A lack of resources is a basic problem for public safety agencies today, one that tends to have pervasive, serious consequences. Low available funds can weaken everything from equipment preparedness to adequate staffing. Police, Fire and EMS leaders must learn to deal with these situations to keep effectively providing protection for their communities, but answers can be hard to find.
To deal with a lack of funding while remaining prepared for emergency response, administrators may have to employ agreements with other towns, new scheduling approaches or other efficiency improvements. There's no catch-all answer to the questions that come from low funding, as every agency around the country and world has its own unique situation and needs. The following are a few examples of funding crises affecting fire departments and responses from administrators.
When grants end
Sometimes, a funding source simply dries up. In these cases, departments have to find creative ways to do more than less. A Daily Times report explained that when a grant established in 2014 ended in 2016, the Bloomfield, New Mexico Fire Department had to switch its approach to staffing. The department had previously expanded to 10 full-time firefighters. Now, without that money, the schedule has to be cut back and rearranged.
Administrators are in a tricky position in Bloomfield. They need to ensure fire and other emergency responses occur on time, but their ability to use full-time employees has eroded. The department cut three of its full-time firefighters to 19 hours a week, and has begun using money from the wildland fire fund - which is earned by sending firefighters to help with wildfire responses around the region. The department's current plan involves having one full-time employee and one volunteer on duty at all times.
When a county devotes itself to the volunteer model, there are financial advantages, but especially in recent years this type of department has been hard to sustain. A Press Democrat overview noted that Sonoma County, California, which has leaned on volunteer firefighters for years, is facing difficult times. The news provider gave Knights Valley as an example - four volunteers are collectively tasked with protecting 54 square miles from fire emergencies. The department's ranks have shrunk in the past few years.
When departments lack the funds to put into their volunteer fire services, people leave. The Press Democrat pointed out that with the high training standards needed to become a volunteer combined with a shortage of county money, it's not easy to recruit new firefighters for volunteer positions. The area has seen stations and equipment fall into disrepair without the money to make changes.
Facing these types of situations, fire companies that have spent decades in one operational style might have to change. Fire chiefs are calling for more money, and for a change in administrative style to suit the fact that the county has grown in population, and added more developed areas. A volunteer-heavy model that worked when the area was rural may have a hard time keeping up with a more bustling county. Leaders in Sonoma County acknowledge that changes are coming, with the aims of cutting response times as the area evolves.
Schedule effectively in complex situations
Each department deals with its own funding issues and staffing complexities. Whether adapting to cope with low funding situations or changing models to suit a population in flux, today's technology tools are helping administrators ensure that they are properly staffed.
Workforce management technology can serve as an effective way of using historical data to justify staffing budgets. Agencies using systems like these to track assignment activities, or those that have full-time equivalency tools, are better able to move toward budget-based scheduling. As a result, analytical data can then be used by department leaders to support funding justifications and adapt staffing to optimal service levels.
Keeping every shift staffed when funding is in doubt is a vital priority today. Learning how to deal with these situations while providing effective protection for communities is an ongoing challenge for public safety leaders. Technology can certainly offer a helping hand.