The fire service budget tsunami is coming

Find ways to prove your worth, cut where you can, and maintain the safety of your members


The budget tsunami is coming, and fire/EMS departments will not be immune to the sweeping cuts many communities are beginning to experience.

All the positive energy, political gamesmanship, and hyperbole in the world won’t change the realities of our local coffers. Stimulus money might help – if it finds its ways into the local community budgets (it certainly hasn’t hit here yet).

All the positive energy, political gamesmanship, and hyperbole in the world won’t change the realities of our local coffers. (Photo/Getty Images)
All the positive energy, political gamesmanship, and hyperbole in the world won’t change the realities of our local coffers. (Photo/Getty Images)

Successive waves of COVID-19, widespread protests, hurricane season and a presidential election cycle – the alarms should be going off in your head, and you may as well get the aspirin now, because the headaches have only just begun. Whether you’re an all-paid, combination or all-volunteer department, there will be plenty of work to do on all fronts to maintain service.

I urge chiefs to prioritize now before someone else does it for you. While my words may sound dire, I can promise that times are about to get tough. We have seen the reality spreading from one community to another across the United States, with words like “draconian” used to describe the cuts headed our way.

Data is always your friend

Whether you’re building a department, evaluating your ongoing service or trying to navigate a budget crisis, accurate data will be critical to any opportunity to save an adequate share of your business from the budget axe. Make sure your folks are entering accurate and timely NFIRS and EMS data that tells your story.

I’m a firm believer in capturing bulleted, irrefutable data with simple graphs during a budget presentation. Understanding that no elected official I know likes to be “fileted” about cuts or inadequacies in front of their constituents, it is important for them to see the TRUE data. Don’t try to BS them with an overload of superfluous industry-specific codes and such. Just provide the raw, but easy to understand, data that paints an accurate picture of your value.

Where are you heavy?

So you’ve got the data to support what you’re doing. Now, how about an HONEST look at what you’re doing? We tend to do pretty well about apparatus and ambulance deployment – but sometimes, the devil’s in all the details beyond those tangibles.

What discretionary items can you push off? What projects could you delay or abandon altogether? What grant or cost share opportunities are out there? There may be the need for some creative thinking during this tsunami.

In the near term, it is likely that you will not fill vacancies at a level you are accustomed to. Will you be able to sustain service levels without filling the vacancies? With or without union contracts, will staffing levels on fire apparatus face reductions? Many chiefs, including myself, are already experiencing that scenario. For some, the number one challenge may be maintaining at least a minimum of service capability. While larger departments may shut down houses, they’ll likely have enough layers to weather the wave with relatively minor increases in response time.

Adaptation will be critical

During times of reduced staffing and funding, reducing the number of trucks responding to lower-acuity calls is one way to save on responder fatigue while spreading out resource capability to still cover your needs. Resourcing partnerships with health departments and sheriff’s departments may be another way to lighten your load – just understand, many of those departments are facing demons and battles of their own, so you may not be able to lean on them at the moment.

You may also have the opportunity to show value by picking up slack of other departments that take even deeper cuts – no one really wants to be the vulture in the budget-bin; however, your community’s wellbeing may mean you have to adapt to changing priorities and responsibilities along the way. The status quo will not be acceptable for many.

Maybe chiefs who don’t normally count in your 2-in/2-out complement need to get dirty? Maybe that training staff needs to spend more time in the field. Maybe there’s a different way to get things done that will save your money.

Prove your value

I fully recognize this is the fire service – it can’t be ALL about giving up and, conversely, we certainly can’t just keep “taking it all in.”

I am, however, a realist. There is only so much money to go around, and politicians will face pressures from all angles. While you’re fighting this fight and working to prove your value, make sure you are taking care of your people and maintaining your service-based mission. Taking care of your people and service should be the chief’s top priorities.

It will be a challenge and a dance to prove your value to the elected officials and to your communities. Please be extremely cautious during these times to be effective stewards of your community’s dollars. Maintaining the public’s trust through the demonstration of your own and your department’s trustworthiness, honorability and high ethical standards will be critical.

None of us like to feel the pressure of tightening budgets. Generally speaking, we’re get-it-done people, and budgeting cutting is contraindicated to getting-it-done!

Save yourselves from the rip currents of the successive waves of financial distress coming. Finding ways to swim perpendicular to the current, before the current sweeps you away, may mean the difference between your survival or your demise.

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