Is this an Economic Downturn or the New Normal?

A professor once told me that if I didn’t like my options, then I needed more options. Many times I was only seeing the solutions that had become commonplace rather than rethinking the entire problem. After rethinking the problem, new options emerged that prompted better solutions.

Like it is with many fire chiefs, the economy is challenging my department and staff. Although dealing with today’s cuts, reductions and challenges is stressful enough, the real stressor lies within a more ominous and yet unanswered question: Is this economic downturn just that–a downturn with a recovery on the other side–or is this the new normal? Most of us could manage through a downturn if traditional budget trimming actions were sufficient. However, not many of us have ever had to rethink our entire model.

A “Rethinking” Example
In 1997, voters in my home state of Oregon passed a law that rolled back the property taxes to 1995-assessed values. I woke up the next day facing a 17 percent reduction in tax revenue to take effect in 6 months and a permanent cap on the rate of growth in property taxes. I didn’t have time for a mere budget adjustment; it was time to rethink our entire model.

We made drastic changes: closed, consolidated or moved stations; shut down seven rescue units and shifted those personnel to create all-ALS engine companies and increase our number of four-person companies; implemented peak-activity engine companies that rove through our service area jumping calls and plugging holes in the coverage; and–worst of all–laid off a number of very good employees.

Even given the pain and consternation that accompanied those decisions, I wouldn’t go back. My home department is better today as a result of rethinking our model. We now use deployment science to make decisions on staffing and unit deployment. Our education and prevention systems are more effective and efficient, and our response times and overall performance are better.

The Next Steps
Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”–a good point. Throughout our careers we have all observed drastic improvements in the apparatus, tools and technology now used by the fire service. But what hasn’t improved to the same degree across the board are new methods and models for doing business. I believe that our generation was the age of improving tools and technology; the next generation must focus on the science of emergency response.

With that in mind, I encourage you to think about the following:

  • Are your processes and service delivery model still relevant? In the November President’s Letter, I spoke about the benefit of closest force agreements and collaboration with other fire departments and organizations.
  • Strive for excellence. Never has it been more important to use data, science and standard business analysis to rethink your model.
  • When you’re playing defense, you’re not playing offense. Be proactive and make changes at the right time … for the right reasons … for the right people (the taxpayers). Don’t be so invested in your business model that someone else–your board of directors, city council or taxpayers–are forced to make changes on your behalf.

In Closing
Sometimes, when economic challenges strike, it provides us a prime opportunity to change the things that must be changed. If you’re looking for motivation, just look at your budget. If you’re looking for help, turn to the IAFC.

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