By Jane Jerrard
Published Friday, July 27, 2012
| From the September 2012 Issue of FireRescue
As municipal and county budgets continue to shrink, some are looking for creative ways to ease the tightening of funds and keep vital services—such as fire and EMS—operating at necessary levels. Baltimore, Md., is one city that has agreed to implement an innovative, though somewhat controversial, plan to generate revenue for its fire department: In the very near future, the Baltimore City Fire Department (BCFD) apparatus will feature paid ads. Sales of these ads will generate some much-needed revenue that will go toward plugging holes in the department’s budget.
Small Bill, Big Goals
Baltimore City Councilman William “Pete” Welch, who authored the resolution allowing the ads, hopes that the funds raised by advertising on fire apparatus will be enough to keep all the city’s engine companies operating. “The idea came from my daughter,” Welch recalls. “She was on her way to a conference in Ocean City, Md., and was reading an article about ads on school buses. When she brought the idea to me, I immediately started work on the legislation.” Welch’s bill received positive reaction in a public hearing, and the city council passed the resolution unanimously at the end of May.
For the past three years, the BCFD has been operating with rolling brownouts of companies, but is now proposing to permanently close three of its 55 companies in order to meet its budget. BCFD Chief James Clack explains that $6.6 million is needed in order to keep those companies operating—which adds up to a Super Bowl-sized price for the BCFD ads, and it seems unlikely that that amount can be generated. However, there are few alternatives. “From a revenue standpoint, this is all that’s happening,” Clack admits. The other option: Trim the budgets of other city agencies and transfer those funds to the fire department, which is a possibility that would require the mayor and the city council to agree on how much gets trimmed from which agencies.
To protect the revenue raised, Welch has introduced a separate piece of legislation that would ensure that any funds accrued from the advertising would go directly to the BCFD, rather than into the city’s general fund—regardless of the amount generated.
Forming a Committee
A third piece of Welch’s legislation, which also passed easily, addresses how the ads will work. In a nutshell, his bill directs representatives of the BCFD to form a committee that will make decisions and implement them, including handling advertisement solicitation, selection, review and revenue collection. “Last week [June 25], I e-mailed the firefighter’s unions about setting up the committee,” Welch says. “The committee will determine ad categories, the size and shape of ads, and the timing of how this will all roll out.” Firefighters are authorized to form the committee and make decisions, but committee members must include a representative from the city council, the mayor’s office and the budget office, as well as “interested community and business leaders.” Welch says that the committee may simply decide to hire an ad agency to handle transactions.
One important responsibility will be selecting the sponsors. “The trick is to put together a process for accepting something … that fits our mission,” Clack says. “Perhaps an anti-smoking message or a message about smoke detectors.” Although the city is not allowed to seek sponsors, Welch has reportedly been approached by organizations, including two local hospitals and the Baltimore Orioles.
Reaction of Firefighters
While no one in the BCFD is entirely enthusiastic about turning their fire apparatus into rolling billboards, many have warily accepted the plan, understanding that it will add some funds toward their budget shortfall. “The initial reaction was, ‘This is ridiculous. We shouldn’t have to drive around town looking like NASCAR,’” Clack recalls. “But over time, there’s been more acceptance by firefighters as they realize this may be of some benefit to the department.”
Clack knows of only one other department that has added advertisements to its vehicles, and that was a very different situation: “About 10 years ago, I was assistant chief at the Minneapolis Fire Department,” he says. “The states had just received a lot of money to spend on anti-smoking campaigns, and the department put some ads on our trucks. I believe we generated around $40,000 a year by doing that—but of course that was on a much smaller scale than we’re talking about now.”
Clack says he doesn’t know yet if the ad revenue can make a significant contribution to the BCFD’s budget, and can’t say whether it will provide a long-term solution. He’s also not quite ready to recommend it to other departments. “We don’t have a good model yet,” he says. “I’ll reserve judgment until we see how this works.”
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