First-response agreements can preserve the fire service during tough economic times.
How many articles have you read recently that start out with: “In troubling economic times, here’s what you have to do … ?” Our taxpayers become fiscal “experts” when money is tight and start a microscopic review of all government services for efficiency. It is during tough economic periods that emergency services also come under scrutiny for not spending tax dollars wisely. Typically it is this public examination that forces emergency services leaders to consider a change in the way “business as usual” is done.
This article addresses three approaches that fire service leaders can use to more effectively plan for the future: entering into first-response agreements with like agencies to help safeguard the fire service against downsizing, by sharing resources and sending the closest emergency service to the citizen in need; injecting common sense into the fire service’s historical tradition and keeping in mind what is best for the citizens; collectively planning for future growth in order to reduce duplication of services.
The fire service continues to be a competition to see who can get the nicest equipment, roster the most senior staff, build more stations and have the coolest uniforms. Apparatus from different fire departments continually respond past other department fire stations to get to emergency calls in their response jurisdiction. This common practice probably doesn’t get much attention from fire service leaders, but it is noticed by the citizens who are requesting help.
While a majority of fire departments are experiencing economic difficulties, “consolidation” continues to be an evil word. However, when emergency services fail to work together in delivering the best and fastest emergency services for all citizens, our mission is obscured and consolidation becomes compelling to political figures. We, as senior staff members, must stop directing our attention to building our own departments into something huge. Instead, we should work in concert with one another to do what is best for the citizens who we serve. With only expansion in mind, fire-service leaders construct fire stations in locations without cooperative planning, which results in fire trucks from different agencies responding past stations that are closer to the call for help.
First-response agreements allow all agencies to use a larger pool of resources system-wide, which in turn lets fire departments reduce annual budgets by not duplicating equipment. When resources are shared through a first-response system, critical equipment needed within a particular jurisdiction, such as a new extrication tool, can be purchased because many of the other equipment needs are already have been met by other departments within the system. For example, rural fire departments tend to have fewer high-rise incidents, but more hazmat incidents. So instead of both agencies purchasing separate aerial devices and separate hazmat units, by pooling assets an urban fire department could provide an aerial apparatus while the rural fire department could provide hazmat-response assistance. Sharing assets instead of duplicating is a more effective use of resources.
The Need to Buck Tradition
Since the inception of the professional fire service, firefighters have enjoyed bragging about how much their department has grown, how many future stations are planned and what new apparatus they have. While it feels good to have pride in your department, shouldn’t we be boasting about how we provide the best, most-efficient and closest emergency service possible? The phenomenon that perpetuates the former mindset is that tradition incessantly interferes with common sense. Most public servants enter this occupation for one purpose — to unselfishly serve citizens in need. But it appears that the more experience they gain and the more education they receive, the more they move away from what’s most important for the citizen. Department leaders have to change this mindset if the fire service is to remain effective.
We are constantly having turf wars on scene and over the radio, arguing about who has jurisdiction over a particular event. This aspect of the fire service has not changed much since the 1700s, when property owners had to contract with different insurance agencies for fire protection. When a structure caught fire and the agency’s marker was on display, the allied fire company would fight the blaze. However, in the absence of a marker, no suppression effort was made, and often fire companies would get into a brawl while the citizen’s structure was reduced to ashes.
The insurance markers are gone today. Instead, our rigs are emblazoned with our fire department logos. How many crews continue to stop at the edge of their districts, only to witness a property owner’s house burn and then complain to their chief that the other agency didn’t request them to respond? Simply, response by the closest unit provides quicker emergency-medical aid and earlier fire-suppression efforts. Taxpayers want help quickly, and they couldn’t care less what color the rig is or what decal is on it. However, tradition is alive and well in today’s fire service, and the concept of having another fire department go to one of our calls on our turf goes against history. Tradition is what the fire service is built on, but common sense must become part of it. Unless we change our way of doing business, the fire service will face a downturn in public support and, as a result, financial instability.
Duplication of Services
Strategically locating fire stations to best serve the citizens must be a collaborate effort that illustrates to the public frugal spending of their tax dollars. Often, municipalities expand into areas already in close proximity to an existing fire station of a different fire department. Partnering through a first-response agreement allows municipalities to benefit from the existing service and focus on strategically placing new fire stations to better serve all citizens, regardless of jurisdiction.
Every fire department wants a heavy-rescue capability, cool uniforms and the most stations. However, providing fast, essential fire service through a common-sense approach is — plain and simple — better for the citizens. Being conscientious about not duplicating services and providing the best response to citizens regardless of jurisdiction will make it easier for fire-service leaders to maintain department budgets in tough times.
During years with difficult budget cuts, providing more-efficient fire protection potentially could prevent reductions in service. Fire department budgets come under constant scrutiny, primarily because organizations sometimes become top-heavy. Providing common-sense emergency services and preventing redundancy are politically beneficial. Elected officials can point out how frugal they are by providing services in a consolidated manner. Citizens always are demanding tax reductions. Entering into agreements for all functions of government offers large potential savings to taxpayers without a significant reduction of services.
As a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program, I would be doing disservice to the program if I didn’t express my concerns about the current paradigm. During my studies at the National Fire Academy, we students were referred to as future leaders in emergency services. I interpreted this to mean that we have a responsibility to find better ways of serving citizens. We must stop putting our heads in the sand and patting ourselves on the back when we are not doing what is best for taxpayers. All agencies throughout the country are facing budgets shortfalls; however, we continue to duplicate services and in doing so we keep a destructive tradition alive.
Having first-response agreements in place with neighboring departments demonstrates to the public that our pride isn’t interfering with our ability to provide superior emergency services. In my 26 years of fire service, not once have I heard a citizen complain that a different fire department responded to his or her emergency. However, I have received numerous complaints about why the fire station across the street didn’t respond to the call for help.
All emergency services must inject more common sense into fire-service tradition. Think of it this way: Firefighters will always have a job if their chiefs don’t respond to a call for help, but the chiefs will not have a job if firefighters don’t respond.
Jim Dickerson is the assistant chief of operations for Lake County Fire Rescue in Tavares, Fla.