By Shannon Pieper
Published Thursday, August 2, 2012
When Stewart McGehee retired as a battalion chief from the San Jose (Calif.) Fire Department, he took a position that made him less than popular with some of his colleagues: He is now a national fire service consultant to American Medical Response (AMR).
Although that might seem strange for a fire officer coming from a city of 1 million people—besieged with fighting over fire department staffing levels, a push to privatize some services and a fight over pension reform—McGehee saw it as a logical move after the experience he’d had working with a City of San Jose/AMR bid for ambulance service in the county. His experience taught him that if fire departments are going to survive the current budget pressure, they must be open to creative and unique partnerships.
McGehee shared his perspective during the seminar “Change Is Coming: What Your City Manager Isn’t Telling You,” today at Fire-Rescue International in Denver. I spoke with McGehee earlier in the summer to get the inside scoop on how he wound up where he did, and what changes he sees coming for fire departments.
FireRescue magazine (FRM): Describe your work with AMR while you were still with San Jose. What was the department trying to accomplish?
Steward McGehee (SM): In California, counties decide who can provide ambulance service. The budget situation in San Jose was very bad; the city found itself facing huge deficits. I was able to get the city to let me put out a request for information to see if an ambulance company was willing to partner with San Jose to bid on a county contract.
The idea was that the fire department and a private ambulance company each have its strengths and by partnering, we could capitalize on the strengths and efficiencies of the two together. By assigning values to the significant resources and services the fire department provides to the EMS system along with the savings they bring to the system, and finding better ways to provide the services, the intent was to redirect some of these savings back to the city. Aside from convincing the city to move forward with this idea, one huge hurdle was to convince city management to give the fire department recognition for half of the new revenue, in lieu of further staffing reductions, and let the city take the other half, use it to deal with other cutbacks in libraries, community centers, etc.
There was a lot of interest by the three large ambulance companies, but AMR brought the best offer along with the commitment for complete operational and financial transparency. We ended up not being the successful bidder, but through the process we had a very collaborative, collegial relationship. I think we were ahead of our time. Because of how ambulance contracts are structured in California, we end up having an opportunity to make significant change to our systems about once every 10 years. I view what we were trying to do as the next model, an evolution where we capitalize on the public and private strengths.
After my 30 years with San Jose Fire, I retired, and AMR’s president asked if I would be willing to help them take this model to other parts of the country. The goal is to look at those communities with fire resources at risk, determine if parts of our collaborative model are a good fit and result in minimizing fire department reductions while providing the same or better levels of service. I agreed because it makes sense and in the end, can minimize fire department reductions and maintain fire suppression capabilities.
FRM: What kind of reaction have you gotten from your colleagues to this new role?
SM: I have supporters and detractors. My philosophy is that I have to get up and look at myself in the mirror every morning. As long as I believe this is something that will benefit the fire service in the long run, I can do it. Everyone, including the fire service, has to change, evolve and adapt. If we didn’t, we would still be pulling engines with horses. I think we need to shift our philosophy; we have to stop fighting each other and start looking outside the box for new ways of service delivery. We either participate in changing our destiny, or someone else will do it for us.
FRM: Your seminar title—“Change Is Coming: What Your City Manager Isn’t Telling You”—is both intriguing and a bit scary. Haven’t many municipalities already been through a lot of change?
SM: The title is meant to attract attention—it’s not to blame city or county managers. Yes, a lot of change has already happened. There’s been reductions in benefits, closings of stations, browning out engine companies, layoffs, pension reform … but the problem is, based on projected home sales, sales taxes and property taxes, most city budgets are still anticipated to stay below pre-recession levels for some time. The difference between this recession and others is that home values plummeted and will take a very long time to improve. This is where property tax revenue comes from and to a large degree is what funds public safety. Property tax revenues are projected to remain flat or negative through 2015.
