Fiscal Preplanning Can Divert a Disaster of a Different Kind

At least 31 applied research projects from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, including the author's, are dedicated to preplans or preincident planning. NIOSH firefighter fatality reports often recommend that fire departments should conduct preincident planning inspections of buildings in their jurisdictions to help develop safe fireground strategies and tactics; firefighter near-miss reports also reference the importance of preplanning.

In 1867, John Stanhope Damrell, as the chief engineer for the Boston Fire Department, with his own preplan concerns, reported on problems with hydrants and water pressure in Boston and expressed concerns about the problem of no enforcement authority for building inspection during construction. No one listened—until the city burned down. So the importance of preplans can't be overstated.

An online search of preplan finds the following from Definition-Of.net:

Part of speech: verb.
Definition: plan in advance
Example: a pre-planned route.

With that, I advocate for departments to conduct a preplan of a different type; I call it fiscal preplanning.

Today's economic climate has forced the fire service to initiate rolling brownouts, lay off firefighters and close firehouses while budget cuts have forced the elimination of training and fire-prevention programs. How many departments have, during good economic times, actually put a plan in place in the event of budget cuts?

In his autobiography, former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca said that he could cut 5% out of anything and you wouldn't know that he did it. Iacocca wasn't a fire chief. And while Iacocca had to be concerned about the bottom line, his layoffs didn't affect response times; they didn't have to consider the time for backdraft, flashover or early building collapse due to lightweight and truss construction.

Where Iacocca's concerns were for profit and saving money increased those profits and dividends, he wasn't faced with problem that fire chiefs have when fiscally responsible in managing a budget. If you do institute cost controls and business-management plans, if you run efficiently with no effect on your staffing or emergency responses, concerns are that your budget will, most likely, be cut in the next fiscal year.

Fiscally responsible and efficient departments should not be penalized for being fiscally responsible and efficient.

Author and publisher William Feather once said, "A budget tells us what we can't afford, but doesn't keep us from buying it."

To maintain levels of service or keep engines on the road, we're often forced to do just that and hope that a reserve fund, an override or other revenue source will prevent us from taking more-drastic steps.

With different challenges faced by those in private business, the question remains and is often controversial: Can a fire department run like a business? I believe we can.

I believe a budget that is fiscally responsible and works to eliminate waste, if managed properly, can use those funds to expand its level of service through staffing, responses, prevention and programs. In a commencement speech given at the University of Michigan, President Obama said, "What we should be asking is not whether we need a big government or small government, but how we can create a smarter and better government."

That should be the fire service's goal. With complaints of waste in federal and state budgets, it's easy to forget that we are the government. To better meet this goal, departments should create a business plan to explore alternative revenue sources. Though every jurisdiction has different challenges, our ultimate goals are the same: protect life and property. Preplans can look at those potential revenue sources with a plan to implement them.

When my department started charging for the ambulance, we got into the ambulance business. Is it feasible to expand the level of EMS service to include nonemergency transports, hospital to home or for scheduled tests? Can we bring in additional revenue that allows offering this service, allowing us to expand other levels of service and hire the staffing needed?

There are concerns that this expansion puts us into competition with private services. I submit that we're already in competition with private ambulance companies that make presentations and bid for emergency work. Companies that promote that they can do it better than the fire service.

Though consolidating and regionalizing services is not the focus of this article, preplanning must include and prepare for that possibility. Not only will preplanning allow you to determine if this or other revenue sources are possible, but it will also prepare you for a time when those questions are asked.

Finally, today's fire service advocates instituting preplans, disaster plans, good communication and accountability. That means off the emergency scene as well as on.

So my final preplan recommendation is that departments develop a fiscal preplan in advance, especially during the good economic times. To plan ahead for when you may be forced to absorb budget cuts, layoff staff or eliminate services. Done in advance, fiscal preplanning allows you to study response areas and times and review training, fire prevention and education with other customer services. It allows you to prepare, prioritize, phase in and implement possible budget cuts before they come under pressure or with a timetable that forces you to make sudden and drastic cuts.

Like the preincident emergency plan, fiscal preplans prepare you for that time when you may be required to act. As Alexander Graham Bell once said, "Before anything, preparation is the key to success."

D. Brady Rogers, MPA, CFO, EFO, is a captain with the Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills (Mass.) Dept. of Fire-Rescue & Emergency Services and a member of the IAFC On Scene editorial advisory board.

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