunately, these cuts have come at a time when the average experience level of our personnel has dropped significantly because of post-9/11 retirements.
Right now, we don’t have the staffing levels most of us would like for a city this size. We have adapted to these challenges in the same way other departments have: by doing more with less. It is a tribute to firefighters that their motivation and resourcefulness always seem to outlast fiscal restraints.
Leigh Hollins, battalion chief, Cedar Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: Fortunately, Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue is an “independent special district,” and our department is not part of a “municipality.” Therefore, we don’t have the budget issues faced by other cities and counties. We are actually experiencing the opposite: Our budget has increased, and we are adding personnel.
Our taxing method has always been a “flat-rate” assessment with an additional square footage fee for commercial properties. For our fire commissioners to increase our tax “cap,” we need approval from the Florida legislature.
Recently, Governor Jeb Bush made it clear that he would not approve any new taxes without a referendum. So in September 2002, we took a tax increase proposal to the taxpayers, who passed the measure. The proposal was to allow Cedar Hammock to collect additional taxes based on property value (ad valorem). The new taxation method allows our budget to increase as property values increase. (Manatee County properties have increased more than 20 percent annually the past two years.)
With this additional funding, we upgraded apparatus, built a new fire station/headquarters, and added additional personnel. Our first-out apparatus are no older than five years, our oldest fire station is only 20 years old, and we anticipate meeting the National Fire Protection Association’s standard for a four-person engine crew very soon.
Craig H. Shelley, CFO, EFO, MIFireE, fire protection advisor, Saudi Aramco
Response: Our department, being a private department connected with the oil industry, is not immune to budget cuts. As with many departments, the budget ax directly affects staffing, since this is the bulk of the department’s budget. Our department answers through the chain to senior-level corporate managers. When the company sets strategic goals and a business plan that includes a reduction in staffing, it is up to managers throughout the organization to achieve these goals.
In many municipal fire departments, a monetary goal is set and it is up to a fire chief to achieve the savings through methods he chooses. In our case, we must meet requests for monetary savings as well as a specific number of cuts in personnel. We achieved the requested staffing initiatives by reorganizing the department, deploying resources more effectively, and closing unnecessary fire stations after upgrading the fixed fire protection systems and the initial plant emergency response teams at the facilities the fire stations protect.
Finding creative solutions to staffing and budget issues while maintaining adequate levels of fire protection are some of the greatest challenges faced by today’s fire chiefs. The budget process should involve the chief but also firefighters, union officials, and city management. By working together, they can achieve solutions that will maintain adequate fire protection in their jurisdiction.
Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: The budget ax hit our department prior to my arrival as chief in 2000. In the budget year prior to September 11, 2001, our city manager (who is a pretty forward thinking guy) requested that each city department submit its budget request reflecting as much of a cut as possible because of a projected economy downfall and a substantial increase in heath-care costs. Each year since, he has requested that we submit a reduction package with our budget. However, our city has worked with us, knowing we don’t have much to give up without cutting services and laying off personnel, closing stations, and the like.
On the other hand, we have been fortunate and have received just about everything we asked for. We are also fortunate to be in an area where the economy is doing extremely well and we’re still seeing growth, but we realize that sooner or later we’ll be facing the same challenges and fighting the same battles as many other departments.
Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One
Response: Fortunately, we have not had to downsize or make severe budget cutbacks. As an independent fire district, our citizens elect the Board of Fire Commissioners and approve (or disapprove) levies on their property tax as allowed by state law. Although we don’t have to compete for or share revenue with other agencies, we must also shoulder any revenue shortfalls all by ourselves.
Statewide, citizens have approved several tax-cutting initiatives. This has severely limited our ability to update our facilities and fleet. We will probably have to ask for an additional tax levy to fund these upgrades. We have made moderate additions to staffing in the past two years.
Although we have been spared from the budget ax, our once-adequate revenue stream has slowed to a trickle. Our fire district works very hard at fiscal responsibility. We are concerned about funding facilities, apparatus, and equipment on “credit”; hiring new firefighters during good times; and implementing layoffs and service reductions during bad times. Striking a balance among a fair tax rate for our citizens; fair compensation for our employees; and providing up-to-date facilities, apparatus, equipment, and progressive training in a growing community is challenging.
Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant, Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services
Response: My department, like most, has had to cut back on programs offered to firefighters and some employees through attrition. Currently, we operate two engines out of one station. Our rescue was placed out of service, and our firefighter/paramedics were moved to the engines. My department has agreed to reduce our staffing from nine to eight per shift. Currently, two of the three crews are at that eight-person standard. The city has agreed to let the reduction in staffing occur through attrition at this time.
