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Fire experts: How to bounce back from the recession

The slow economic recovery and the delay in tax revenue means continued financial pain for many fire departments, but there are ways to minimize the damage

When the worst recession in memory was declared over in 2009, many economists predicted the recovery would be slow and lumbering. It now seems those predictions were right.

Washington Post Columnist Neil Irwin recently wrote that the economy has been muddling through a dismal four-year recovery, and called ours a “stuck in neutral” economy. He also pointed to the cause of recent economic pullback: greatly reduced government spending across federal, state and local sectors.

Of course none of this bodes well for career, volunteer or combination fire departments that rely almost exclusively on government spending. At last month’s Congressional Fire Service Institute’s annual meeting, three industry experts talked about just that.

“What we are seeing from around the country is that things are improving, but improving very slowly,” said Mark Light, CEO and director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “Now that there’s a rebound, inflation is playing a role. Budgets may be the same, but the cost of things is going up.”

Hitting where it hurts

Kevin O’Connor is the assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters and supervises the government and public policy department. He said the reasons we’re experiencing this crisis is part economic, part opportunistic and part ideological. The thinking is that fire service funding has been historically local and some want to return to that, he said.

“Whether you are Democrat or Republican, that philosophy hits your bottom line hard,” O’Connor said. “It is not just a talking point, it is reality.”

The slow economy has affected volunteer and career fire sectors differently, said Phil Stittleburg, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council. On the career side, there are layoffs, which draw a lot of attention. For volunteers, the downturn has an impact on staffing.

There is no empirical evidence connecting the economy to less volunteers, “but certainly common sense tells that there is a connection,” Stittleburg said. “It’s mighty tough to be a volunteer if your major concern is how you are going to make your next mortgage payment.”

The fallout

About 40 percent of fire departments had to make significant cuts since the recession began in order to balance their budgets, Light said. This, he said, has left the industry with pent up demand for both people and equipment.

In many cases the delayed purchases have reset the normal equipment replacement schedules by incorporating the years of delayed purchase. What was a 10-year replacement cycle may now be a 15-year cycle after a recession-driven delay.

And, Light said, those whose job it was to crunch the numbers to show why new equipment and full staffs are vital, were laid off during the recession. “Now administrators want data, but it is just not available.”

Of course, identifying the need and being able to bring about the changes to address those needs are vastly different hills to climb. In the short term, there are things firefighters can do to improve their odds of surviving the economic crisis.

Survival Tips

Stittleburg said one area of focus should be on how volunteer firefighters’ discretionary time is being used. Perhaps, he said, public education, fundraising and other nonoperational jobs are not the best use of limited volunteer firefighter time.

“The public needs to take up a greater role in helping us with non-operational activities,” he said. “A retired school teacher can help with pub ed and a mechanic can help with maintenance.”

Light said the fire service may need to look at how it buys fire apparatus and adopt cost-saving measures.

“Maybe it is time for everyone to start looking at a set of national specifications,” he said. “If you are an urban department or suburban or rural department, where your oil plug has to be exactly 1.72 inches in diameter — maybe 1.5 is just as good.”

There’s also a lot of interest in forming general purchasing organizations, Light said. Some departments are looking at how to go to one location to get a truck without having to spec it out.

O’Connor said firefighters need to keep their message in the minds of those who make funding decisions. The U.S. Fire Service needs assessment report each year shows that there are very pressing needs for both metropolitan and volunteer fire departments, he said.

“That document ought to be pushed in the face of every elected official at every opportunity you have,” he said. “We’ve got to sell the story, especially in economically troubled times.”