MARKETING YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT

The vast majority of the people who read this magazine can drag a hoseline, cut a roof, search an apartment, or run a fire practically in their sleep. That is the reason most of us take the time to read Fire Engineering—because we know what our job or task is (paid or volunteer, it makes no difference to the customer who calls us), and we strive to get better and better at it. Volumes of training manuals, textbooks, and other training materials illustrate fundamental and advanced firefighting evolutions and other rescue techniques.

There are, however, other important parts of our job that most firefighting textbooks do not cover. Marketing and budgeting are two of them. I do not profess to know a lot about the budgetary process. I, like most firefighters, give little thought to how we get the money to operate unless the money (for operations or my own personal paycheck) is not there. However, in the scheme of things, budgeting and, even more so, marketing your department’s budget play a great role in what we can and can’t do on the fireground.

Marketing is defined as the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service. We should all be cognizant of the services we provide to the citizens, our customers. All of what we do for the customers helps to market us as a service. You can have all the financial wizards in the world managing your department’s budget, and you can have the greatest marketing experts making presentations and designing banners to hang from your fire stations, but it is you, the fire grunt riding on the jumpseat of Engine 6, and your officer and the other members of your crew that constitute your department’s most significant and influential marketing tool. Your attitude and professionalism dictate the impressions your community’s citizens will have of your department.

You are constantly being observed—on the fireground, in the grocery store when shopping for your tour’s lunch and dinner, and in every other place where you interact with the public (EMS runs, drills, inspections, sitting out in front of the station). Your actions and behavior dictate how the citizens perceive your department. These perceptions ultimately will affect the amount of money that will be allocated for your department’s budget.

—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: What is the best way to draw up, market, and manage a budget for a mid-sized urban fire department?

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: I guess when you look at our country’s current economic challenges and problems, the “marketing” end of our budget process can end up playing even more of an important role than it has in the past. When you look at drawing up, marketing, and managing your budget, several things come into light. The one thing that jumps right out at you is the fact that in today’s economy, you’re going to have to fight for what you already have, not only for what you want or need. With everyone feeling the pinch, finance officers and budget analysts are looking to grab whatever they can to cover losses in revenue and at the same time fight off the increases everyone is seeing in health insurance costs.

Unfortunately, most finance directors don’t have a clue as to what we do or what we need to serve as a fire department; in many cases, that same lack of knowledge is seen also at the level of the city manager, city council, or mayor. We’re kind of lucky in Lewisville, though, where we’re presently working under a very understanding and “willing-to-listen” city administration. Don’t get me wrong. It’s no walk in the park when it comes to budgets and requests for additional funding, but with good solid information and a realistic request, we at least get in the door.

The fire service tends to forget (and it took me a long, long time to realize this) that our department is not the only one in the city. Basically, we need to remind ourselves of what it takes to run the entire city. Then, we will be able to understand the challenge a city manager may have in satisfying all departments because every department feels its needs are just as important as the fire department’s.

We look at several issues when putting our budget together:

  • What do we already have, and how do we keep it?
  • Is what we have really what we need, or can we move funding from one area to another to cover a loss or a necessary increase?
  • Is what we’re asking for a realistic need, or is it just something that would be nice to have? We don’t want to get caught up with trying to get something just because someone else has it.
  • Does what we’re requesting fit into the city’s and department’s strategic plan?

We try to be practical and to do as much homework as possible. It’s not going to be a good day if we walk into the city manager’s office with a request (or at budget time) without first having gathered all the necessary information and statistics. If we can’t show the city manager that we’re prepared and organized during the request phase, how can we expect him to have confidence in us to manage the funds once they’re approved?

Our research should show that what we are requesting is a genuine need, meets a community need, and—most importantly—is going to improve firefighter safety or overall community protection. Lewisville has a $10 million budget and a roster of 130, including line personnel, command staff, and support staff. As with most departments, most of the budget appropriation goes toward personnel and related costs. We try to be prudent in our spending and try to stretch what we can into more. But there comes a point when the funding can’t be stretched any further. That’s when we must go to battle for what we have and need, all the time keeping personal feelings out of the way and keeping department members’ best interests at heart. With an understanding boss, you have a good chance at success.