Out-of-town training, like the FDIC in Indianapolis, and tuition reimbursement for college and other classes also have temporarily fallen to the budget ax. Other small “nonessential” items have also been cut. We hope when and if the budget increases, the programs will be reinstated.
Thankfully, firefighter safety and customer service remain top priorities. We still face an uncertain future. In this time of increasing populations and fewer firefighters, all any of us can do is hope things get better in the future and stay committed to the residents we are sworn to protect.
Freddie Fernandez, battalion chief, City of Miami (FL) Fire-Rescue
Response: Miami is experiencing a spate of new growth and building that has not been seen here since the early 1900s. Billions of dollars of new condominium towers and other large-scale residential projects are coming out of the ground within the city limits, and still more are on the drawing boards. The city has also experienced double-digit growth in ad-valorem tax revenues for the past four years, with a 15 percent increase this past year alone.
However, the city administration continues to tell us how broke it is and how it cannot continue to fund our department at the level of service it now provides. It is amazing how at contract or budget times, the bean counters can effectively hide what is glaringly obvious to anyone. All you have to do is go outside and look around at all the construction cranes high above the skyline.
Our call volume in 2004 increased roughly 8 percent, or by 6,000 calls. We have had the same number of firefighters overall on the table of organization for the past 10 years; at the same time, there has been a significant increase in the level of protection we provide-a hazardous materials team, a SCUBA dive rescue team, and a technical rescue team. The city’s battle cry for our department is, “Do more with less.” We, however, continue to provide excellence through service to our citizens.
Bobby Shelton, FF/EMT-1, Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department
Response: We have had to deal with what started as “rolling brownouts” (a brownout is the temporary closing of a fire station and distributing the personnel to other fire stations to maintain personnel). They then progressed to those same six companies being “browned out” as necessary on a daily basis.
We have four-person minimum staffing for all of our companies. The brownouts were proposed as a way of maintaining staffing without causing an undue monetary burden on the city-i.e., overtime pay. When the local fire station is browned out, tragedy can occur (or most likely will occur, in accordance with Murphy’s Law), possibly resulting in a firefighter or civilian injury or fatality.
On November 27, 2004, a fire occurred at a group home for adults. The first-in truck company housed four-tenths of a mile away was browned out for the day. One adult civilian was killed in this fire. Had that company been in service, would it have made a difference? There are too many variables to be able to say a definite yes or no. However, experiences, as well as statistics and research, have shown that time and properly staffed and properly placed equipment are vital for effective life safety and property conservation at fires.
Note: At the time of this writing, the brownout of fire companies in the city is suspended, the result of an agreement among the City of Cincinnati, its fire administration, and Cincinnati Firefighters IAFF Local 48.
Gary Seidel, chief, Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department
Response: We have not had to make drastic budget cuts. The main reason is that the community has nearly doubled in size over the past 10 years, from a population of 44,000 to 80,000 and an area of 19 square miles to 24. During the past two years, the increase in industrial/commercial buildings has tapered off, which has flattened revenues, even though, financially, business within the community has been relatively constant.
During the 10-year growth period, the department increased approximately 44 percent and has an average of three-quarters of a firefighter per thousand citizens (.74/1000). As with the majority of departments across the nation, we have adapted to an all-risk service delivery policy. Subsequently, we have become more involved in prevention, public relations, community education, marketing our services, and maintaining our skills in all-risk emergency management.
To keep the level of staffing, four per engine/truck and two on a rescue, we have been developing workload indicators to assist in justifying our budget. These indicators allow us to obtain accurate quantitative data regarding our service delivery, ensure that we are constantly visible to the public, and partner with the community in providing a quality service. We have been able to continue to grow as a city and as a department. Even though I would like to see our growth match that of the community’s, we will continue in our efforts to “Plan to protect and act to save.”
Joseph Pronesti, captain, Elyria (OH) Fire Department
Response: My city is crying broke. In November 2004, we placed a tax issue on the ballot, which failed by a large margin. The city fathers sliced our fire department. Our East Side station was closed, and our daily complement went from 17 to 14. The city charter authorizes the fire department to have a complement of 88; as of this writing, we are at 62.
We protect a population of roughly 60,000 citizens within 19 square miles. A city protected by five engines, a rescue, and a truck in the 1970s is now covered by two engines and a truck.
Since the cuts, response times have gone from 4 to 6 minutes in some areas to 8 to 10 minutes. EMS responses have suffered the most. Tragedies have happened in our city since November, and I am afraid they will continue if our East Side station continues to stay closed.
Cuts have happened everywhere, and I am sure that some cities are in worse shape than mine, but not being able to do my job correctly and safely is very frustrating.
