Budget Cuts Present Dangers for 2010

By Michael Lee

So we find ourselves at the end of 2009 — how the heck did it get here so fast?! Regardless, it gives us the opportunity to look back on what we accomplished in the past 12 months and whether or not it was sufficient. This year has been a significantly stressful one due to the economy and recession. We have seen or heard of departments that have closed stations, put firefighters out on furlough days and even had to lay off brothers and sisters to ensure budgets meet shortfalls.

The economy has stretched our levels of service to breaking point. We have seen a significant reduction in recovered transport fees for our department and have had to face the hard reality that everyone is hurting in today’s economic downturn.

But as fire Service professionals, we find ourselves striving to ensure that those people who support our departments have no decrease in service, even though we have fewer personnel, less resources and diminished budgets to meet those needs. Some departments may have noticed that their call load is increasing as a lack of medical insurance and lack of funds have driven the public to access one of the few health care services they have always depended on, and consequently dial 911.

As call loads increase and resources to assist us with performing our jobs decrease, we have to wonder, when will the candle burning at both ends finally meet in the middle? I am reminded of a quote I heard long ago: "We have worked so hard, for so long with so little, that we are now qualified to do everything with nothing!"

The fire service has historically been the last bastion of all that is good about society and is famous with making things work with diminishing support. However, have you done your best to be sure your crews are not being placed in more hazardous arenas due to dwindling funds?

Are your crews still able to keep themselves safe with the lack of resources? Are we ensuring that even with fewer people to accomplish tasks, we are not depleting our safety margins to accomplish them? Have departments reassessed and realigned their SOPs to reflect newly decreased staffing/apparatus/stations? Have we neglected the safety of two-in-two-out because we must wait a much longer period to be able to meet that safety margin?

In the evolution of the fire service, we stand today in dangerous times. We have equipment and technology that allows us to be more aggressive and to go deeper into a structure to fight fire. Construction materials have evolved at a faster pace to increase the hazard of the environments we fight fires in. Residential structure fires now reach flashovers around the time units arrive on scene. This is in contrast to the building techniques and materials that our previous generation dealt with. But we still train a vast majority of our new employees to fight fires with techniques designed many years ago!

It is time to get aggressive with how intelligently we fight fires. With the reduced size of available resources, we need to be more appropriate with how we match tasks with resources by utilizing a strong risk-benefit analysis to support our decisions.

We need to read articles and watch national and even international trends on how to fight fires in a safely aggressive fashion based on current construction technology and materials. And finally, we need to ensure that as resources may be decreasing, we will not hand away our ability to keep our brothers and sisters safe on the fireground.

If it takes a few more minutes to get the sufficient number of firefighters on a fireground to start a suppression evolution then take it! Keep our constituents in mind, take the appropriate calculated risks to save lives (including our own), and fight a calculated battle. As our resources are being removed, remember that our families and the profession depend on you being here and healthy to accomplish the job.

Finally, don't retreat on the foundational concept that as the economy improves, we must regain all of the ground we may have temporarily lost. Get those laid-off firefighters back! Re-open those stations! Expand your budgets to reflect their level of health prior to the collapse of the economy.

The politician may start to see the deflated budgets and feel that because people still received responses from their local fire departments it means that they can move funds elsewhere without an impact. It is our sacred duty to ensure in the future, we are not the ones who sat quietly on the sidelines when we should have recaptured our resources to enhance our safety and expand our numbers to the levels they were prior to these hard times, or even better. Brothers and Sisters — stay safe in 2010!

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