I once worked for a boss who didn’t understand what we do. He had his favorite departments, and the fire department wasn’t one of them. Fire departments are trying to hang onto personnel, keep fire stations open, and get the equipment they need—all tasks that a department would be hard-pressed to accomplish under such a boss.

The best way to draw up a budget is to present good, solid research and plenty of backup material with your requests, involve your staff and other personnel, and have good “go to” people. You also have to be creative and, as Chief Tom Freeman would say, “You have to try to do more with what you already have before you look at doing more with less.”

The best way to market the budget, in addition to being fully prepared through research and the other suggestions made above, is to ensure that you have the community’s support and present stand-alone programs that will pay for themselves or save money, such as energy conservation programs or cost sharing with other fire departments through joint purchasing.

The best way to manage a budget is to understand how your organization works—where the money goes and for what goods and services. Implement responsible fiscal safeguards: Have a good checks-and-balances system in place and someone who is competent overseeing it. Try to look ahead and anticipate where you might need some help.

Keep your thoughts clear throughout the process. Be fair, and do what’s right. Be proactive and practical. Sell your ideas, educate, and explain.

Katherine T. Ridenhour, captain,
Aurora (CO) Fire Department

Response: If I am a city council member, I want to see the fire department successful, but I have other concerns also, so when you present to me, it had better be good. Unless I’m a fire board member and can concentrate solely on the fire department, I may have loyalties to and biases for other departments such as police, city parks, water, and so on. With the current economic slowdown and most cities in cutback mode, the fire service has to fight harder for every dollar.

When you meet with your council/board member, keep the budget presentations simple, do not use fire service jargon, use graphs instead of tables, and do not just present data—tell a story, explain analyses, use tangible examples, and practice the presentation before delivering it. Presentations should be based on logic. Be calm and professional during your talk. Above all, do not pressure officials with threats or innuendos if the budget item isn’t passed—don’t give the “people will die” routine, because the snowplow folks just told that to the officials in the last presentation. The officials/administrators have to make tough decisions and look out for our city as a whole.

A critical thing our Fire Chief Casey Jones has taught the city council (which is often overlooked by other department heads) is that the budget presentation process is a yearlong process, not a one-shot deal. He takes opportunities throughout the year to make the council aware of the department’s needs, whether it is one-on-one or at scheduled meetings. Waiting until budget time to communicate those issues is too late. Chief Jones’ budget items generally come from his program managers, and he says, “I’ve never had a program that wasn’t worthy of funding.” His challenge is to prioritize the programs according to which best fit the service needs of the community—a delicate balancing act for any chief (or council member).

In your presentation, include your current activity level and status, develop forecasts and projections, and make clear all implications of budget decisions. Also show what the impact of not funding an item would be. Provide a one-page summary document that shows the benefits, expected outcomes, and impact of the proposal in an easy to read and understand format.

The financial health of any organization is critical; make sure you have your ducks in a row, and put your best foot forward by being well prepared, professional, and persuasive. Your goal in a budget presentation should be to paint a picture of how your proposal will improve efficiency and performance and the exact implications of not funding the proposal. Of course, the first and primary goal of the budget should be to train and equip your firefighters properly so their safety will never be jeopardized.

Peter Sells, district chief–
officer development,
Toronto Fire Services

Response: When beginning a draft of a department budget for the upcoming year, start with the current budget. You will have a good handle on what has been spent to date, line by line, in the current year and projections for the year end. So, in a perfect world, you would just sit down with your staff, defend each budget line overspent or underspent, make the appropriate adjustments, and build the overall plan for the upcoming year division by division. I’m told that in the boomtown 1980s (not so long ago, geologically speaking), it was as simple and as direct as taking each line and increasing it by 15 percent for the next year. I’m sure that someone was pulling my leg on that one.

