Monday, February 14, 2011

The Raping of the Fire Service, Part II

 To paraphrase Ron White, 'I wrote that post, so I could write this post.'
 When you read the previous post, you may well have been wondering why I was writing about the attacks on the Career Fire Service, after all, I am just a volunteer, right? Yes, of course you are correct, and my inherent knowledge of the Career Service is limited to having an interest, paying attention, and spending time with career brothers and sisters on the job and in training, as well as at the Academy. So admittedly, I don't really 'have a dog in that fight.' This is all true and I only wrote the previous piece as a prelude to this one and also to point out the gross lies flaws in the arguments being presented by the media and the politicians the feed them.
 Now how, you may ask, does this affect the Volunteer Service, and why should I care? Good questions I was hoping you would ask.
 As goes the Career Service, so follows the Volunteers in some form or manner, eventually. Obviously, the Volunteers are not worried about their pensions. What little they may get, will not blip on the radar for quite some time. But Volunteer Fire Departments ARE dependent on funding in one form or another from their communities. At some point all these small communities are going to be looking to 'save money' somewhere and for sure they will look at the big expenses and the high profile spenders. Your Fire Department is going to be a big glowing dot in the middle of their radar.
 In the United States we have the most confusing and widely varied systems for providing fire protection that it is impossible to make any kind of general assumptions. I've seen Departments that raise all their funds themselves, fix their own equipment, buy their own PPE (in some cases the members themselves buy their own gear), and are completely independent. Some Departments have a Fire District and levy a Fire Tax, some do a combination. Some are county Departments, some are overseen by a Board of Fire Commissioners, some  by the elected politicians who have no knowledge or training in the Fire Service. Some are independent and contract to the town they serve for a fee which is negotiated. Some run very business-like operations with full accountability, and some don't think it's anybodies business but theirs how they spend their money. You can read about a lot of the trouble these Departments find themselves in every week on Firegeezer.
 So having seen what our Career brethren are going through, we have a little lead time to get out houses in order. Read the handwriting on the wall, we are next, make no mistake.
 What can be done to deflect the impending storm, you ask? Well, I have some ideas on that front. Pick the ones that work for your Department and situation.

 1) Perception is reality. If your Department is percieved as a bunch of 'good ol' boys and girls' having a good time on the taxpayers dime, then that is the reality of how you appear to the public, whether it is true or not doesn't matter. It is the perception that counts. YOU need to change this. Act professionally. Learn how to say "Sir" and "Ma'am", speak politely, and carry yourself with pride and confidence. Act is a manner that is ALWAYS defensible. If you have members that like hot rodding to calls, you had better rein them in quick. Do the things you need to do, in a way that makes people respect you, not think you are wasting their money.

2) Show the public what they are getting for their money, whether they pay through a tax, a fee, or a donation. People usually don't mind paying for something if they see what they are getting and realize it's value. If they see you 'out and about' doing things that add value, they will remember that. I can't tell you how many people beep and wave when they see me out washing the engine on a Sunday. I get a lot of folks that stop in to ask directions, ask about the Department, or stop by to say thanks. Think about it, how can somebody just meet up with Department members to shoot the breeze? So when they see you out in public, that's when they ask questions. It's a great opportunity to tell them how we operate and what we do. More importantly, it's a chance to explain why we do things the way we do and correct what they learn from the TV.

3) Be available. Start doing the street fairs, put an EMS unit out there. Bring an Engine our Rescue and give the kids tours. This provides more 'face time' and allows the public to know that you are really there for their protection.

4) The only difference between 'good service' and 'excellent service' is the effort we put in. If you take the extra 20 minutes to cover roof holes with tarps on salvageable structures, help the property owner recover his/her property. Make sure fire victims have shelter arrangements or help make it happen. Show some concern for those we respond to help. Being short with them has a bad effect. Again, their perception is your reality.

5) Make sure your books are in order and as clean as a whistle. Having clean books is a minimum requirement these days. You need to make sure there is no opportunity to even imply that there might be an irregularity. Delaying an answer to a request for audit information from the proper authority will imply that there is something wrong. Your agency should pay to have their books audited on a regular basis by an independent auditor. This is just good business and it protects the Agency as well as the folks keeping your books. (Also, in the event that your financial person has taken a little 'excursion', you will find it sooner, rather than later.)

 In short, as Poor Richard said, "An once of prevention is worth a pound of cure." If you put the extra effort into letting your served population know what you really do for them, they will probably never come to your door asking for their money back because they already know how it's being spent. But if you treat them as if they are lucky to have you and shouldn't ask questions, you are in for a long ugly road indeed.

 Think about it.


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