The reason I think there are many more reductions to come is because cities typically have cut other services much more drastically than they’ve cut public safety—parks and rec, streets and traffic, libraries. In San Jose, the other departments were cut 35% before police and fire were cut 7%. They’re to the point where they’re still running deficits and likely can’t make additional cuts to other city services, so they now have to take a hard look at further reductions in public safety, which, between police and fire, is about half the general fund for most cities.
FRM: Broadly, what are some of the other changes you see coming?
SM: I think compensation issues are going to be brought to a forefront, particularly in light of the recent San Jose and San Diego votes for pension reform where 60–70% of the public sided with city management. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to understand it. I think there’s going to be continued efforts to find efficiencies and different ways of doing business. Cities are going to be re-evaluating staffing levels and suggesting reductions of company staffing. Don’t get me wrong—I fully subscribe to NPFA 1710 and I firmly believe we need four people on an engine, but the ICMA [International City/County Management Association] has a consulting group doing analysis of public safety and they have made recommendations to cities across the country that would eliminate 24-hour shifts, have a more “flexible” staffing model and replace engine companies with smaller apparatus with fewer staff.
ICMA actually has a workshop titled, “How to Ask Your Police Chief and Fire Chief the Right Questions to Get the Right Answers.” I attended this workshop and according to the presenters, there’s a lot of downtime in the fire service, and there are different ways of doing business—flexible staffing, moving away from a 24-hour schedule—radical departures from what we’re used to in the fire service. This workshop is being held in various places all across the country. In the description of the workshop on the ICMA website, the first words are “How many police and firefighters do you really need? How well are your public safety departments performing?” Again, I’m not pointing fingers at any one person or organization, I’m merely attempting to raise the awareness level of my colleagues and let them know that others have a different take on what and how we should be doing things. In all honesty, some of what they suggest we should consider, just not the staffing models or some of the more radical ideas.
In fact, one of the ICMA speakers made a comment that he believes that the NFPA has become a “staffing tool” for the IAFF. In my view, the ICMA workshop is trying to dilute the importance of organizations like the NFPA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to city managers. These organizations are conducting tests and studies using the science of firefighting to show what resources are needed and to maintain firefighter and civilian safety. I believe one of the goals of the ICMA workshop is to make city managers comfortable with making large public safety reductions. Again, we don’t have to like it, but we have to start creating valid, objective counters, and remove the emotion from it. It’s all about data and it’s about objective, cost-effective arguments these days. A huge problem for the fire service is most of what we had for analytical ability has been eliminated, well before they cut operational resources.
I see cities looking at contracting services within the city; I see outsourcing of services. I also expect to see increases in regionalization—three or four small fire departments combining fire prevention bureaus, combining training, reducing duplication of effort. This is kind of common sense, from a city management perspective. I see an increase in mutual and automatic-aid agreements, so if there are reductions in staffing, the reductions could potentially be made regionally. If I have to close a station, maybe I have an agreement with the next-door community to cover that area or vice versa.
FRM: From talking with other fire service leaders, do you think the majority believes things will eventually return to the way they used to be (or at least close) or do they believe this is the “new normal?”
SM: At the last FRI, there was a two-hour presentation that I believe was just titled, “Change.” It was a panel of fire chiefs, and a panel of city managers and county executives, and they talked about all the changes coming. I was running late and was worried about getting a seat—but when I got there, there were maybe 20 people in the room. This was a candid discussion with chiefs and city managers, a golden opportunity—and yet very few people availed themselves of that opportunity to hear what they had to say.
While I think a lot of the fire service leaders understand that this economic cycle has permanently changed public safety, the way and amount we’re funded and our service delivery models, I think there’s a large percentage of my colleagues who think that this is just a bump in the road and if they hunker down, things will come back to the way they were. Personally, I think the fire service has been permanently changed by this economic cycle.
FRM: This focus on budget cutting has created a contentious relationship between many fire departments and city governments. What can fire chiefs do to focus on positive changes and move the department forward?
