What are your options in these tough times?

CarolinaFireJournal - By Mark D. Reese
By Mark D. Reese
10/05/2012 -

We all know that times are tough everywhere right now. Public Safety agencies in every region of the country are having to trim their budgets and tighten the Ol’ agency belt loops to make everything balance. This has meant laying off personnel and delaying purchases of needed replacement apparatus and rescue equipment too. It may be a few more years until things get better, but the next disaster really doesn’t care. It has you on the radar no matter what.

Tip # 1: Preparedness Begins by Conducting an Inventory

Instead of focusing on what you have lost, take a good look at what you haven’t lost as well as what you are capable of doing now. Doing “more with less” should inspire you now to get everyone to the table to look at your policies and procedures too. Ask yourself “do my policies on paper match reality now?” If they don’t, rewrite them, or make an addendum to match reality. The public realizes that you have had to make cut backs.

Be open about what you are doing to ensure that the public trust is intact. If you haven’t communicated to them what you are changing, they will expect the same level of service as before.

Look at your equipment and apparatus. Ask some internal questions. You wanted to replace that engine that has been on the road for the last two decades with a bright and shiny new one, but can you get a few more years out of that truck? Can we put a reserve engine or rescue back on the front line with a little elbow grease and some tune-up parts? Can we still do vehicle extrications with that tool? If I rebuild that pump, will it work for a couple more years? What can we use to get the job done until things get better without compromising safety?

Preparation Tip # 2: Strengthening Your Ranks

If you are an agency that had many full time staff, FTEs, before the economic turn, and you had to lay folks off to meet the new reality of the current FY budget, now may be the time to strengthen your ranks with trained volunteers. This also may be a solution to meeting your community fire protection needs. It may also allow your response objectives and ISO rating to not falter and change dramatically.

In emergent events, people want to help one another. It is our nature to help one another in times of crisis. However, sometimes the best intentions can be problematic for an Incident Commander to deal with and manage effectively. These folks are called Emergent Volunteers.

To harness this resources desire (and energy) before the emergency, consider the benefits of recruiting and training them to help respond alongside you. Develop a volunteer firefighter academy; or bolster your EMS capabilities by training more citizens to be first responders or EMTs. FEMA also has a great program called Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) that trains citizens to help their community during a disaster. CERT also reinforces individual preparedness and resiliency. By doing this, you are engaging your community in the solution. These citizens not only get a better understanding of what you do every day as a first responder, but these folks become your trained “force multipliers.” It’s a win-win for everyone.

Preparation Tip # 3: Exercise and Practice

After you have looked at your policies and procedures (and capabilities) after the “crunch,” and reorganized the organization to fit the new “normal,” now comes the time to practice and prepare with the whole group. Roles, assignments and responsibilities have now changed.

Looking at your organization now, you may have new volunteer personnel in your ranks that have just finished their volunteer recruit academy; you may have new EMTs and first responders who just passed their practical exams. You may have existing personnel who are wearing more than one hat in your department now because of the budget changes too. Everyone needs to get comfortable working together and understanding their roles within the organization and within the NIMS and Incident Command System too. This is where practice and exercise hones the skills towards good outcomes during a crisis.

Focus your weekly drills on primary skills and activities like firefighting and EMS. This will get your newly acquired volunteers involved with operational and tactical skills. It will also increase their confidence and provide for good interaction between crews and paid staff. Remember, you don’t care who comes to the call as long as they are capable of contributing to the solution and not creating more problems.

Use tabletop exercises to practice command and control techniques as well as getting comfortable with the NIMS and Incident Command System (ICS). This is your best opportunity to think about worst-case scenarios that your agency could face and how you will manage the incident with the blended manpower now.

Tip # 4: Thinking about the Future

The rocky road that your agency is facing right now will not last forever. The road will be smooth again. By showing your community that you are willing to be creative and involve them in the solution (by utilizing more citizen volunteers) will pay dividends in the future.

You may also find that when you are up to your neck in alligators at a major incident, you will have lots of trained help that can integrate seamlessly into your operation. Increase your odds for success. It’s time to be creative. Look at what assets you have on hand. Look at your policies and procedures again. Think about your personnel options to include using more resources like volunteers.

These are tough times, but thinking outside the box will help you prepare to respond effectively to the next big event.

Additional Resources: www.fema.gov.

Mark D. Reese is a retired Sgt. from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office in Eugene, Oregon. He was also a volunteer firefighter and EMT with McKenzie Fire and Rescue in Walterville, Oregon. Reese has a BA in Management and he has graduated from numerous Emergency Management courses as well as the FEMA Professional Development Series, PDS. He is currently an Emergency Management graduate student at American Military University.
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