Are We Really Doing More With Less?
“Doing more with less” seems to be at the center of almost every business, trade, and service around these days. What likely started as some type of catch phrase in a board room to justify the actions of people who know nothing about what the fire service does on a daily basis, or how we do it for that matter, has more or less become the industry standard for all budgetary, strategic, and tactical considerations. “Doing more with less” is more of a misconception and idiom than it is a successful managerial model. Although it is a reality for most departments, the very premise of such a concept never has, and will never, have any business being expressed in as a fire department procedural guideline or long-term planning method. The fact that the disillusion of this mentality has not been enough to revisit the implications it has caused is nothing short of disturbing.
The very essence of the fire service is to figure out how to fix or mitigate anything. Unfortunately, that makes us extremely susceptible to rolling with more punches than we really deserve. Our desire to serve our communities in any capacity, against all obstacles, is a mixed blessing of sorts. While we refuse to let adversity cause us to deviate from our mission to protect life and property, we also tend to accept conditions and circumstances which greatly impair our ability to do so. The more with less mentality is probably the ultimate example of how our commitment to our citizens prevents us from really demonstrating how severely many of these decisions handicap our ability to provide service.
The sad part of this mentality is that so many of our brothers and sisters are actually buying into such a fallacy. None of us are doing more with less, if we are lucky we are doing the same with less. In most cases we are just flat out doing less with less! This is not a knock on the dedicated men and women who are trying to deliver the best possible service with what they are given, but rather a wake up call for the fire service as a whole which for some reason has decided to champion this misnomer and essentially brag about how resilient we are for it. While I understand the well intentioned pride in our ability to carry on despite such cuts, constantly putting on our happy face about them only leads to more. The result is we have passed the breaking point of negatively effecting service in many jurisdictions.
So how did we get to the state we have entered today? Well it is quite simple; we are an easy target for the chopping block due to our humbleness and inherent ability to shoulder burden and solve problems. Although our profession had reached epic heights of public support after the tragic events of 9/11 and the brave actions of the FDNY, the Great Recession experienced across the country from 2007 to 2009 found many municipalities struggling to make payroll. I cannot remember any other period in my lifetime where working for the government became a risk or when local governments were filing for bankruptcy! The fallout for the fire service was having to figure out a way to keep our doors open when the citizens needed it most, while supporting recovery of the governments which fund us. This resulted in staffing reductions and cuts to funding which were based solely on political clout and empty bank accounts with little, if any, regard for operational implications. This affected both career and volunteer departments alike as the recession took members out of volunteer houses because many had to seek additional employment just to make ends meet! And while the public has always appreciated the service we provide, sadly many felt we had become overstaffed, overfunded, and our benefits were just far too expensive for what they were getting from us.
The result of these funding and staffing loses were departments being forced to try to turn out the way they had for decades, only with significantly fewer resources. We saw once staffed apparatus being cross staffed or shut down completely. We saw firehouses being browned out or shut down altogether. We saw once thriving volunteer departments having trouble getting one rig off the floor. We also saw all the small cracks in our systems like aging fleets, lack of mutual aid, declining recruitment, and poor contingency planning break under the pressure the recession put on us. This is how the “do more with less” mentality grabbed hold of our profession because at the time it was a positive way of saying the community expects the service you provided yesterday with the cuts and newfound realities of today. The only difference between those two statements is one sounds like something to be proud of and one sounds pretty damn gloomy. While I would agree that in times of turmoil we must find ways to frame the positives in order to keep our people going, the time has come to get back to what we need to do the job.
So how exactly are we doing more with less anyways? I can’t say I have ever read or heard an account of a department demonstrating how reduced staffing and budgets actually helped them to provide better or additional services. I have rarely even interacted with anyone who has found ways to maintain the level of service they had before the cuts. Whether you are knocking a large city's apparatus from 5 personnel to 4, reducing a smaller jurisdictions engine from 3 personnel to 2, losing your ladder or rescue completely, or having to turn over calls to mutual aid agencies because your volunteer turnout has fallen so low, the impact of staffing and funding reductions is absolutely crippling! Even if some departments have survived cuts or figured out ways to make up for them, I just don’t see anywhere that has actually done more, with less.
What I do see and read about every day are places that are doing less because they have less. Fire prevention, home safety inspections, smoke detector programs, open houses, fire extinguisher classes, car seat installations, etc. have been hurt the worst. The few proactive things we have in a business that is primarily reactive in nature are almost always the first to go. Sadly, many of these things were the reasons we saw a reduction in fire death and loss over the last 2 or 3 decades. Now aside from the “non-essential” service cuts, we have also seen operational cuts. Some areas have lost personnel, some have lost apparatus, and some are being forced to abandon tactics as a result of losing them. But wait, we keep hearing how we are all doing more with less… How many places don’t do vertical ventilation because “we don’t have enough people to put guys on the roof”? How many are choosing to not establish a RIT for the same reasoning? How many times do we see people pissing in the wind with a 1.75” line because they have been led to believe they or really don’t have enough people to mount an attack with the 2.5”? How often do we see places that are not even going interior because they “don’t have the manpower to do so”? Frankly, almost every time we see one of these pictures or videos where something is getting away from a department the first issue named is manpower. Yet you want me to believe we are doing more with less? Sorry, I am not buying it!
