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It’s Not Only ‘We Can,’ but ‘We Must’

It’s time to take action for the fire service grants

By Ozzie Mirkhah

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Illustration by Paul Combs/ArtStudioSeven.Com

Illustration by Paul Combs/ArtStudioSeven.Com

The beauty of our democracy is that regardless of who we voted for back in November, we embrace the smooth transfer of authority from the old to the new president this week. After all, the love for the well being of our nation and our utmost respect for our Constitution is higher than the routine bickering and the partisan politics. I am as independent as it gets, and always in my articles refrain from the politics, yet discuss the policies that are fire related. With that said the opening paragraphs in this article about our current economic situation are only there to provide the backdrop for the main topic of this article, the fire grants, and are not intended to be divisive or along the political party lines.

Change is upon us, and we now have a new president in our country. To reach this pinnacle, quite similar to his well respected opponent, our new president ran a successful campaign on a platform focused strongly on the slogan of “change” and complimented that with a confident “yes we can” attitude. From a non-partisan perspective, I must admit that the current economics realities will definitely test this “can do” attitude soon. As Americans we are all in this together. So it is not only “yes we can”, but we must; we don’t have much choice.

Go back a year to last January and ask yourself if you could have ever imagined the $700 billion bank bailout, Fannie May and Freddie Mac crumbling down, the big three automakers pleading for the government’s assistance just to stay afloat for a few months and receiving $23.4 billion and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) failures in the former Nasdaq chairman Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion embezzlement scheme case. If we thought that the failures of the years before, such as Enron and the bottomless pit of the home foreclosures were bad enough, these recent economic failures broke the paradigm and dragged us to a new low; where even the term “billion” has lost its true significance and value.

It is during these tough economic times that the fire service will be facing the challenging task of reauthorization for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program that is due to expire in 2010. In October, Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI), wrote an article titled “Working Together to Sustain Federal Support for Fire and SAFER Funding”. In that article, Bill reminded us of the political nature of this effort, especially during the current economic environment, stressed the importance of the unity of purpose and active participation and pointed out that, “everyone in the fire service plays a vital role in continuing the grant process”. In that article Bill mentioned:

“The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (FIRE Act) is up for reauthorization next year and we need to illustrate to Congress how $4 billion in funding has improved the overall readiness of our nation’s fire and emergency services…Your job is to make sure that your local members of Congress understand why FIRE and SAFER play a critical role in protecting you, your peers and the citizens you have sworn to protect. You need to convince them that the $4 billion awarded to fire departments across the country was a sound investment in public safety and that additional funding is still needed.”

Continuation of the AFG Program is of great interest to all of us in the fire service. It is important to recognize the great work of CFSI and the very many dedicated fire service leaders who fought tirelessly for many years, to establish the federal fire grant program. Their efforts should be applauded even more, once we recognize that, year after year, they still step up to the plate for us, and fend off the very many opponents that seek elimination of the federal fire grant program.

Bill Webb’s “call to arms” to the fire service, asking us to be on the same sheet of music and to step up our efforts to support and protect and the fire grants, is my reason for writing this article.

Needs Assessment

A majority of the estimated 30,185 fire departments in our country are inadequately funded at the local levels. Thus, the continuation of the AFG Program is of utmost importance in protecting our communities. The recent NFPA report titled “U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2007“, published in November 2008, is a good reflection of the challenges facing us in the fire service.

Based on this report, 72 percent of the 1,148,800 firefighters in our country are volunteers, and 95 percent of them protect fewer than 2,500 people. They simply don’t have a large enough tax base to adequately provide for their needs. The alarming statistic is the drop in the rate of volunteer firefighters per thousand people protected population, which has decreased from 4.35 in 1986 to 3.81 in 2007.

The remaining 28 percent of our country’s fire service are the career firefighters. Statistics show that they have been stretched thin and, despite the overall steady growth since 1986, the rate of the career firefighters per thousand people protected has remained virtually unchanged for the past two decades and is about 1.74. So, although we have a lot more tasks on our “to do” list now, and have a more urban population to protect; from the staffing perspective we are still behind the eight-ball just as we were two decades ago. And it is quite evident from all the downsizing across the country that unfortunately this situation is deteriorating even further.

Obviously, the fact that we were successful in establishing the AFG Program in the first place is indicative of our expertise in utilizing the above mentioned statistics to depict our needs. But, I think that the current tough economic times demand that if we want to enhance our odds for the AFG Program reauthorization, then we must add yet another dimension to our needs assessment justifications.

I believe that we must wash away the complacency of years, and start to better educate our politicians about the true magnitude of the annual total cost of fire in our country. And do that, not just by dry statistics, but putting those statistics in perspective by comparing them with the other significant current national events that have filled our daily prime time news. That way, the decision-makers have a much better appreciation for what we do, and hopefully recognize our needs based on the magnitude of the work yet to be done.

