How public safety agencies can combat the financial impact of COVID-19

Leaders can act now to proactively address staffing, equipment and other financial impacts of the pandemic


By Trevor Wilson

Staffing cuts. Rolling blackouts. Inadequate fleets. Broken-down equipment. What will the current pandemic mean for public safety agencies in the next two-to-three years?

There are three questions to address:

In these uncertain times, prudent leadership calls for proactive planning.
In these uncertain times, prudent leadership calls for proactive planning. (Getty Images)

First, how is the agency funded? The current recession will impact agencies reliant upon property taxes differently than those funded through other tax streams.

Second, what are the agency’s top priorities over the next two-to-five years? There are reasons to move large capital projects to the front of the line.

Third, what data needs to be gathered so the agency can best tell its story? Relevant facts regarding the agency’s current performance, benchmark goals, and the specifics of how budget cuts will affect service to the community must be articulated in a manner that is easily understood by the public and politicians the agency serves.

Outlook

There are stark differences between the current recession and last decade’s Great Recession. The Great Recession occurred due to predatory lending practices leading to both borrowers and lenders becoming over-extended. Home foreclosures occurred at a historic rate, and property values plummeted as whole neighborhoods sat vacant. Expectedly, property tax revenues plummeted, resulting in public safety budget cuts of two percent on average across the country.

The current economic conditions are vastly different than the previous recession.  

While these conditions would likely change without a vaccine, agencies reliant on property tax revenue for their primary funding should find themselves better off in the coming years than during the last economic downturn.

Property, sales taxes

For property tax-funded public safety agencies, there are a few economic indicators that leadership should monitor. Foreclosure rates, the number of real estate owned mortgages, loans sold at auction, and the percent of mortgage delinquencies over 90 days provide an accurate foreshadowing of future revenues.  While not as immediate, the year-over-year changes in housing prices possess predictive power as well.

The news is not rosy for agencies dependent on other tax revenue streams due to the pandemic grounding travel and tourism to a veritable halt. Lockdowns and quarantines forced many small businesses and restaurants to shutter for good. These developments mean significant reductions in corporate and individual income tax revenues, particularly for locales more reliant on non-wage tax income. The silver lining is that the recovery will likely be swift once a vaccine is widely available, with some projections calling for a return to pre-COVID levels by the end of 2022.

Immediate actions to take

The specter of budget cuts forces agencies to reevaluate what must be accomplished in the short-term. Even organizations with updated strategic plans need to reconsider their priorities. For example, much-needed capital projects slated for after 2023 should be fast-tracked based on the 20 percent reduction in funding for capital projects public safety agencies experienced during the Great Recession. These cuts lagged two years behind the economic downturn, which means that there may still be a chance to get buildings built and apparatus purchased.

If an agency lacks a long-term planning document, it is time to quickly put one together, even if it is just for internal use. The emergency plan should cover the next two to four years, and its focus should be on the most pressing issues facing the agency. The current climate calls for a document that eschews the typical holistic approach for one that is more primal and practical.

Perform a mini-SWOT analysis, concentrating on the agency’s weaknesses and threats. Begin with revisiting and reflecting on the primary remit of the agency. Identify the most pressing challenges and obstacles to service facing the agency in the next two to four years, and then prioritize those issues from the public’s perspective. For example, a normal plan may call for new cardiac monitors to be phased in over five years; the emergency plan prioritizes simply ensuring every crew has a working cardiac monitor every day.

Data-driven decisions

Decisions must be data-driven. Ideally, agencies have previously determined and begun tracking their key performance indicators and outcome-based assessment measures. This data is key to determining and communicating needs to the public and government officials. Agencies lacking robust data sets can leverage surrounding and like-sized agencies’ data to assist in establishing benchmarks. Research from national groups such as NFPANISTNORA, and NAEMSP is also pertinent. Agencies must then begin tracking their data for comparison’s sake.

Agency assets

Do not overlook assessing the status of the agency’s fleet and facilities. Public safety agencies are typically masters of stretching the maximum value out of these investments. However, broken-down rigs and mold-infested stations carry real implications that negatively impact performance quality. If physical assets are nearing their expected end-of-service date, make a move to ensure they are replaced while the funding is still available. None of an agency’s other decisions matter if they cannot reliably staff and safely deliver emergency responders to the public.

Communication

Having a firm grasp on what, who and how of an agency’s communication plan is vital to success. First, what is the agency’s vision for the near future? What are the most pertinent facts and information that will be needed to substantiate this vision? Next, who are the different audiences that need to be reached? Aside from internal stakeholders, the authority having jurisdiction, and the public, are there other entities that need to be specifically addressed? Finally, how does the message need to be tailored to each identified group? Will there be opportunities for the groups to provide feedback and build ownership?

After revisiting or developing new strategic priorities for the immediate future, agencies should formalize these goals, complete with objectives and tasks. This process includes identifying the data and facts that will best allow the agency to communicate its performance, vision and needs to various audiences. This information needs to be gathered and made to be readily available in an easily digestible form.

It is a given that the agency’s membership, AHJ, and the public should all be targeted explicitly for communication. Also, agencies should consider other entities that might support or deter their efforts. For example, who are possible partners for public/private partnerships to increase staffing or funding for community risk reduction efforts? Who are the community groups most likely to support an agency’s vision?  Who is most likely to be at odds with the plans?

With the groups identified, the real work begins. Agencies must design differentiated messaging strategies to fit the needs of each group. Leadership determines the levels of ownership they need to concede to gain support. Does the target group simply need to be informed, or will opinions need to be changed? Can hearts be won, or do strategic alliances need to be formed to head off problems?

Selecting proper phrasing is vital. Technical jargon and specific goals are appropriate for internal audiences; communicating with other groups warrants a different approach. Utilizing apt metaphors and examples, along with group-specific buzzwords, helps agencies explain nuanced issues in layman’s terms. Successful agencies meet their audiences where they are and bring them up to speed.

Preparing presentations along the 30-3-30 Rule makes sense. Agencies need a 30-second pitch tailored to each audience that lays out what the agency plans to do and why. The 3-minute pitch goes into greater detail, concentrating on group-appropriate buzzwords and examples.  The 30-minute pitch fully expounds on the examples from the 3-minute pitch. By the conclusion of the 30-minute pitch, the listener should have a solid understanding of the agency’s plan and the data used to create it.

In these uncertain times, prudent leadership calls for proactive planning. Prioritizing an agency’s most dire needs creates direction in the face of budget cuts. Gathering the appropriate data and constructing powerful messaging provides an agency with the best opportunity to minimize its damage. Doing so will allow agencies to control the narrative and set the bar for other agencies competing for the same funding.

About the Author

Trevor Wilson serves the Indianapolis Fire Department as the ISO and Accreditation Manager. He holds a Master of Science in Management and Leadership from Western Governors University and is currently working towards a PhD-BA in Public Affairs through Northcentral University. He also volunteers as a peer assessor for the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He can be reached at trevor.wilson@indy.gov.

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