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Economic downturn hits fire departments

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  Full coverage of the financial crisis in the fire service

By Jamie Thompson
FireRescue1 Editor

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
President Bush chats with firefighters in front of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following a fire last year. President Bush said this week that Americans from "all walks of life" are continuing to feel the effects of the financial crisis.

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and boasting a population of about 30,000, Dalton is a fairly unassuming city in northwest Georgia.

But the effects of a global financial crisis are far-reaching — and the city's fire chief announced his retirement Tuesday, citing ongoing concerns about funding for his department.

As the credit crunch moves closer to home, fire departments — like any sector — are feeling the effects.

"Every fire chief I've talked to is being told by their bosses or figuring it out for themselves that they need to find ways to reduce expenses," IAFC Treasurer Bill Metcalf said.

It proved too much for Dalton Fire Chief Barry Gober, who told his bosses that funding cuts meant his department could not meet public expectations and that the situation would likely continue to worsen.

The current economic woes will present a challenge that many chiefs have never faced before, according to Chief Metcalf.

"Many people in leadership positions in the fire service have only had the opportunity to lead in good years," he said. "In many departments across the country, we have people who are in leadership positions who have not been faced with this specific type of economic challenge before."

Presentation planned
Chief Metcalf has led the North County Fire Protection District in Fallbrook, California, since 2003. In his role as IAFC treasurer, he will be holding a presentation on the economy during the association's bi-annual strategic planning meeting this weekend.

"The current situation is calling for new approaches, creative thinking and for us chiefs as leaders to lead in a way we have not had to do for a long, long time," he said.

While it's easy to budget and lead in good times when revenue isn't an issue, Chief Metcalf said, it's a different matter when the economy is on a downturn.

"It puts a real emphasis on having a clear understanding of what your mission is, a clear understanding of what your priorities are in your organization and a crystal clear understanding of what your costs are," he said.

Only by knowing their priorities and what's important to their customers can chiefs "choose wisely about what they're going to continue to do and what they're not going to be able to continue," Chief Metcalf said.

In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the IAFF local president claimed this week that the number of firefighters employed by the city has decreased so much that fire protection has become compromised.  

'More than adequate'
City Mayor Tom Leighton was nonplussed; he told The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader that current response times are "more than adequate," and that the department could even operate with less staff and "maintain the high level of safety."

However, Thomas Makar, president of Local 104, said the current staffing level could have a three-fold impact – excessive property damage, injury or death to people trapped in a fire and firefighters themselves facing heightened risks on the fireground.

"The statements of the local president are exactly right," said Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the general president at the IAFF.

"The ramification of cuts in staffing and/or mobile resources increases the risks of three potential outcomes — economic loss, injury or death of firefighters and injury or death of civilians."

With many departments already responding with less than the number of personnel required in industry standards for low hazard environments, Moore-Merrell said, the inherent risk for experiencing one of these three outcomes is high particularly in medium and high hazard environments.

We are going to be facing these lean economic times for at least another two years, if not longer.
— Bill Metcalf,
IAFC treasurer 

"With any cuts in response resources, these risks increase exponentially over time as the event escalates without intervention from responders," she said.

Close work
In the current economic climate, the need for labor-management to be working closely with each other has never been so apparent, she said.

"Labor-management need to be working together to solve these issues and try to avoid station closures and layoffs.

"Even if the economy starts to bounce back, these problems will continue as it will take a while for the effects to trickle down."

The chances of the economy bouncing back any time in the near future are slim. U.S. consumer confidence has reached a record low in October, with global stock markets continuing to fall.

"This is not a short term situation," Chief Metcalf said. "We are going to be facing these lean economic times for at least another two years, if not longer."

Chief Metcalf said he has learned of various ramifications of the downturn such as departments putting plans on hold to buy new apparatus and reducing the amount of external training done away from the department.

In Atlanta, Chief Kelvin Cochran has had to contend with severe budget constraints since almost the day he was appointed to the post in January.

Earlier this month, he said the department's "brownout" strategy of temporarily shutting down ladder trucks at some stations to cut costs will continue until the city is on stronger financial footing.

But this could be just the start of trend in many departments, according to Chief Metcalf, citing a meeting he attended last month of the California Fire Chiefs Association.

"Half of the people in the room said they were looking at laying people off or closing stations, and I think that's only going to get worse," he said.

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