In reality, a host of mandates and constraints are converging on the fire chief like intractable forces of nature. If the city council directs an across-the-board decrease of, say, 5 percent, the chief can quickly become boxed in. Typical fire department budgets can be 85 to 90 percent devoted to salaries, and corporate policy may require that a small but fixed percentage of each year’s operating budget be earmarked for reserve funds. If you add in an arbitrated wage increase of 3 percent or so and capital funds that have already been committed in previous years to large projects (e.g. new stations or training facilities), there can be very little room for flexibility.

Within whatever discretionary area is remaining, priorities must be set objectively and responsibly. Legislated obligations, such as equipment purchases directly related to health and safety, cannot be neglected or delayed. It is more likely that capital items can be safely deferred than operating funds, since it is impossible to not buy fuel or not conduct training in a given year. However, the increased costs associated with a canceled or postponed capital project will have to be paid eventually.

The fire department budget is not immune to effects from the rest of the city’s operations. Many fire chiefs have faced severe financial constraints because of factors seemingly unrelated to the fire service. Examples would include downloading of a program responsibility to the municipality from an upper-tier government (e.g. this eight-lane Provincial expressway now belongs to your city, to be maintained out of your existing transportation budget) or long-term underfunding that results in a relatively sudden and hugely expensive infrastructure project (e.g. replace your entire downtown water main system from the late 19th century).

Marketing your budget requires the same communications skills a successful fire chief uses on a regular basis. The chief must make the needs and wants of the department known to those above who hold the purse strings; listen and be open to input from all staff members, from senior chiefs to the firefighters on the floor; and communicate the realities of public-sector budgeting to team members. Do department members really think that the chief “flip-flopped” or “forgot where he came from”? Or, is it simply that the chief did not keep the lines of communication open? Department members don’t actually expect the department’s staff to double or its fleet to turn over every five years, but they would like to know that the chief is still on their side. The chief should have a cup of coffee in the station every once in a while and explain how and why a decision was made.

Chiefs must remember to conduct external marketing to the department’s real bosses—the members of the community. Yes, they would like a shiny clean truck full of Olympian heart surgeons to show up before they put the phone down, but they are also taxpayers who understand fiscal reality. Avoid comparisons of relative importance with other city programs. It’s just as important to the public to have the garbage picked up, the water clean, and the buses running.

A budget that is well constructed with input from all concerned parties should be easy to manage. Chiefs must be diligent with their managers, who should be taught to use the financial software tools and be made aware of the corporate standards and controls that guide their spending. Fostering a good relationship between the chief and personnel with spending authority and the corporate purchasing people will prevent a lot of headaches and will develop the team. It is also a good step in succession planning for the next generation of chief officers.

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief,
Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: Developing, marketing, and managing a budget for fire departments is similar to budgeting for a family. The process should start with solid projections of income and setting aside money for the required items. Money should be allocated for maintenance or ongoing replacement items. Ignoring this will lead to a crisis situation that may cost more money and time. Additionally, the fire department may be forced to buy in a hurry and not get the best product, service, or price. Some money must be dedicated for such things as strategic planning, employee development training, and recognition. These items are often the first to go or are criticized in a budget. However, they are essential to a successful organization.

During the early stage of budget development, fire department senior leaders need to inform and involve all stakeholders—firefighters, fire officers, nonuniformed technicians, and support staff. Veteran accounting technicians and administrative assistants often know the best way to save money or use it more effectively. Labor unions and community or business leaders should be recognized as stakeholders. Stakeholders may not need to be involved in the specifics of how much money is allocated, but they must be involved in how money is spent.

