(Photo by Tony Greco)
By Michael DeStefano
The political arena in which all fire departments are forced to do battle is always changing. Modern politicians have strayed from the idea of serving to create a better community to instead acquiring a lifelong career to better their own personal agendas. Career politicians have lead to a trend of cutting taxes to dangerously low levels so as to entice voters to cast their ballot in the career politician’s favor, thereby extending the life of their political career.
As the taxes fall, so do the budgets. A brief and oversimplified look at the budget of any local municipality will reveal that traditionally the two biggest slices of the budget pie chart belong to police and fire rescue. Coincidentally, these two—public safety–are arguably the most important aspect of government. Unfortunately, when the overall budget needs to be cut, eyes turn to the departments with the highest portion of the budget. This leaves many of our fire departments formulating creative ideas to cut costs while attempting to maintain services. Whether it is pay, benefits, staffing, or equipment, our firefighters are left trying to do more with less. Any way we look at this, it leads to lowered morale.
Not all departments are created equal. Inequalities in pay and benefits will always exist, and we will always see career firefighters changing their shirts from XYZ fire rescue to ABC fire rescue in the search of better working conditions, pay, and benefits. The days of a firefighter showing lifelong loyalty to the municipality that gave them their chance at the best job in the world is long gone. We have bills, healthcare costs, and families, all of which take priority over our calling to the job.
The time has come for fire chiefs to not only look into creative ways to cut the budget, but also creative ways to keep morale high and retain hardworking senior firefighters. Below are a few creative benefits that can not only save the department money and boost morale, but may be the difference between a rookie firefighter selecting your department over a higher-paying neighboring department.
Customer Service Incentives
These incentives can come in the way of rewarding crews for positive customer service surveys. Providing dinner for the crew that has the highest customer satisfaction surveys for the month is one idea. A $100 gift card to a crew goes a long way toward stimulate friendly competition and boosting overall morale. It also only has an overall cost of $1,200 a year.
Engaging a financial planner as a guest speaker at a department-funded seminar can help the firefighters make the most of the funds they receive. Many entry-level firefighters are now looking beyond the first five years of their career and preparing for retirement from day one. Having a financial planner and/or retirement planner to help guide them on this path will be a great benefit in the eyes of the career-oriented firefighter. Additionally, the cost-to-reward ratio of hiring a financial planner for a seminar or one-on-one advice to firefighters is relatively low when compared the potential increase in morale.
Similar to the financial planner as noted above, using a personal trainer for physical fitness training, seminars, and even one-on-one guidance can be a great benefit for a department. The outcome will be a healthier, physically stronger department. The cost for funding the use of the personal trainer will be offset in the saved money from reduced sick leave and workers compensation claims. Additionally, crews that train together and achieve physical goals together will create bonds that will be much stronger than if they had simply only worked at the fire station together.
We live in toxic political environment in which creative benefits can and will go a very long way to help boost morale. Using outside-the-box approaches to providing benefits can be the difference between another stepping stone department and a destination career department. Organizations must do everything in their power to balance the budget while demonstrating a genuine caring for the employees that are in the field running the calls.
Michael DeStefano is a lieutenant and currently assigned to the training division with Brevard County (FL) Fire Rescue. He began his career in 2004 at a small three-station paid department in Winter Springs, Florida, as a firefighter/EMT-B. In 2005, he moved to Brevard County, taking on the role of firefighter/paramedic in 2006. He has an associate’s degree from Eastern Florida State College in fire science and a bachelor’s degree from Barry University in public administration.