How to manage the impact of cutbacks to non-response services

Facing mounting fiscal challenges, many departments are forced to eliminate or reduce training, fire prevention, travel and physicals


We are seeing the daily impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on fire departments across the country, not only changes in call volumes and PPE protocols but also significant fiscal challenges.

The IAFC predicted a $16 billion revenue deficit and 30,000 layoffs – “draconian numbers,” IAFC President Gary Ludwig said – and we are already seeing immediate impacts, with terminations, pay cuts and even retirements to stave off layoffs. Further, FireRescue1 Executive Editor Fire Chief Marc Bashoor recently warned that the “budget tsunami” is coming, as communities face sweeping cuts to emergency services.

To better understand the financial challenges facing departments, we surveyed the FireRescue1 community about the financial impacts they expect to face at their departments.

One highlight that emerged from the survey: the significant reductions anticipated to non-response services – services that are still extremely valuable to firefighters and the community.

(Note: Respondents were asked to check all options that apply.)
(Note: Respondents were asked to check all options that apply.)

As Linda Willing reminds in her article “Time-traveling to remember your pre-COVID-19 priorities”: “Just because a crisis has necessarily diverted attention and resources in the short term does not mean that those goals and priorities were not important. It may not be possible to fulfill them in the way you expected, at least for now, but they should not be forgotten either.”

With this in mind, let’s consider the impact of these cutbacks and what fire service leaders can do to stay focused on these services, even if through different approaches.

Conference attendance/travel for training – 76%

More than three-fourths of respondents answered that conference attendance or travel for training would be reduced or cut. FireRescue1 is tracking the full list here.

Travel has long been considered a go-to budget cut, as the costs can be extensive, with flight, hotel, car, registrations, meals and more. But it’s not an expense to blindly slash.

Conferences and training events are essential to firefighters’ abilities to connect, network, share ideas, and expand their knowledge, skills and abilities. Whether a national educational conference, like Fire-Rescue International, or a small regional extrication training, the connections and experiences can be lifechanging.

Fortunately, many canceled conferences are holding virtual events and connecting with attendees in other ways. If you hear that a conference has been canceled, don’t immediately assume there will be no educational or networking opportunities. Check the website for news about virtual events or postponements.

Further, it’s essential that firefighters fill the training void from canceled events with other forms of training to keep their skills fresh.

Fire Chief Jason Caughey shares several options for firefighters to continue holding educational sessions:

  • Use Google Hangouts or Zoom for local training sessions
  • Pre-record training sessions or create a Quibi for members to watch
  • Develop homework for crews

Senior Captain Chris DelBello encourages departments to hold their own exercises: “For the cost of sending two members out of state, hotels, flight and other travel expenses, like per diem and the cost of two conference tickets, a training officer could provide that same training right in their own back yard to a much larger number of the department’s membership. Smaller events, like a single subject-type training event that requires fewer logistical considerations, are even more financially beneficial to the department.”

The bottom line: Find creative ways to advance your members’ professional development.

Hands-on training/academy – 51%

When it comes to hands-on and academy training, there’s really no substitute. But there are ways to be budget-conscious.

In 2019, FireRescue1 produced a special coverage series called How to fund and run hands-on training. This series includes several resources that can be instrumental to officers looking for ways to continue training amid budget cuts. Some examples:

An essential resource here is Jerry Brant’s article “How to fund training through grants and other options,” which identifies myriad options – including AFG and SAFER grants – to secure funding for your department’s unique training needs. The bottom line: Don’t give up on your hands-on training. Seek funding!

Fire prevention education/CRR – 43.5%

Fire prevention and community risk reduction (CRR) are two areas that never seem to get the attention they deserve – and are often the first to get cut during economic downturns. The problem: Fire prevention and CRR activities can be the first line of defense in preventing significant community problems. These efforts educate the public about the dangers of fireworks, how to prevent a grease fire, identifying two escape routes from a burning structure, and so much more.

Even if you can’t be out in the community as much as you would like due to cutbacks, there are ways to connect with citizens. As Robert Rielage notes: “Use your resources to inform and help your community cope during this unprecedented time. Don’t hesitate to borrow creative people from other departments within your city or town, especially those who may be working at home.”

On that note, borrow creative ideas from others, starting with Rielage’s article “CRR challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19.” Rielage shares several fire prevention efforts from departments around the country, including Captain Ben, who hosts an educational program on the Orange County (California) Fire and Rescue Facebook page. Check out these ideas to see what you can implement on a limited budget.

Don’t forget to harness the power of social media to direct people to the national Fire Prevention Week resources and similar sites, including the UL Firefighter Safety Research Institute’s Close Before You Doze initiative.

And fire service personnel should sign up for Vision 20/20 CRRNet, an online forum for exchanging ideas, tips, suggestions and for asking questions between those involved in the front-line delivery of Community Risk Reduction. The NFPA is also offering online and live virtual training on many fire prevention and life safety topics.

Firefighter physicals – 18.49%

We know that cardiac issues and cancer contribute to a significant percentage of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) every year. And there has been a strong push for years to direct attention toward firefighter health and wellness.

It’s vital that fire department leadership stay focused on firefighter health, which includes annual physicals, rather than pushing them aside as an easy cut due to budget restrictions.

Dr. Sara Jahnke underscores the reasons why: “Medical exams don't just protect the firefighter; they protect the entire crew. Firefighters should expect them for themselves and for the people they have to depend on in life-threatening situations. The bottom line is that relevant medical exams are effective. They provide a way to monitor health across time, can catch diseases before they progress, and can be the perfect teachable moment for prevention. … Ultimately, medical exams should not be something departments force on their firefighters. Firefighters should expect them as a minimum service from their departments.”

Even if you can’t fight for the physical and it’s ultimately cut from the budget, that doesn’t stop you from educating your crewmembers on health and wellness issues. Some videos and resources to get you started:

Lastly, encourage members to visit their primary care physician on a regular basis.

Other cutbacks

The survey also presented the option to share other non-response services facing cutbacks. Some responses, plus resources:

It’s hard to imagine cutting any of these services. I encourage you to search FireRescue1.com for related resources to keep training and education on track for your members and services available to your community, even if in modified ways.

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