Identification and demonstration are two essential functions of marketing a budget. People need to know what organization they are supporting and what the organization is doing. Our legal name is Pierce County Fire District No. 5. However, our current fire chief, Bob Black, asked the organization to use the name of Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One, to better identify with the community we serve. Many of our voters may not be sure of which fire district they are in, but they do know they live on the Gig Harbor Peninsula. Through the Web page, annual reports, and the media, a strong effort is made to demonstrate thoughtful budgeting. Describing effective uses of resources, the positive and negative impacts of financial issues, and asking or thanking the voters for their support accomplish this.

In managing a budget, the traditional approach is to hold managers accountable for their budget areas. However, everyone in the organization needs to be accountable for the budget. All need to know that what they do or don’t do makes a difference. An officer in another fire department told me that 25 percent of the time (three shifts a month) an error was made in staffing assignments at his station. This resulted in a firefighter’s being held over for an hour or more at the overtime rate of pay. The officer calculated the cost for his station for one year and was surprised at the high cost. He understood that this would happen occasionally but felt that the error rate was too high. The officer worked to reduce the number of errors and implemented changes for the entire fire department.

Everyone can look for ways to reduce costs or save money so that the funding can be used more efficiently. Senior leaders can reward savings by agreeing to spend the money saved on needed items such as an additional thermal imaging camera or specialized training.

Steve Kreis, assistant chief,
Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department

Response: This is a great question for most of us because of the tough budget times we are now facing. Most of us will see budget cuts; but, in many cases, the degree to which our budget is reduced will be directly related to how we answer this question. The problem is that some fire departments will not be able to use any of the ideas generated in this Roundtable because of past practices.

The best fire chief, union, public information officer, or budget officer can’t overcome the public’s perception of Engine 1. Basically, if Engine 1 isn’t respected and admired in the community, all the planning, community involvement activities, marketing, and other extras a fire department wants to do will be minimally successful. The answer to this question starts long before any fire department tries to focus on drawing up, marketing, and managing a budget.

Whether we want to believe it or not (especially during tough budget times), politics drives budgets more than common sense. And, whether we want to believe it or not, whether Mrs. Smith likes her firefighters or not determines how deep the budget cut knife will go. And, whether we want to believe it or not, the budget drives just about everything we do (from those new F150s in the parking lot to the toilet paper in the fire station). About the only things the budget doesn’t control are our attitude and our ability to be nice.

The first thing any organization must do is deliver high-quality service at every incident. Every time we get on “big red” and go solve somebody’s problem, we have an opportunity to make Mrs. Smith appreciate us. For the most part, its pretty simple: Be nice to our members, they’ll be nice (fast, caring, skilled) to Mrs. Smith, she will like us, and those who control our budgets will listen to Mrs. Smith.

After you have the respect and admiration of the Mesdames Smith in your community, the answer to this question about marketing, managing, and drawing up your department’s budget is pretty simple. Any time you respond to a call from Mrs. Smith (take her blood pressure on Saturday mornings, put out her kitchen fire, open a fire department store in the local mall) improves her image of you and the department.

Larry Anderson, assistant chief,
Dallas (TX) Fire Department

Response: Most fire service managers do not have the luxury of drawing up the budget for the department for which they are responsible. Most often, a department is inherited, and the managers must do the best they can with what they have. Managing, on the other hand, is a daily challenge, even in the best of circumstances. Once problems have been identified and solutions selected, the real challenges of initiating change and bringing the parties involved into a cohesive and viable force begin. Fire departments by their very nature resist parting with the old ways and instituting new and different procedures. City management can often be a stumbling block when budgets need to be adjusted to accommodate new methods and technology.

In my opinion, the way to overcome these challenges is to market your department to your community and the rank and file of your department, as well as city management. Fire administration must display a genuine desire to provide the best service to the community while making meaningful efforts to enhance the welfare of its fire service professionals who must deliver that service. An informed public can exert tremendous pressure on city administrators. A fire department that is not delivering EMS to the community is missing the mark in several critical areas. Most importantly, EMS delivery is what we do most often, whether it is first responder (BLS) service or a full paramedic (ALS) response with transport capabilities. EMS response provides the visibility and the opportunity for meaningful service delivery vital to a properly supported fire department.