SM: If I were a fire chief, I would make an effort to understand that city managers, policymakers, fire administration and labor are all in very difficult positions right now. Everyone is anxious; there’s not a lot of trust between these key stakeholders, for a variety of reasons. What I’ve learned is that when there isn’t trust, the best way to improve trust is to have transparency. Ronald Reagan said of his dealings with the Soviets, “Trust but verify.”
In addition, maintaining communication with the staff, line personnel, etc., is essential. Feedback from the appropriate stakeholders should be solicited in a timely manner and recommendations made to policymakers on ways to maintain service if reductions are imminent. These are easy to say but extremely hard to accomplish.
I think taking a cold, hard look at things from a business side and risk management side is essential. I’ve seen communities where they’ve had to eliminate positions, [when another approach could have been to identify] services that could be provided by another agency, allowing the fire department to maintain suppression—outsourcing fire inspections, for example.
FRM: But doesn’t this contradict the growing belief among fire service leaders over the past several years that the fire service must continually do more—public education, hazmat, EMS, etc.—in order to stay relevant, to justify staffing?
SM: Look, city managers are learning the difference between an alpha call and a delta call. They understand that we’re still sending a fire engine with three or four people to a call for a sprained wrist. Our delivery model hasn’t changed.
Take a look at waste management services. Decades ago, they would drive up to my house with three people on the truck, get off the truck, open the gate, pick up trash can, dump the trash in, put the can back, close the gate and drive off. Now they require me to separate the trash, put it on the curb just the way they want it, and they come by with one person driving a truck with a hydraulic arm that picks up the can and throws the garbage in the truck. They’ve virtually eliminated workers’ comp claims from the injuries these workers used to receive, and they’ve reduced staffing from three to one on the truck and they still get the job done. They’ve changed their business model, become more cost-effective, and as a result they’ve kept the user fees down compared to what they would have been with the old model. In the fire service, for the most part, we haven’t changed our model. We need to take a very serious look at how we deliver our service and determine if there are better more efficient ways to do the job.
We tend to hold onto call volume to justify our existence. The problem is that we haven’t educated the policymakers and community that it takes a certain number of firefighters with a certain amount of equipment doing a certain amount of essential tasks to put out a structure fire and get the outcome the city leaders want and expect. These are policy decisions—if you have a residential structure fire, do you want it confined to the room of origin, the structure of origin or the exposures as well? As for business, is a city council comfortable with confining a fire to the business of origin, or writing off the exposure businesses in a strip mall fire, or possibly the entire strip mall? This is why a fire chief needs to be able to articulate to a city manager why you need this level of staffing. If they’re willing to let the result of a bedroom fire be that the house burns down, if they want to answer to the electorate with that, we can build our strategy and tactics around that objective and make sure we don’t injure or kill firefighters.
Let’s say reductions are imminent. I believe a fire chief should focus on the essentials—their core services. He/she should look at finding efficiencies, public/private partnerships to reduce number of layoffs in order to maintain the suppression capability. Take transport services—so many departments lose money on transport and aren’t even aware of it because we don’t calculate it the same way the business world does. Maybe the reductions can come from there, instead of eliminating an engine or a truck. Some cities are closing stations even while their transport service is losing money. We need to look at services that could be provided by another agency, and focus on those services only the fire department can do—suppression. The hard reality is that there will likely be continued reductions for the fire service and we will either make choices that maintain firefighter safety, such as minimizing suppression cuts and look at outsourcing services other agencies/companies can do, or we will allow cuts to suppression resources, hoping to regain them in a better day.
Some will read this and say that I’ve bought into the side of city management on these issues. Not true. I’ve seen some of the cuts made in cities across the country and how it’s affecting the fire service and firefighter safety. I want to raise the awareness in my colleagues, get them to understand we’re not out of the woods financially. The fire service has to operate more like a business, collecting the right data to show what we provide for the money allocated to us, and being adaptive to change. We need to focus on maintaining those things that only we can do—and that’s suppression. The fire service has great traditions, but sometimes that can keep us from seeing things that can be more tenable and sustainable for us. If you have to cut something, cut those things that someone else can do, and hold onto those things that only we can do.
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