As I have indicated in most of my previous articles, based on the most recent NFPA statistics about the total cost of fire in America which is from 2005 “for 2005, that total cost is estimated at $267-294 billion, or roughly 2 to 2 1/2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product”.

To show the true magnitude of the economic impact of fire on our country, let our politicians know that the $294 billion annual cost of fire in our country is about 42 percent of the cost for the recent $700 billion economic bailout. Let them know that $294 billion, breaks down to about $24.5 billion a month, which is more than twice the $10 to 12 billion monthly cost of war in Iraq, that our newly elected president used in opposing the war during his election campaign.

Educate them about the true economic magnitude and impact of fire in our country, year in and year out. Let them see that compared to the cost of fire, their expenditure on the AFG Program, is merely a drop in the bucket. Yet a drop, that we in the fire service so desperately need.

Although the federal fire grants are a far cry from the systematic sustained funding that fire service needs to improve our service delivery at the local levels we do definitely need this continued governmental support to be able to better protect our communities. Let them know that their investment on us by reauthorizing the AFG Program has a good rate of return and will decrease the adverse economic impacts of fire.

Good Rate Of Return

We must prove to our public and the policymakers that our benefits far outweigh our costs. We must be in the black and have a net positive value; which means that we must save more for our public than we cost them. It is rather a simple cost benefit analysis. For the AFG Program to be around in the future, we must take measures that have a direct positive impact on reducing the fire losses and fire fatalities in our country. We must show tangible results.

And that is the same type of concern that Bill Webb made in another article titled “And Now for Something Completely Different.” Webb says “The fire service needs to make sure that the programs that are out there are having a positive impact. We need to start seeing more reduction in the number of deaths and injuries in the fire service. We need to make sure that every dollar awarded to the fire service is properly used and we can point to positive results.”

I believe that to be able to better prepare our case for reauthorization of the AFG Program in 2010, it might be of value if we all read the report titled “Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program: Assessing Performance“, published on April 2007, by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This is a very valuable report with a very positive stance toward the fire grant and supports its continuation.

“Above all, given the nation’s heavy reliance on local community support for fire departments and other emergency services, the AFG program must continue to give great deference to local assessments of risk and assistance needs, provided they are based on an adequate community risk assessment methodology.”

But, even this report posed concerns, raised questions, and pointed out various shortcomings that we must be prepared to address to be successful in protecting the fire grants. Take a look at the following excerpts, and remember that these recommendations are coming from friends supportive of us; then just imagine what we could expect from the foes.

“Benefits or effectiveness also must be estimated. It is easier to estimate the program’s costs than to estimate whether the program is effective. One first needs to specify in more precise, measurable terms what the program seeks to influence or accomplish. Only when there is some agreement on the goal or goals and how one can measure progress toward these can one ask whether the program’s costs appear reasonable in relation to benefits that is, does it help to achieve measurable improvement at a reasonable cost?”

To date the program has set out to improve the capabilities of fire departments. Such capabilities are believed to contribute to improvements in public safety and firefighter safety. Funds are being used mainly to purchase equipment, vehicles, protective gear, and some training and other services intended to improve incident response and to make firefighters safer. From this simple standpoint, the program is effective — it has improved the asset bases and skill sets of recipient fire departments and thus improved local firefighting capabilities. It is not as clear, however, whether such improvements reduce public and firefighter deaths and injuries, purposes mentioned in the authorizing statute.”

I remember a quotation from Einstein that said “everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted”. That seems to apply rather well here. We are not focusing where we should be focusing; therefore we are not measuring what we should be measuring.

I believe that our highest professional honor does not stem merely on being a firefighter, but in being a public servant. In my mind, having the trust and respect of our public believing in our professional abilities and expertise to protect them from the wrath of fire and provide them care, is our highest professional honor. With that though, comes the greatest responsibility of all; not to betray their trust in all and anything that we do.

That certainly applies to our fiduciary responsibility to provide our public the highest rate of return on their investment on us. We must give them the “biggest bang for their buck”. We must repay their trust by showing that their financial assistance in the form of the AFG Program is having a significant, systematic, direct, positive impact in reducing the fire fatalities and decreasing the economic burdens of the fire in our country.

Establishing A Game Plan

I believe that our mission in the fire service is quite simple, protecting lives and preventing the losses from fires. When asked about the effectiveness of the fire grants in the future, once we establish a solid game plan that provides us with the statistical data that attest to the success of the AFG Programs; then not only then we can clear all misinformation amongst the friends, but most importantly, we can easily fend off any misguided attacks by the foes.

