Doing more with less in volunteer fire departments

CarolinaFireJournal - By Ron Cheves
By Ron Cheves
01/11/2012 -
It seems to me we are hearing a lot about the career fire departments that are dealing with budget cuts and having to deal with less. However, not a lot of publicity about the volunteer fire departments that are being affected by the budget cuts that are taken place across the country in just about every city and town.

My town and fire department did receive an increase this budget year which tells me our elected officials are listening to us and they get it. According to the ICMA (International City/County Managers Association) too many are doing with less. Most budgets for emergency services around the country are being affected and the elected officials are hearing very little or nothing from the leaders in the departments.

Fire service leaders should be in front of the elected officials as often as the situation allows, before and after the meetings. I am not saying the career departments do it right all the time, but with a lot of the big Metro fire departments the budgets are large enough for the officials to make an impact on the budget by going after some of those dollars, and the fire departments adjust what need to be adjusted.

The community should be the ones that dictate what level of service they will receive from fire and police and the emergency service leaders should be the ones that guide them through the process with education and what the type level of service will mean to the citizens and what the cost should be.

There is a disconnect between what the citizens think they deserve versus what they want to pay for. I heard Ken Farmer from the NFA tell us one of the biggest issues facing volunteer and combination fire departments was the fact the Fire Act and SAFER Grants are in jeopardy. Although there are many departments that do not rely on grants, and some that do not nor will not ever apply, this will be a major hit for the fire service as a whole.

This is the time for leaders in the emergency services sector to educate all stakeholders as to our needs, and to be willing to share the data you have to confirm what you are telling them. We certainly don’t want any major incident to be the wakeup call for either us, or the citizens, to realize what we do on a daily bases.

Do you still have citizens stopping by the firehouse to drop off a donation? I remember receiving not only money from people I had never seen before, but cakes and food for several months post 9-11. This seems very much to be how the fire service has worked for many years; we react to some major incident that will play on the hearts and purse strings of the public. In fact that is how most laws and codes are created or changed. Something happened that makes us think of a way to prevent it or have less impact in the future.

The question that is also being heard more and more is the fact we spend much more money on fire suppression and very little on fire prevention. We are the only people that are trying to put ourselves out of business. Public education not only in Fire and Life Safety, but what we really do as emergency service providers should be told every day, and we need to determine how this will be best accomplished.

Don’t think if there are fewer fires we will be sitting around the firehouse with nothing to do. In the future there should be fewer fires for many reasons, but there will be much more EMS. We are being told that we should be dealing with more disasters and civil issues. Just think how many times you are out several hours on a call that may be weather related and never pull a medical bag or fire hose off the rig. We need to be telling our story to assure the funding will continue to be sufficient for the future.

The thought of doing more with less should not be too alarming because we have been doing it for years as volunteer fire departments. Just like many of you, I have grown up with the fire department. Living near my local volunteer fire station in my hometown I wanted to know where the trucks were going every time I heard them pull out from the station. When I got out on my own and could plan my life I joined. I will say I was fortunate enough to have a department and a community that had more than most, but other county departments had to do with much less.

I have been involved with departments in other states that had very little but still made the calls and did what they could with what they had. If you think about your own department that did not have a town or municipal agency to go to and ask for funding when needed, you know you would be doing the same thing. That is what we do as firemen. We do whatever it takes to get the job done. If your funding was cut — and I know more than not have been — you would still answer the call and get the same things accomplished because that is what you are trained to do. Think about how you would do what you would do with less.

Ever thought of selling one of those rigs you bought because your neighbor had one and you had to do one better? Look around and see how you might use apparatus in departments that are close to you. Before you consider buying a new rig are you looking around to see what is coming from other departments in the county and outside the county? Or are you buying something because someone else did. Jealousy is a strong emotion, and sometime doing what is best for the customer (taxpayers) should be the only way to look at it. Have you had any discussions with the career departments near you to do any mutual or automatic aid contracts? I am not really looking for an argument but asking should you consider thinking outside of the box and try to work smarter instead of harder.

I think we will be in this budget problem for several more years and the future for many departments will be to merge or close. I think we will indeed have to do more with less for several more years before we can expect better times. Be creative and come up with ways to make your department and the fire service better, and remember when you do, share your success with the others.

Ron Cheves is retired chief of the Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department in Matthews, N.C. Cheves served Idlewild Volunteer Fire Department for over 27 years where he held every rank from firefighter to chief of the department. Cheves can be reached at 704-557-5781.
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