Saturday, June 6, 2009

Grants, Stimulus, and Living on a Budget

Editor's Note: This post is part of a TKT Roundtable: Fire Grants in 2009. Share your thoughts in the comments and check back to hear more from The Kitchen Table bloggers.

An interesting topic was selected for the first Kitchen Table roundtable discussion - the 2009 Fire and SAFER Grants. With the Obama Administration's decision to cut the traditional FIRE (AFG) grant funding, that's bad news for fire departments despite the corresponding decision to increase SAFER grant funding and to eliminate the local matching fund requirements for the 2009 and 2010 SAFER grants. If your department hasn't applied for a FIRE or SAFER grant, you might want to check out the basics for how to apply.

Mick Mayers and I were involved in discussions about this a while back, as our department turned down a SAFER grant worth nearly a million dollars. That grant was intended to fund the start-up personnel costs for an additional truck company. That truck company has been deferred for the forseeable future by our Town Council. We've also been advised that there will be no pay raises for any Town employee this year, including Fire & Rescue. Our operating budget for FY2009 had two rounds of mid-year cuts, based on declining revenues as well.

We have applied for a FY2010 FIRE grant for some additional equipment, but won't be surprised if we don't recieve the award. We know that many other departments are in the same relative shape, probably won't get grant money, and are struggling with reduced revenues.

Federal stimulus dollars have been noticeably lacking in terms of supporting fire-rescue infrastructure and equipment. Hiring personnel with SAFER grants is great, but what is the dollar source to fund the turnout gear, uniforms, training, SCBAs, and other equipment that those new firefighters must have? When billions of dollars are being used to buy the federal government into GM, Chrysler, and banks, fire services are going to take a back seat. Politicians simply will put the needs of commerce and the overall economy ahead of the needs of someone who is unfortunate enough to suffer a vehicle accident, heart attack, or house fire.

Where does this leave us?

1) Focus on what is truly important. When you have three projects and can fund only one of them, it forces the leadership to determine absolute priorities and to fund those priorities...and only those priorities.

2) Live within your means. That forces leaders to make hard - and often quite painful - choices. The rash of layoffs, company disbandings, brownouts, and unpaid furloughs acdross the country are ample evidence.

3) You must be able to compete. The government budget process is a competition for scarce dollars. Master planning and Center for Public Safety Excellence Accreditation are quite helpful in developing the budget as a planning and standard of cover document, and not just as a funding source. When the police, sanitation, parks and recreation, education, and public works systems are competing for those same scarce dollars, if you don't have a plan, you're not going to be successful. Having a plan and previous elected official buy-in strengthens the fire department's position at budget time, no matter the relative amount of available budget dollars.

4) Focus on what you can do, as opposed to what you can't do. If you don't have enough manpower and can't fund it, consider a sprinkler initiative to reduce community risk.
If you can't support enough units to handle your call volume, consider a load-shedding plan to reduce call volume.

My department's training division has a lot of similarities to a travel agency. Our past practice was to let firefighters and officers travel to classes, seminars, and off-site training on a frequent basis. Budget cuts have greatly restricted this ability. This forced a re-prioritization of training and professional development needs in all four of the above areas. This led to a plan to develop more of our firefighters and officers as instructors in order to be able to deliver more and better training without the concurrent travel expenses and coverage overtime and backfill. By implementing change, we were able to substantially raise our prerequisites for promotion for several ranks while reducing operating costs. That means that future candidates for promotion will be better prepared and better qualified prior to sitting for promotional exams while actually reducing operating costs.

Due to reliance on an existing Master Plan and Standards of Cover, replacement of two aging quints to partially compensate for the cancellation of the planned truck company looks likely.

We have been able to obtain smaller grants for EMS equipment such as a RAD57 pulse carbon monoxide monitor and temporal thermometers, both of which improve firefighter rehab. We have also been able to fund some additional CPR manikins and rescue equipment through non-FEMA grant programs.

At the bottom line, no one - elected officials, fire-rescue leaders, or the troops is really happy about the situation. It's safe to say that we'd all prefer to be able to throw money at every problem. Unfortunately, that's not a realistic solution when you don't have the money to throw.
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