Here is a suggestion. What if we could establish a goal of reducing our annual fire losses by a flat 5 percent, and then measure our performance against it? A mere 5 percent reduction in total annual national loss is not an unreasonable or unattainable goal for us, is it? All major corporations and organizations are responsible for their bottom-line and have some sort of accountability mechanisms and clear performance measures, so then why shouldn’t we?

We are no stranger to performance measurement. As a part of our daily routine, all our tasks are measured to the split seconds. Then why not establish that flat 5 percent loss reduction as a national performance measurement for what really counts, saving lives and reducing losses?

Another quotation from Einstein that “a perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem” is quite applicable to our situation. We measure our response times to the split seconds, yet we don’t have a game plan and any performance measurements for reducing our annual fatalities and fire losses. Not too logical, to say the very least.

Let’s use the statistics from the NFPA “Fires in the United States During 2007” report to figure out what that 5 percent loss reduction could translate to. That would mean that 172 people would be alive, considering that there were 3,430 civilian fire fatalities. That would mean that 884 civilian fire injuries would be prevented, considering that there were 17,675 civilian fire injuries. The concern for life safety is of utmost importance to us in the fire service, and reducing these civilian fatalities and injuries are the prime reasons for our professional existence.

Now, let’s talk about something that can strike a chord with the bean-counters that assist the policymakers in charge of allocating the funds and that is the economic costs. Do the math, and you will see that even a mere 5 percent reduction in our current annual total fire property loss of $14.6 billion alone, would be $730 million. That is more than the $547 million currently allocated for the AFG Program in FY 2007. You see, we could have a net positive value of $183 million every year, at the very least. And then of course, to that if we add the economics costs of the fire injuries and the fatalities translated to dollar values, our net positive value would be much greater.

Don’t you think that could serve as a great justification for the continuation of our AFG Program? We could indeed use such statistics to easily silence any critiques, couldn’t we? Such statistics would prove that the federal fire grant program has indeed been a major success. It would prove that the annual savings from the decrease of the total annual fire property loss alone would be more than the annual cost of the federal fire grant program. That would be a good rate of return on the federal fire grants investment, won’t you say? What better way to insure the continuity of the AFG Program, than to have such statistics highlighting our accomplishments, proving that the program is paying for itself?

Performance measurement is essential to our success. To realize the importance of performance measurement, take a look at Ron Coleman’s great article titled “Stats are More Than Inside Baseball” where he states: “What gets measured, gets done. If someone is keeping track of performance, then someone else is probably doing everything he or she can to meet that expectation….The phenomenon of performance measurement in the fire service is nothing new. More than 20 years ago, public officials recognized that performance measurement would be either embraced by or forced upon government. Notwithstanding wholesale failures of various levels of government to actually do much with performance measurement, the more successful fire organizations today use performance measures as if they were playing in Major League Baseball.”

Then the question that must be answered is whether we are going to do the performance measurements ourselves, or wait for it to be imposed on us? Remember, what Ron is talking about is not measuring statistics, just for the sake of keeping them. Even in baseball, one can not expect winning without a strategy and well thought through game plan. What Ronny is talking about is measuring our performance and effectiveness with respect to accomplishing the overall game plan. It should be obvious that we need to have a good game plan, if we want to succeed in not only preserving our AFG Program, but most importantly to address the fire problem in our country.

Look at it this way, even though the fire service certainly carries a lot of political weight; its nothing compared to the lobbying muscles of the big three automakers in Detroit and the United Auto Workers union (UAW). And you just saw a few weeks back, how they were sent back a couple of times to get their act together and come up with a solid game plan. And even after a few weeks of getting grilled by the Congressional Committee, they finally received a fraction of what they were asking for.

Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. My friends, spend the time and take a quick glance at a few of the historic national reports produced by some of our country’s brightest and most dedicated fire service leaders of the past; such as the 1947 Fire Prevention Conference, the 1973 America Burning Report, the 1987 America Burning Revisited, and the 2002 America at Risk report. And it would be quite evident that we have mostly ignored the great recommendations in those reports, and we have kept on doing the same thing over and over again for the past few decades. Logic then dictates that we should not expect a different result, doesn’t it?

I used all of these quotations from Einstein in this article to prove a point, that one doesn’t necessarily have to be as smart as Einstein, to ask us what results we have to show for the $4 billion fire grants that we have received since 2001. What are we going to say when asked, why these billions of dollars have not had a small dent on reducing our country’s annual fire fatalities and our total fire property loss? What tangible results do we have to show for those billions that we have received?

In my article titled “Impetus for Change” published back in January 2007, I indicated that in all other fields, many of the federal grants provide means for the most fundamental and essential improvements at the local level. I suggested that we can learn from some of those successful examples, and that the fire grants could also serve as an impetus for change in addressing the fire problem in our country. I mentioned that this wasn’t my idea at all, and that the concept of Fire Loss Management Plan that was first explained in the 1973 America Burning report:

“The Commission recommends that the proposed United States Fire Administration provide grants to local fire jurisdictions for developing master plans for fire protection. Further, the proposed U.S. Fire Administration should provide technical advice and qualified personnel to local fire jurisdictions to help them develop master plans.”

