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Economy Creates Opportunities for the Fire Service

For this issue, a diverse group of IAFC leaders was asked to anticipate challenges and opportunities for 2012; not surprisingly, the struggling economy topped the list of challenges. What was surprising, however, was the similarity of answers at a detailed level, given that those surveyed represent very different groups in the IAFC.

Although the contributors approached the questions from various perspectives, four key themes emerged. These themes were often related, demonstrating the complexity of what awaits in the year ahead.

Increase of Service Demand

“The old adage to ‘do more with less’ has reached its pinnacle,” said Bob Roper. This sentiment was echoed by others, one of whom already experiences a 10% increase in response calls each year. All predicted the current challenge to keep pace with administration, operations and training will worsen in 2012. The reasons reflect the complexity of the economic landscape and the domino effect created by staffing cuts, politics, the real estate market and unemployment.

Add normal population changes and national legislative reforms, and the magnitude of the challenge only increases. “EMS call volume in our communities will continue to rise because of Baby Boomers moving into their later years and requiring more healthcare,” said Gary Ludwig. The addition of about 43 million people to the insurance rolls because of national healthcare reform—with more people willing to seek emergency care—will further strain the system if communities don’t provide adequate support to fire departments.

“The general public, or in my case the plant population,” said Rick Haase, “expects quality emergency services to respond to every incident, no matter the circumstances.”

But given the increase in demand with static or reduced resources, will that expectation remain feasible?

Establishing Community Priorities

Noting both the challenge and the opportunity it presents, there was a call for open and honest dialog with the public. The fire department is—and must be seen as—a contributor to a community’s wellbeing and economic recovery. “We must provide these essential services to ensure the health and safety of our response area and ensure the vitality of the businesses we protect,” said Haase. Ludwig noted that when it comes to EMS, “The fire service is the only true public-safety net of a community.”

But the partnership works both ways; if a community can’t or won’t make the financial commitment to support public-safety services, it must work with the fire department to change the model. “If you don’t have enough money to respond as you always have, then the public must accept that fact or develop another way to achieve that goal,” said Roper. “The overall goal is to build upon what a community wants from its public-safety sector, fund it and implement it. The secret is that each community must accept responsibility for the choices they make.”

In 2012, that may mean not only funding, but public support of local ordinances and codes, an increased personal responsibility for prevention, local investments in technology and willingness to change the status quo to best leverage the money available to address local priorities. “The efficient use of manpower, better use of technology and prioritization of tasks are critical components of a well-structured service program,” said Haase.

For this to be successful, internal and external stakeholders need solid data about a department’s activities, community needs and how to measure the success of current and new practices.

Metrics and Best Practices

The development of metrics represents a major value for fire service leaders and local government decision makers—particularly when difficult funding decisions must be made. But even in good times, the fire department rarely confronted these questions directly.

John Rukavina offered questions that every chief should ask before the new year:

  • Do you know how good you are?
  • Do you know where you stand relative to the best?
  • Do you know where the variation exists?
  • Do you know your rate of improvement over time?

The value of seeking best practices—for example via consensus standards or the accreditation process—and developing ways to measure department success has benefits for the future of the fire service beyond economic recovery. “Under any circumstances and any economic condition, answers to these questions would help fire and emergency service leaders to more safely and effectively improve services to the public and meet their responsibilities to their personnel.”

Establishing best practices and developing means to evaluate the department’s success aren’t mutually exclusive to the safety of the public; they’re inextricably linked to the safety of responders as well. “Delivering safety best practices to our members while ensuring we are doing everything possible to prevent emergencies from occurring is paramount,” said Chris Riley.

This mindset may be different from an increasing number of for-profit EMS and security firms who can leverage the fire department’s lack of data to convince the community to enter into contracts. Ludwig noted the particular concern with EMS: “Chiefs should expect the possibility of private ambulance providers to make overtures to communities that they can do EMS cheaper and better.”

Without measurable results, there are few ways to determine if that’s true and fewer ways to know how to gain efficiencies and maintain quality during the coming year. “The key element of the answers to the questions is the role of fire service leaders in answering them,” added Rukavina.

In Pueblo, for example, leadership has committed in 2012 to maintain their international accreditation status as they’re constantly able to evaluate and validate their level of service to the community.

Evaluating call volume, response data and community priorities and engagement can lead to successful efforts in 2012, but it will also likely lead to change. According to Roper, “Each community must now reexamine its own situation and consider new service delivery models based on the public’s buy-in of the corresponding performance metrics.”

Alternative Service Delivery Models

“The great thing about challenging times is that it causes us to look beyond the fire and emergency service for ideas and practices that offer opportunities to maintain services and service levels within an environment of smaller budgets,” says Roper.

While the military and private sector offer many possible models, it was suggested that the current environment offers an opportunity to embrace proven tools and practices that haven’t always been well received in the past by the public or responders. “In order to meet the needs, the fire service needs to incorporate innovative programs to get more done with less,” said Haase, “ We must think outside the box and be willing to, in some cases, break with tradition in order to be more efficient and effective.”

While most paint a bleak economic outlook for 2012, IAFC leaders note the many opportunities that will come from a year of investment. Eventually, the economy will recover; the question is what shape your fire department will be in when it does. While many of these elements require time and energy, each creates a long-term return in the success of your department, the security of your personnel and the safety of your community.

Will 2012 be another tough year? Likely, yes.

Can 2013 be brighter as a result? That’s up to you.

Complied by Ann Davison, CAE, strategic information manager for the IAFC.

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