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Tea Leaves and the Crystal Ball: Perspective on the Future

Every day, as leaders we do what we were trained to do: we look into the future and play the guessing game of what if this or what if that?

It isn't a complete guessing game; I hope that as chief officers, you were given the training, skills and knowledge and you use experience as a roadmap to determine where your organization is or needs to head. Forecasting, vision, foresight.

But in the financial climate of the last few years, most leaders don’t have the experience to help them, nor do our young firefighters understand all the issues at hand. We're pulling on all our KSAs to help fight to keep the same financial stance or to take the fewest cuts to our departments.

Xenia, Ohio, recently had a YouTube link of their council meeting placed online. The question came down to whether firefighters should start replacing and paying for their own personal protective equipment.

When I was sent the link, I surely didn’t expect to see this battle. I believe it’s our duty as employers to provide appropriate safety equipment to our employees, whether they’re volunteers or get any form of compensation. Granted, this is my perspective and may not be the perspective of every community leader. I understand that.

Recently, one of my mentors gave me a strong argument for doing real community strategic planning—planning not only with the elected leaders of communities, but with a good number of the population of the community. This isn't a new theory and many communities have done this in the past, but probably with not as much outcome from the results.

Face it, many have walked around and argued that they’re the provider and know what’s best for the community.

Do you really know what’s best? I truly believe we do, or we wouldn't be in our positions. However, as most of our communities continue to lose revenue and make cuts—even for those few communities that have been held strong and those that have gained a little—we have constituents who may have  different ideas.

What is their voice, on the whole? What are they willing to pay for? What level of service are they willing to incur or give up? Do we really know or are we reading tea leaves, because "we know best?"

It’s time to ask hard questions not only of ourselves, but also of the firefighters, unions and community. We have all been introduced to the new normal, but what do our services to the community look like under this new normal? We must continue to provide strong visionary leadership while possibly changing the way service is provided.

I still have a little old-school tradition in me, but I do get it. I believe in four-man companies/five-man ladder companies at a minimum. When I started as a volunteer, we would fill the truck and show up with as many as would fit into the seats and on the tailboard. Is that really what communities want? What they’re willing to pay for?

Are we or the employees out there ignoring reality? I don't think so; we're just in a culture that’s slow to change and hell-bent on tradition. We have unions that also don't understand and are also trying to hold on to tradition and systems that have been in place for a long time.

Take a look from the outside and see the holistic picture. Each day, the service moves with more scientific data. There is no argument against true scientific data and what it can provide us—not only in making decisions but also in helping to educate the public. But it’s up to the community to decide the direction it feels is needed or is willing to pay for. 

How can it be argued comparing staggered times of response versus staffing patterns? We need to really examine the community's risk-reduction strategies and determine what the equivalent types of deployment models are—not just the community’s fire risk, but the total risk. Each community’s risk is different—some have more fire risk while others have a greater medical-response risk. 

Deployment—does it make sense to send 3-5 personnel apparatus to all EMS incidents? I can't speak for what your community’s wants or expectations are; can you? Have you asked? Do they want you to reduce costs by sending a one- or two-person small apparatus to EMS incidents in a timely manner or by sending a fire truck or quint with five people on it so they can respond to the next fire incident? What data is available to your community for them to decide?

In November, we watched changes take place in Europe. The Greek and Italian governments had major leadership changes with two economists put in place to set up new governments in their nations; this has an effect on our financial crisis and in our own communities. Euro regions are projected to face a recession in 2012, though many believe they’re already in a recession. The real question will be, in the long run, whether the markets will be mollified by these political changes, as they were during the first two weeks.

In September, economists reported in a Wall Street Journal survey that a chance for a recession in the United States was one in three; the same survey in November improved the chance to one in four.

Following another economic indicator for our future, the Federal Reserve Board, after the first month of the fourth quarter, lowered the economic growth estimates for the last two months of 2011 through 2014. They now expect the gross domestic product to only grow between 2.5% and 2.9% in 2012. The Board also expects the unemployment rate to fall to between 8.5% and 8.7% by the end of 2012. They’ve made no changes from previously stated intentions of keeping interest rates low, keeping everything the same.

In early December, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released their findings that actually lowered the third-quarter growth from 2.5% to 2.0%. Those we protect, the consumer, have contributed to this: They’re spending less than was estimated, even though personal income has grown at its fastest rate since March 2011, creating a higher savings rate. Consumers are optimistic but moving slowly with their spending, which affects some of our communities’ revenue sources.

Are you prepared? Do you know your revenue stream? How do some of these indicator items affect you overall?

  • Devaluation of assessed property values – property taxes going down
  • Unemployment  in and around your community – no income tax from those not working
  • Lower consumer spending – sales-tax revenue not where it was expected
  • Profit/loss of industry and commerce – corporate income-tax revenue not there, which affects employment rates and property-tax revenue
  • Housing market – are you based on the market needing additional homes to create revenue?

You should know how each of these affects your department's revenue. If you don't, you’re already behind and not looking to the future. You’re still playing catch up and guessing games.

So what do our services, finances and the continuation of this saga mean for 2012 and the services that we provide? Can you look into the crystal ball, or do you need to do research and get input from your community on what it wants to pay for?

Tough questions. Not just for the past few years, but they’re getting tougher and may change how we lead. It’s time for us to lead and not react. We must not only continually build new relationships, but also build on present relationships with a clear message.

Richard R. Carrizzo, CFO, is fire chief for the Southern Platte (Mo.) Fire Protection District and treasurer for the IAFC.

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