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Be ready for doomsday

Figure out how to defend against all of the bad things government officials can possibly do to you — because they just might do it

This deep into the game we shouldn't have to do this. Yet despite signs that our economy is slowly recovering, it is still necessary for fire departments to have up-to-date doomsday-scenario plans.

And by doomsday scenario, I am of course referring to what happens in government chambers, not on an emergency scene. Our economy may be adding jobs, albeit slowly. And this in turn should boost tax revenue for state and municipal governments.

But just as there was a lag in the drop in tax revenue experienced at the start of the recession, so too can we expect a lag in the recovery.

We need look no further than the pitched battle taking place in Kansas City over the level of cuts Fire Chief Richard "Smokey" Dyer is facing.

He's being forced to cut $7.6 million from his budget and possibly lay off more than 100 firefighters to get that done. He told the council that even if he cuts 122 firefighters, it still would not be enough to close the budget gap.

Editorials out of Kansas City and elsewhere are saying that the department, and all fire departments for that matter, needs to accept that they will suffer the same cutbacks as have other municipal departments.

The key arguments are that fire departments have remained untouched by the revenue crisis and that there aren't as many fires anymore.

Despite the flaws in their reasoning, the critics' conclusion is correct — fire departments will have to make cuts.

Undoubtedly, things have changed in the past 15 to 20 years. Fire calls are down and medical calls account for about 80 percent of a department's runs.

Automated fire alarms are now ubiquitous, and false alarms are commonplace. Critics both inside and outside the fire service say that these changes should facilitate a rethinking of what resources fire departments have at the ready and how those resources are deployed.

And there have been other changes; we all know them. Fires burn hotter and emit more toxins. Automobiles are infinitely more complex and dangerous. Hazmat, tech rescue, mass-casualty and water rescue are areas at which the public expects its fire department to be experts.

I also suspect that if our population slips closer to or deeper into poverty, the number of fire and EMS calls will rise. I hope I'm wrong on both counts.

This may be too "insider baseball" for the general public and elected officials to grasp, making the fire department's position a tough sell.

And the word "emergency" means something vastly different than it once did. Through my entire childhood, I recall only once seeing an ambulance on our block. There have been easily a dozen ambulance calls to my block in the past two years, probably more.

How many ambulance calls have you run that resulted in a refusal or where the patient could have more easily been driven to the hospital by a relative?

To be sure, those bottom-line driven bean counters in city hall don't care if Mrs. Frequentflyer's bellyaches are real or imagined. And they won't grasp the very real safety differences of a four-person crew per rig versus a three-person crew. They have to make the budget balance.

The days of the fire department being seen as a place for knights in shining armor are being replaced. It is now seen as the king's treasury — and one to be raided. Be prepared to make sacrifices.

Planning for a budgetary doomsday is as critical to your fire department as any pre-incident plan. Don't wait until all hell breaks loose to form your plan.

Work out as many worst-case scenarios as you can and calculate ways to defend against them — incidentally, that is how baseball's legendary manager Billy Martin used to set strategy.

If you already have doomsday plans, make sure they are still relevant. Just like your pre-incident plan, the environment can change from the time you made the plan until the time you need it.

Don't get lulled into thinking that massive cuts can never come to your department. Likewise, just because you've survived some cuts, don't assume the fight is over.

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