Fire and fire-based EMS operations are on the defensive, both from members of the public and from those who write their paychecks.
Since 9/11, public opinion of the fire service has remained high. But at the same time, city managers, town boards and city councils have been forced to focus sharply on budget cutting. In 2012 and 2013, public pension crises and health care reform anxiety are pushing red pens even farther into departments like public safety, which once enjoyed relative immunity from catastrophic financial cutbacks. A decade of decline in household median net worth means the public is becoming more willing to hold the feet of both departments to the fire, too.
In Indianapolis in April, Jerry Biggart, EMS instructor and coordinator of fire and EMS training at Waukesha County Technical College in Wisconsin, acknowledged the trying financial climate that has cities and citizens alike turning on the same departments they call upon first during an emergency.
“They picked the low hanging fruit already. There’s only one place left to cut: the fire service,” Biggart told comrades at FDIC. Even though financial stress is endemic, the fire service shares blame for letting itself become a target for cuts, he added. Sometimes, the foolish actions of one member can turn public opinion against the entire department. “You know how much damage a person can do in 30 seconds, just by hitting ‘Send’ or ‘Post.’ Twitter and Facebook, if you do them right can be OK, but you’ve got to be very careful. If you’re going to sound off to other people, you really need to keep it out of social media.”
Perception matters more now
More often, however, fire service is vulnerable because citizens and lawmakers don’t realize its full worth. Departments doing fire-based EMS have more inherent value in the eyes of the public than strictly fire units do, but even they have been affected by legislated eight-hour shifts, rolling brownouts and the loss of personnel.
Biggart urged all members of the fire service to first get out into the community and cultivate the goodwill that keeps a department’s budget from financial injury.
Ask yourself, he suggested, what crew members should be doing in their downtime to add value in the public’s and the city council’s eyes. “Don’t hide. That’s the most important thing.”
Biggart’s company in Oak Creek, Wis., added value with a wellness initiative and by starting a citizen’s fire academy. Not to be overlooked is the department’s participation in Coats for Kids, which he described as a well-run program that meets a need in a way that doesn’t embarrass the recipients for being poor.
“Or just go shopping with the truck. Leave one guy with it to hand out stuff and show off the truck. You might have that one guy who calls to complain that you parked it in the fire lane, but the more people know who you are and what the job involves, the more leverage you have.” Block parties, pack and plays, T-shirt campaigns and engaging in social media the right way are tools in the same tool box. “The next generation’s not watching the news, remember,” he said while imitating a teenager texting.
Also, he suggested, ask yourself if your department is treating people like they have a choice in fire and EMS service: because in many cities, they do.
“Did we get there quick? Were we nice? Did we tell them what we were doing and why? Did we take their pain away? Were we professional? These questions all count toward good public relations,” Biggart said. Another proactive move? Get involved in pandemic planning. “It’s going be a lot harder to cut a fire department that’s a part of a public health plan.”
Document with data
Data is indispensable in proving a department’s worth to council members, he emphasized. Potentially even more important in the era of privatized EMS service, it’s a tool public departments need if they want to stay in business. Even though privatized EMS companies sometimes go on strike, are sued or go bankrupt, their lower cost is a tantalizing carrot for broke communities. To protect public fire and EMS service, Biggart recommended:
- Go after the data
- Reframe and rebut the arguments
- Ask the opposing voice for sources
- Be on the offense
- Adopt white-collar business thinking
- Limit emotional responses
The likelihood of emotional pleas saving, say, those two full-time positions or securing sufficiently-large SCBA upgrades, has gone away. Data is indispensable in proving a department’s worth to council members, Biggart emphasized. And the light at the end of the tunnel will make it worthwhile.
“We need to think end game. Within four years, 95 percent of our county is going to have health insurance. Just think: Ambulance bills will get paid, and for the next 18 years, lots of people are turning 65.”
Lt. Jerry Biggart is also a field service representative for the International Association of Fire Fighters’ Fifth District.