What we are doing more of with less is saying yes to additional responsibilities. The artificial belief that fires are down to a point where the fire service will essentially no longer be needed has led us to keep adding to our list of responsibilities while we continue to subtract from our rosters. Now while I absolutely agree that HAZMAT, rescue, and EMS are a good fit for the fire department because of their striking similarities to fire suppression, they cannot be absorbed without an increase in funding, apparatus, equipment, training, and manpower. In a time where many areas are struggling to put together a suitable response to a structure fire, how on earth are we supposed to conduct resource intensive disciplines such as HAZMAT and technical rescue or sacrifice the few fire personnel we have left to ride in the ambulance all day and all night, yet be available and rested enough to fight a fire? Just as a pound is a pound, a person is a person. They do not become more by the way you divide them up. Regardless of how many services you add to your mission statement, without the addition of personnel to carry them out you are doing nothing more than writing letters on a piece of paper and possibly creating a false sense of security for the citizens whom rely on your ability to mitigate the hazards they face.
Even though I disagree with what I feel was an unjust target being placed on the fire service’s back during tough financial times, I understand why it happened. Much like the military, our value is measured in readiness, preparedness, and response which are all the necessary qualities to react when things go wrong, yet they do not translate well on spreadsheets or in budget meetings. Government speaks in dollars and cents rather than perceptions and actions. Selling our value is difficult at best because we are asking those who write the checks to take our word on what we need. However, while it happened quietly, the economy has since recovered. So where are our people? Where is our funding? Where are our closed stations and shut down apparatus? Where is our replacement equipment? How do we get it back? The hard truth is it far easier to give something up when asked than get it back when needed. We complied too readily when times were tough and are not receiving the same courtesy now that the atmosphere has improved.
It is now more than ever that fire service leaders need to be going to battle to restore and rectify what was taken from us, which starts with ending the lie that we have been able to do more with less. I understand the difficult climate of being a Fire Chief. I understand that talking to politicians is different than talking to firefighters. I also understand that as the head of the department, you accepted the responsibility to LEAD us and that means you are going to have to have the hard conversations. It means you are going to have to take some fire now and then by pushing unpopular requests and ultimatums on the people who fund us. It means that you are probably going to have to do some homework, know your statistics, show need, and justify our requests. It means you are going to have to stop being a politician and start being the Fire Chief. I am sure these meetings and conversations are hard, frustrating, and heated at times but so is trying to carry out our mission with inadequate resources and personnel. Even as the Fire Chief you are a firefighter first, you are just crawling different halls now.
We are essentially living a lie these days. It is time we took an honest look at our operations and determined not only what we really need to do the job, but a path to get back to that level. Perhaps you need better automatic or mutual aid agreements, better volunteer incentives, more staffing, the ability to fill vacancies, a larger overtime budget, staffing of additional apparatus, more stations, new equipment, new apparatus, better benefits, more attractive wages, and everything in between. Regardless of your operational needs, you need a plan to get there sooner rather than later. Like anything in life, it is going to cost money and that is a hard sale for anyone, let alone a taxpayer funded service. However, there are studies out there to aid your fight for personnel. Your statistics show your call volume and your need. The number of units it will take to meet the established industry standards for personnel may be difficult or completely unattainable with the resources you currently have. If it is attainable, how does it affect your ability to respond to additional incidents that are resource intensive? There are plenty of ways to justify your needs, you just have to be willing, and sometimes creative, to communicate the hard truths and realities of them to the people who write the checks.
This job is hard enough without self-induced handicaps. We need to stop hiding behind past successes and admit the realities of where we stand today. While we take great pride in saving victims, that doesn’t mean we haven’t become one in many ways. As embarrassing as it may be, sometimes we need rescuing as well. The first step of that rescue is admitting things are not as they seem. If we refuse to call a MAYDAY in front of the mayor, how can we expect our firefighters to do so during a fire? Our willingness to accept our share of the cuts while minimizing the impact of service is commendable but should not be confused with an acceptable long-term solution. As long as we continue to spit out catch phrases like “doing more with less” and championing tactics and equipment which seem to justify this concept but refuse to acknowledge or account for the effect on victim viability or our ability to effect rescue than we are hurting our profession just as much, if not more than, those who impose the cuts which put us in this position. The Fire Department is, and always will be, an ESSENTIAL service. It is time we got back to treating it as such!