Water does not put out fires; money does

Let’s stop talking about gallons per minute and instead focus on dollars per year


I am going to throw thousands of years of science out the window here and say water does not put out fires. Money does. Water is just a byproduct of those dollars.           

Ask any fire chief who struggles to find the money to equip and operate a modern fire department and they will also tell you that money puts out fires – money that funds the water, training, equipment and staffing, to be exact. Put another way, we should stop talking about gallons per minute and instead focus on dollars per year – “Do you have the proper dollars per year to put out fires in your jurisdiction?”

Unless you are the federal government and can print trillions of dollars on a whim, then you, as the fire chief, will find yourself trying to secure the money to run and maintain fire apparatus, pay your firefighters, and have enough left over to keep the lights and heat on at the fire station.

"Unless you are the federal government and can print trillions of dollars on a whim, then you, as the fire chief, will find yourself trying to secure the money to run and maintain fire apparatus, pay your firefighters, and have enough left over to keep the lights and heat on at the fire station," writes Ludwig. (Photo/Getty Images)

Budget management among department types

In career and combination departments, the challenge is always trying to find enough money to stay ahead of inflationary pressures for the annual price increases of fire trucks, disposable medical supplies, bedding, fuel, plus annual salary increases. In volunteer fire departments, fire chiefs have all those financial pressures, but annual salary increases are usually non-existent unless the fire chief is salaried or volunteer firefighters are provided some type of stipend for responding to calls and/or training.

In some career and combination municipal fire departments, you can find yourself in competition with the other city departments – police, public works or even the dog catcher – when it comes to getting a slice of the pie. Unfortunately, the pie is only so big, and if sales tax decreases or the community is losing businesses and population, so does the size of the pie.

I sometimes find myself jealous of friends who run fire districts. They are not in competition with other city departments for dollars, and because their revenue is mostly generated from property taxes, there are no fluctuations when the economy slides backward because of a recession. However, these friends would be quick to point out the hit they took during the housing collapse in 2008 when property values decreased and many homes were abandoned because the owners could no longer afford the mortgage payments.

The financial operation of most fire departments requires innovation and attention to detail. Unlike a private for-profit company, there is no profit standard or margins to be used as a measure of effectiveness. Some fire chiefs view money left over in their budget at the end of the fiscal year as being a bad thing. If money is left over at the end of the fiscal year, they think that means they were not effective as a fire chief. Conversely, if Microsoft did NOT have money left over each quarter to be distributed to their shareholders in the form of dividend, that would be a bad thing.

Politics can have a serious effect on a budget. If a certain section of the community is experiencing a high crime rate, the policymakers may decide to take money from the fire department and other city budgets to increase police protection, add more lighting, increase crime prevention programs, and strengthen the neighborhoods through various outreach programs. When this happens, your dollars decrease and your ability to effectively address fires in the community will also suffer. Hence, once again, it is not the gallons per minute – it is the dollars per year that will put out the fires.

The never-ending fire problem

Some have argued that as fires have decreased, the dollars needed to operate a modern fire department should be looked at and even decreased to reflect the decrease in the number of fires. I would offer back that a modern fire department should not be budgeted based upon the number of fires in a community, but the risk to the community. Every community, every home, every person is at risk of fire. We can do all we can to decrease fires through prevention, education, building and fire codes, smoke alarms, and other tools, but there are still fires – there will always be fires.

The latest data from 2020 reflects 490,500 structure fire in the United States – and don’t forget 277,000 brush, grass and wildland fires, 225,000 rubbish fires and 173,000 vehicle fires. Fire is clearly still a problem in the United States. Just ask the loved ones of the approximately 3,500 civilians who were killed in fires in 2020. So never allow anyone to use the argument that fires are decreasing and therefore reducing staffing or fire stations is justifiable.

Creative funding sources

Never forget to be innovative and look for other funding sources, such a FEMA grants, donations from philanthropic organizations, grants from state agencies, or partnerships with other local or state agencies are always options. Try setting up a foundation where people can donate money to smoke alarm purchases that can be installed in homes in the community. It will certainly supplement your budget line for the purchases of smoke alarms.

Operating a modern fire department with the necessary funds will always be difficult. Thinking in terms of the “dollars per year” versus the “gallons per minute” to combat fire will certainly help put your budget in perspective and help to make the arguments need to justify budget requests.

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