In the documentary film "Burn," the camera gives a yearlong look at firefighting in Detroit under some of the most austere conditions imaginable. Last December, a federal appeals court upheld a petition filed by Detroit to declare bankruptcy. We are only beginning to hear what this means to the city's employees, pensioners and disabled, but also how this may cast a specter on additional municipal insolvencies across the country.
Addressing these five broad issues should be a high priority for the volunteer fire service in the coming year
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Detroit filed for bankruptcy protection in part because it is more than $18 billion dollars in debt on its obligation to fund employee pensions. Other cities such as Chicago are facing a similar decision on bankruptcy — it is said to be more than $19 billion dollars behind in its municipal pension fund, and another $10 billion in debt on the teachers' pension fund.
And it's not just local governments. Many state pension funds, most notably Illinois with $100 billion in debt, may follow Detroit in filing for bankruptcy. The net result has been a downgrading of some financial bond ratings for these states and cities as well as a growing lack of interest and uncertainty by investors who usually purchase municipal or public bonds.
Governing.com, a web site that compiles data on state and local governments across America, reported that 10 local municipalities including Detroit and 26 other taxing districts have filed for bankruptcy since January 2010. While this represents an extremely low percentage of local governments, if the largest cities file for bankruptcy and subsequently receive lower bond ratings, will there be a domino effect lowering ratings on smaller cities, towns or townships?
The net result would be an increase in the interest rate to borrow money for everything from new fire stations and apparatus to infra-structure improvements such as new water mains or improved streets and highways.
Compounding the problem
During the initial news reports and financial talk show discussions on the Detroit bankruptcy filing, analysts frequently pointed to firefighter pensions as an example of the problem. Somehow in their minds, the very people who labor daily to protect these jurisdictions were now the villains when and if they made it to retirement.
Several smaller cities are reported to be trying other methods to lessen what they owe to employee pension plans. One found praise from financial analysts for considering the elimination of any future cost of living increases, while another city held a referendum last November to abolish its current pension obligation and offer past and present employees a 401(k)-type retirement plans instead.
Compounding the downturn in revenue is a trend by some states to stop sharing surplus state funds with local government in the form of grants or matching funds. During better economic times, these states shared revenue through matching funds for major projects or via a pass-through arrangement based on a formula that included a municipality's population and need.
In the past few years, these funds to local government have been reduced or completely eliminated in order for states to remain solvent. This has resulted in increased pressure on local government to maintain acceptable service levels while coping with a further diminished income stream.
Hitting where it hurts
Some of the answer for local government has been to underfund capital improvement or equipment replacement funds. For the fire service that may mean deferring or eliminating the replacement of worn fire and EMS apparatus, turnout gear, SCBA or fire stations — even after it was proven the investment would immediately save money and improve the department's long-term efficiency.
Other local governments decided that firefighters — whether career, part-time or even volunteer — were too expensive, and subsequently reduced the number of personnel available for emergencies. They cited personnel as their largest expense.
While I don't have an immediate answer for the deepening economic crisis caused by underfunding or bankruptcy, I do know that we as firefighters or fire officers need to understand these complex issues when it relates to our own budget negotiations. Even in a more-robust economy, it takes a minimum of 12 to 18 months for the additional tax revenue to trickle its way down to the local government level.
One suggestion is to gather your department's 2013 statistics early and having them available for use at budget meetings or in public forums. We must remind residents that the fire service does more than fight fire — that whether it is medical emergencies, water rescues, hazardous materials, auto extrications, train derailments, airplane crashes, or natural disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods. It's you, the firefighter, who handle these emergencies.
It is also apparent that most residents fail to see an immediate impact in personnel reduction, but I have a suggestion that may help.
How many of us travel down a major highway and see a four-bay fire station with two engines, a quint or ladder, and a medic unit proudly displayed through open bay doors? We know that in better economic times there were firefighters available to staff most, if not all of these units. Now the available firefighters may only be able to adequately staff one engine or medic unit.
The problem is that the public, driving down these same streets, still see four open bay doors with gleaming apparatus in each and have a distorted perception. They may hear about reductions in fire personnel, closed companies, rotating brownouts of neighborhood fire companies or the lack of volunteers in their community, but their perception is different. In their minds there must be adequate staffing at each station if the department displays that much equipment.
How do we change the public’s perception? Several suggestions come to mind.
Close the bay doors on the fire or EMS equipment not staffed.
Park the out of service equipment further back in the station immediately out of the public's view.
Place an "Out of Service" sign in front of the unstaffed equipment.
If the station has drive through bays, turn the unstaffed apparatus around facing backwards.
Use your public information officer and your operational statistics to inform the public through the media of your needs to better serve them with adequate staffing.
None of these answers may be pleasant to implement, but any one of them may help break the public’s flawed perception that a station is adequately staffed to handle any emergency at any time in these continuing difficult economic times.
About the author
Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School's Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master's degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers — USA Branch. Chief Rielage can be reached at Robert.Rielage@FireRescue1.com.
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