Few expect funding levels for the fire service to return to pre-recession levels. As a result, chiefs are changing the way they measure the services their departments provide. These methods have become the new normal, said Asst. Chief Todd LeDuc of the Broward (Fla.) Sherriff’s Office Fire Rescue.
FIRE CHIEF spoke to the 25-year fire-service veteran about his chief experience and how current economic challenges have changed the way he sells his department, including using data to convince officials about the increased risk to safety if budgets are cut.
The housing crisis has reduced tax revenues collected by municipalities. Did you feel the pinch from the decrease in revenue?
We were hit hard by the decline in home values. We are an organized labor shop. So the challenge has been maintaining current levels of service with increased demand in service expectation and balancing that with declining revenues. We also had to work through those issues collaboratively with the community and various stakeholders. Right now, the tax-base rug has been pulled out from under many chiefs. Most expect that is going to return, but it will be gradually and may not return to the level before the Great Recession. That’s the challenge.
How has collecting data help sell your case to officials?
The reality of the new economic normal and housing market collapse meant we were forced to reduce our levels of service because they were not financially viable. We needed to figure out what that actually meant and how to have the discussion with the community about prioritizing with a smaller amount of dollars available. We knew we had to present that through an analytical framework. What we have found to be helpful is accreditation by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International as well as using a self-assessment and standard of coverage tool. What we did was identify levels of risk, resources needed and outside help like automatic-aid or mutual-aid available. Gathering data helped us develop a baseline of what our service was before the recession, the gaps and then have a dialogue with adjacent communities and officials based on that data.
How did you gather this data and what systems have you used?
We are using a fire records- management system. We also purchased NFIRS 5 Alive that interfaces with records management and allows modeling of performance, like how quickly the first unit arrives 90% of the time compared to NFPA’s expectations. Regardless of what software you use, the take home message is the need as a fire service to have that kind of analytical foundation to not only measure strengthens and improvements but also to have the candid dialogue with the community and the officials about budgets and increased risk in the community. We often have used emotion to drive that discussion and what we are seeing in the new normal is that everyone is in the same boat, like law enforcement and libraries. So fire service needs to come to the table with hard, actionable data about investments and the level of service that is able to be provided.
You mentioned the emotional argument. Why is it important to switch from that to a business argument?
There’s not an open checkbook. As such, elected officials are taking a very analytical approach. If they spend $1, they want to know the ROI. Conversely, if funding is reduced we can provide an analytical impact: if we can put a first-alarm assignment on scene within 8 minutes 90% but funding would cut that to 70%, that’s tangible. Officials will know it will have an impact with slower response and larger propriety loss. It also will affect rescue. We have to analytically show that is the case, so the challenge to the fire service is to start looking at baseline performance using analytics versus emotion. We can communicate more effectively with elected officials and the community.