It is also beneficial to educate the community regarding fire safety and basic life support. Local schools appreciate the assistance, whereas the community-at-large is always eager to learn more about what we do. Civilian fire academies have become extremely popular and are an ideal way to get key members of the community involved with their local fire department.

The fire service cannot afford to operate in a vacuum. We must constantly strive to provide all we can to our community while creating a safer and better-trained team of deliverers of emergency services. These are the people who interact daily with the community and ultimately forge the reputation of the local fire department.

Bob Oliphant, lieutenant,
Kalamazoo (MI) Department
of Public Safety

Response: For a number of years, my department used a budget process called zero-based budgeting, which is roughly equivalent to the decision-making process involved in buying a new car. Smart car buyers go beyond the more appealing aspects of purchasing a new car for things such as comfort, convenience, and performance and factor in the negatives such as the cost of their current vehicle vs. the cost of a new one. Depending on their financial situation, they may elect to keep their old car instead of purchasing a new one. In some cases, they may opt to downsize and purchase something significantly cheaper. Their final choice may be something cheaper, the same, or more costly, based on the related advantages and disadvantages of each option.

Zero-based budgeting attaches performance indicators to each budget level to reflect different levels of service for reduced, current, and increased funding. Performance indicators are similar to instructional objectives. They may be positive or negative and indicate specific performance measures.

Examples of performance indicators would be response times, operational capabilities, personnel, auxiliary services, and legal compliance expressed in positive or negative terms. The typical budget had five to seven levels of service from which to select. There were generally two to three levels below and two to three levels above the current funding. The lowest funding level was zero and described all the negative performance consequences related to eliminating the department.

My department eventually discontinued zero-based budgeting because it was deemed too cumbersome. Given the size of the department, it was difficult to assimilate and then select the various levels of funding for each part of our organization and assemble them into one comprehensive budget. Despite that, I think the principle of attaching performance indicators to proposed funding levels has merit. It clearly defines the services provided for a given level of funding. It also requires administrators to take a hard look at what the various budget groups within their organization contribute to the department and community as a whole. I believe zero-based budgeting or something similar to it would be a manageable and effective process for smaller departments to use in presenting and marketing a budget. Like an individual buying a car, a municipality should know what the trade-offs are among something that is cheaper, the same cost, or more expensive as it relates to funding their fire organization.

Josh Thompson, lieutenant,
Avon (IN) Fire Department

Response: When drawing a budget for a mid-sized department, you first must look at the needs of the community in which you serve. Does the department provide fire suppression only, or does it include EMS, haz mat, prevention, public education, and special rescue? Covering all of these functions creates obvious needs for adequate staffing, reliable equipment, relevant training, and great community relations.

Generally, needs are assessed by the area’s population and are related to departments of similar size and response types. The best way to evaluate needs is to analyze the responses that could be encountered and determine how to safely and effectively mitigate those responses.

My small urban-sized department must rely on mutual aid for out-of-the-ordinary responses, but we are able to handle most everyday responses. It is difficult at best to explain to politicians exactly how many people it takes to mitigate an emergency, when one minute you may be called to respond to a broken finger and the next to an 80-resident nursing home fire.

The best way might be to show exactly how many firefighters it would take to save the city official’s family and prevent the houses around his house from burning down. (I don’t emphasize saving the official’s property, because the answer always is, “My home is replaceable,” at least until all his possessions are lost.)

The fire service seems to be comparable to the insurance industry to most people: If you don’t use it, you hate paying for it; but when you need it, you’re glad it’s there.

The last two points help begin the process of marketing the fire department and obtaining the budget needs. Marketing is one of the most important jobs within the fire service. We are public servants and, therefore, need to educate the public in exactly what our job is, why we need the equipment we have, and why we need “all these people who just sit around most of the time.” I love public service and am always happy to assist in citizens’ education when they are willing to sit down and listen.