When will firefighters stop being the political footballs local politicians have made us? No matter how hard it gets to do our job because of cuts, I find myself thinking about the wonderful words spoken by the late Chief Edward Croker of the Fire Department of New York: “I have no ambition but one, and that is to be a fireman ….”
Jack M. Smith, training officer, North Slope Borough Fire Department, Barrow, Alaska
Response: Our department has suffered crippling impacts from budget declines. Paid personnel are employees of the municipal government and are responsible for administrative, training, and support services to eight community departments. With the exception of paid personnel in the municipal department, others are volunteers. Budget declines first eliminated overtime and mandated compensatory time for extra hours worked. As vacancies occurred, positions were downgraded or entirely eliminated. For years, staff took on more tasks and responsibilities. Unfortunately, the process can survive for only so long. The department now has many critical unmet needs.
The problem is compounded by a belief that volunteers can meet service needs simply based on population. The 500-percent increase in emergency calls within the past two decades seems to have gone unrecognized. There is also a clear lack of understanding about professional demands. Unlike the good old days, we now face numerous mandates. These and other factors have driven many away, increasing demands on the few paid personnel or sincerely committed community volunteers.
The continued increase in the number of hours devoted to emergency response, primarily EMS, has nearly eliminated performance of administrative, training, and support activities. The government has traded quality for quantity. Although apparatus still respond with a small committed group of paid and volunteer personnel, all are less confident. The quantity and quality of training and continued education have suffered. Volunteers have been driven away as morale has been depleted.
Brian Singles, firefighter, Hampton (VA) Fire Department
Response: Our department has suffered major cutbacks. In 1989-1990, a so-called budget analyst came to our city and told the fire chief and city council that the fire department could function at the same level of service-or even better-with 70 fewer firefighters, officers included. No one was laid off, but through attrition these 70 positions were eliminated over a few years.
Once that was done, the fire department went from having a captain and a lieutenant at every station on every shift for a two-platoon system, with enough firefighters to staff the equipment (a minimum of three per engine company), to a three-platoon system, cutting back to either a captain or a lieutenant on each shift and running a two-person engine company (one driver operator and one fire officer). When the captain or lieutenant was on vacation or out sick, an acting officer was in charge of the station.
The budget was so tight and cost-of-living raises were so small that firefighters hired and trained by our department left for other departments for better pay and, in some cases, better benefits. Over the past three or four years, it has gotten a little better. We have received a decent pay raise, and that has kept some new firefighters from leaving. However, we are still running two-person engine companies and one- and two-person ladder companies.
The new fire chief is diligently working on that issue, and I commend him for his effort. The three former chiefs created this problem, and the chief is trying his best to fix it. Who knows? Maybe in the near future we will be back up to four-person engines and ladder companies. One can only hope.
Paul D. Brooks, assistant chief, Greensboro (NC) Fire Department
Response: Although we have had to ante up some budget cuts to help the city balance its bottom line because of state revenue shortfalls, there has been no serious impact on major operations, stations, or personnel. We believe our strong program of performance measurement and deployment policies, Standards of Cover (based on a hazard/risk evaluation), has helped us justify our resource and deployment levels.
We are able to speak from a position of knowledge when asked to evaluate the impacts of different resource levels. We are in this enviable position because of the lessons we learned and the systems we implemented as a result of the self-assessment process for fire service accreditation. The model provided by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International gives a department the tools to fully identify and document service levels and needs, better preparing it to be competitive in budget processes, while ensuring adequate, if not optimum, protection for the citizen. As our industry faces more and more financial challenges, I highly recommend that every agency undertake the process if for no other reason than self-preservation.
Bart Hadley, chief, Lawton (OK) Fire Department
Response: In Fiscal Year 2002-03 our city had to resolve some major revenue/expenditure issues. Although there were other items of lesser priority that could have received additional cuts, the fire department turned out not to be immune to these reductions. We were originally to lose nine firefighters. However once all the discussions/lobbying ended, we lost two. Everyone involved seemed to agree that when funding became available, the positions would be restored. Even though by the end of that budget year funding appeared to be available, I did not expect to get the positions back mid-budget year. However, I did expect that in the following budget (with the city’s improved financial position) they would be reinstated. Sadly, that did not happen.
Although still hopeful, I am now much less optimistic that these positions will be restored during my remaining years as chief. I feel I’ve failed in my responsibility to explain the importance of the personnel needed to properly protect citizens from the potential dangers that face our community. It’s my experience that the time to fully fight is when the cuts are first suggested. In addition, an ever-present and vigilant program of educating the decision makers of the importance of personnel strength is vital to keeping your department more immune to potential cuts. In today’s environment, it is not the politician’s job to turn to easy budget fixes by cutting public safety personnel, and it is our job to ensure that they know that. ■