The Fire Officer’s Guide to the Tough Community Questions, Part 1

By Mark Wallace

The fire service is, has been, and always will be facing many external challenges to the status quo and the traditional delivery of fire services. Every time we turn around, there is more and more competition for limited funding, legislative focus, and community messaging opportunities. Information is streaming to us at warp speed. Knowledge in the world is doubling at an astronomical rate. Demands for these high-quality services is more expected and, seemingly, less appreciated.

The wave of support that flooded the fire service in the past has dwindled in the view of many insiders. Grant funding that was very available for several years after 2001 has now been reduced. The fire service is back in the position of annual budget challenges to maintain existing programs and to keep up with constantly escalating costs, costs that are escalating faster than the available resources.

The fire service used to rely on “national standards” to justify much of what it did in the past.  Many of the age-old arguments that had allowed us to maintain the status quo such as response time arguments, staffing on equipment, customizing virtually every aspect of the fire service, and standard programs are now being called into question. The call is being made to demonstrate outcomes and even to show improvement. If we call it “fire prevention,” why aren’t we preventing all of the fires? If we call it “life safety,” why do people still die in fires?

There have been great advancements in the fire service over time. At the same time, the hazards we face and the risks throughout our communities continue to grow. Many of our technological improvements have had unintended consequences; these show up as symptoms of an underlying issue that we have yet to fully address. Compromised solutions sometimes result in additional problems and new issues that weren’t anticipated.

Present and future fire service leaders must prepare to address these issues in new, creative, and innovative ways. We must change our collective focus on fire safety position statements and policies and figure out the issues and interests of our community and its political leaders. At the advent of communities, fire safety has been at the forefront; a fire warden was generally hired before a sheriff or other paid staff members. We think that the desire for a fire safe community is basic worldwide, and this is how best to reach our goals that are in question today. The reality within some locales may challenge this belief.

Our standard and historical arguments are not being accepted as they have been in the past. Many more “experts” exist for everything, including the delivery of fire services. But when it comes down to “decision time” within a community, the elected officials and the citizens they represent want their fire service professional to provide their expertise in person on a screen in a room, with logical explanations complete with graphic portrayals captured and streamed to everyone willing to pull up the podcast. Those posing the questions have often been posing the same questions for years, getting the same answers for years without getting to the real issues, only addressing the symptoms of a much larger issue.

The fire department is, arguably, a very costly service considering the number and consequences of fires we have in many communities. What outcomes can we show? What difference has the fire department made? Is there a tipping point where we can cut back on costs without having a significant impact on negative consequences? Can we downsize and still put the fire out? Why is emergency medical services so important in the fire service? Do we differentiate “need” from “want” in the fire department? What are the consequences if we approach fire protection in a different way than it was approached in the past? How do we conduct a cost-benefit analysis of fire protection, prevention, code enforcement, or safety education? Is there a tipping point where the negative impact of cutbacks is no longer acceptable? What is the return-on-investment for our fire departments, and how can we calculate or estimate it annually?

This series of articles will explore many of these issues. A few of these issues will not have easy answers (if there are any definitive answers at all). This series is designed to explore the issues at hand to facilitate the best answers and approaches for your community. There are no pat answers or easy fixes to many of the really tough questions being asked or those that will be asked in the future. Our best strategy is to anticipate these questions so that we will be better prepared to provide answers in a timely manner. The goal of this series is to help you do that because these questions relate to your specific community.

 

Mark Wallace (MPA, EFO, CFO, FIFireE) is the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence. He is the former State Fire Marshal of Oregon and a former chief in Colorado and Texas. He currently operates Fireeagle Consulting (www.fireeagleconsulting.com). He wrote the planning chapter in the 7th edition Fire Chief’s Handbook, which was released in fall 2014.    

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