The worst thing we can do is get frustrated with public concerns; it undermines the marketing of our mission. Management of the budget is simple; the public expects of us what they expect from any government organization, fiscal responsibility. We drew up, rationalized, and marked the needs of a budget. Now, there must be responsible management of it. The fire department has essentially become a business. The services we provide are the products, the chief is the CEO, and the taxpayers are the shareholders. While there is always the possibility of unforeseen expenses and the need to move money within or borrow more, it should be an exception and not the rule. The public wants the best for its money. The fire service should provide it responsibly. Every community has different needs. We must analyze, justify, market, and manage with responsibility ways to meet those needs with the funds the community provides.

Lance C. Peeples, instructor,
St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy

Response: Consider the following scenario.

Mayor: How much will the fire department cost this year, Chief?

Chief: What do you want the fire department to be able to do?

Mayor: Put out fires.

Chief: What kind of fires?

Mayor: House fires!

Chief: Do you want us to be able to rescue anyone who might be trapped in time for them to survive? Or do you want to just write them off?

Mayor: Why, of course, we want you to rescue them!

Chief: Well, Mr. Mayor, if we are to extinguish a fire on the first floor of a two-story house, initiate a search on both the first and second floors, and remove any victims, we would require the following resources within five minutes of the time we are called:

  • First Engine Company

—.Stretch supply line to hydrant: hydrant man

—.Advance 13/4-inch attack line to fire: officer, nozzleman, backup, door

—.Run pump: driver

  • First Ladder

—.Force front door and search first floor: officer, irons, can

—.Ladder and search master bedroom: outside vent, ladder driver

.Ladder and search children’s bedroom: roof firefighter

  • Second Engine Company

—.Stretch line to back up first line or to second floor: officer, nozzle, backup, door, hydrant man

—.Ensure supply line to attack pumper: engineer

  • Chief Officer—coordinate operation.

Mayor: Oh my! We can’t afford all those people!

Chief: Which firefighter would you like me to cut?

Mayor: I don’t care! Just cut two positions from your budget!

Chief: Okay. I’ll cut out the outside vent and roof positions, but that means we won’t be able to search the bedrooms, and anybody in there will probably die.

Mayor: No, no! We don’t want anyone to die. Can’t you cut the hydrant man and just use tank water until the second engine gets there?

Chief: Well we could … but if it’s a serious fire, there’s a good chance they could run out of water and be killed or severely burned. A workers’ comp claim could get real expensive.

Mayor: But, we just can’t afford it!

Chief: Well, Mr. Mayor, I’m sorry. The fire really doesn’t care if we can afford it or not. Which positions did you want me to cut?

Mayor: I don’t know. We’re going to have to look at this a little more closely. Maybe we can cut a little bit out of the parks budget so you won’t have to cut.

Chief: Okay, Mr. Mayor. Oh, hey, I almost forgot to tell you, ISO is coming to rate us next year. I’m a little worried that if we cut our staffing on the ladder we may lose our Class 4 and go to a Class 5. That will cost the average homeowner in town a big chunk of change—I’m guessing a couple of hundred bucks a year. I’ll get back to you with the exact figures on how much that might cost the average taxpayer. It might be better to see if we could get a tax increase through. If we buy a reserve ladder truck and build a four-story drill tower, we might be able to get down to a Class 3. They’d save a ton of money on their homeowners insurance. You want me to look into that?

Mayor: Yeah, okay. You get back to me with those figures. Thanks.

Of course, I wouldn’t try this technique unless I had an intimate knowledge of the tactical positions listed or ISO requirements. But then again, if someone is not familiar with the basic tactical positions required to put out a house fire, maybe that person shouldn’t be the fire chief! Finally, the fire department must always go the extra mile to help out the folks who pay our salary. Hopefully, they’ll remember come budget time. And oh yeah, remember, sometimes the mayor doesn’t care about those kids in the upstairs bedroom. But, at least you’ll have done your job! Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world.

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