What is in this article?:
- Budget, fire leadership advice to manage departments in the new reality
- Silos and service delivery
(Article appeared in print as "Pick up the pieces")
Fire chiefs work in an environment in which change is the new constant and their services no longer are considered sacred. While the economy is showing signs of improvement, the fire service likely won’t return to the glory days of old.
From community relations to revenue streams to technology adoption, fire chiefs need to take a broader perspective to successfully lead their organizations. This article will address some common questions chiefs have in managing this new reality.
What is the “new reality” that fire chiefs must face?
Moving forward, most local governments either will not have the funds to sustain traditional fire and EMS delivery models or will not be willing to allocate such a large portion of available community dollars to the fire department. Fire chiefs must respect and embrace the expectation that they, as the experts, will lead in the advancement of meaningful changes to how service is delivered through the use of science, technologies and innovation.
Service delivery models of the future will need to focus on the core mission and how it fits into the broader spectrum of community’s service demands and priorities.
It has been said that fire chiefs and firefighters are “the best crisis managers in the world” yet the 2008 crisis in funding caught the fire service off-guard. Why?
What the fire service experienced beginning in 2008 is a different kind of crisis. This financial crisis can’t be mitigated by utilizing a traditional approach and skill-set.
From the first day a person enters the fire service, he or she is trained to respond to and deal with crisis. Fire departments respond to emergencies — they size them up, determine a plan of action, give direction, perform necessary tasks, and resolve the situation — typically in less than 30 minutes. As firefighters move up through the ranks, they lead, manage and handle hundreds of crises. Training and daily use of crisis-management skills put fire chiefs among the world’s best crisis managers.
By the same token, this training and experience in using and interpreting data, forecasting and planning has been limited. So when fire chiefs were asked to help resolve a very different type of crisis in 2008, many were at a loss.
Even after the structural financial issues are resolved institutionally, fire chiefs will still be challenged to manage and lead their organizations through the transition. Also, many chiefs are being asked to reduce or eliminate programs and/or services that they and their team spent years to design and build, the process will be even more painful and personal.
Most leaders in business and government also were caught off-guard by the funding crisis. The finger-pointing that has resulted is frustrating. The notion that somehow fire chiefs or firefighters caused the fiscal crisis at the local level is nonsense. The result of years of collective bargaining and negotiating terms of agreements may have contributed to the non-sustainability of budgets at the local level. But firefighters didn’t approve their own contracts, and fire chiefs did not direct policy-makers to sign them. The fundamental cause of the issues surrounding the structural problems with budgets and budgeting are very complex and differ amongst agencies and states.
Hindsight shows that government was making bad assumptions based on inaccurate revenue projections. This led to unreliable forecasts, which resulted in today’s financial challenges that were compounded by the fact that, in many cases, there were no contingency plans in place that would have afforded quicker, more permanent solutions to the financial imbalance. Fire chiefs can’t change where their departments are financially, but going forward everyone is responsible for finding solutions that are sustainable and will meet the needs of the communities served.
How soon will the economic crisis will be over and when will things return to normal?
The U.S. economy is complex and linked to a global economy impacted by a multitude of factors, many of which we may not control. Most fire departments receive the majority of their revenues from property taxes. There are parts of the U.S. that are seeing improvement in construction starts and home sales and increased purchase prices, which should ultimately improve revenues. But in other areas of the country, the real-estate market still is declining or stagnant, thus fire departments in those areas may not see improvements in revenues for some time.
Once the economy begins showing is sustainable growth and stability, there still will be a three- to four-year lag before the fire service sees any meaningful increases in general fund revenues that come from property tax. Even then it will be difficult or impossible to catch up because of mandated funding limitations in many states. This will be a slow, deliberate and fragile recovery, and the fire service won’t ever see things get back to “normal,” as defined previously.