I ask you my friends, what better way for the federal government to be the impetus for change at the local level, than by working toward the development of the fire loss management plans at all national, state and local levels? To me, it is amazing that our own history in the fire service provides us with such a wealth of knowledge and comprehensive solutions that even after all these decades, we still can and must utilize to address our country’s current fire problem.

Back in 1973, the Commission was tasked to identify “how should responsibilities for reducing fire losses be distributed among Federal, State and local governments?” And in their America Burning report, they believed that the “Fire loss Management Plan” could be an answer to our country’s fire problem. It seems that back in 1973, they had the vision, but not the means to implement those positive changes. The important question to be answered is, now that we have some means in the form of fire grants, do we have the vision and the will to be the impetus for change?

Be More Proactive

There are those who believe that Ben Franklin’s old saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is passe, but then the wisdom of those centuries old words were reaffirmed in the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) report titled “Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves” submitted to the Congress of the United States on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) and it stated:

“This study shows that money spent on reducing the risk of natural hazards is a sound investment. On average, a dollar spent by FEMA on hazard mitigation (actions to reduce disaster losses) provides the nation about $4 in future benefits”.

Others are recognizing the importance of preventive measures. And that same proactive focus was also evident in the “Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program: Assessing Performance” report where the Panel stated:

“With regard to the relative emphasis given to prevention and response capabilities, the Panel must follow the lead of national panels of experts and the advice of others interviewed during the course of this study. Those who know most about the fire problem have repeatedly emphasized that, in many situations, at the margin, increased emphasis on proven fire prevention approaches will have greater benefits for fire safety than further improvements in fire response capability.”

The importance of focusing on fire prevention in addressing our country’s fire problem was clearly acknowledged in the 1947 President’s Conference on Fire Prevention; and then strongly emphasized on by the 1973 America Burning report where they promoted a balanced approach between fire prevention and suppression by stating:

“There needs to be more emphasis on fire prevention. Fire departments, many of which confine their roles to putting out fires and rescuing its victims, need to expend more efforts to educate children on fire safety, to educate adults through residential inspections, to enforce fire prevention codes, and to see that fire safety is designed into buildings…The commission recommends that local governments make fire prevention at least equal to suppression in the planning of fire department priorities.”

Now, even though certainly logical, I personally don’t advocate dedicating 50 percent of all our local budgets or the AFG Program to the fire prevention programs. I am a realist. By all means, give the lions share of the local resources and AFG Programs to the operations side. But then logic dictates that if we are indeed serious about reducing fire fatalities and losses in our country, then we must be proactive and should focus more on the fire prevention and public education priorities, and must increase our spending and dedicate more of our fire grants to fire prevention.

After all, that is where we will be most effective in reducing the fatalities and fire losses. So wouldn’t it make sense to shift our priorities just a tad and focus more on our prevention effort; so that we can justify the cost savings to our taxpayers who are footing the bill for the AFG Program?

I am well aware that our attempts in 2010 will be merely focused on the reauthorization of the AFG Program. And that we don’t want to open up the entire fire grant package to go through the Congressional process again. Because once we open that “Pandora’s Box”, we won’t know what we will end up with, even if anything at all, especially during these tough economic times. But I have two suggestions:

  1. The governing statutes for the AFG Program include a requirement that no less than 5 percent of the appropriated funds support the fire prevention and safety activities. If I am not mistaken, I believe that is only a minimum amount, and there is no set limit for the maximum. I believe that a mere reduction of 5 percent from the suppression side (which is very small), to be given to the fire prevention side, would literally mean doubling the fire prevention grants. Never mind the 1973 America Burning recommendations; let’s split the pie 90 percent to 10 percent.Give 10 percent to fire prevention and keep the 90 percent for the operations side. In my mind, doubling the fire prevention grants will have a direct positive impact in reducing the total annual fire losses in our country. And I don’t believe that we have to go through the Congressional approval process for this minor administrative readjustment. If we are serious about reducing fire losses in our country, why not put our money where our mouth is?
  2. This is a tad more complex and might need Congressional approval. And that is to eliminate the burden of the cost sharing and matching funds for the fire departments applying for the fire prevention grants. Currently, fire departments are responsible for sharing the project cost of the fire prevention grants under a specific statutory formula which is proportional to their populations served.Another quotation from Einstein shouldn’t be necessary to prove that this is a major deterrent for all fire departments across the country to apply for the fire prevention grants. After all, as we all know unfortunately too well, during the tough economic times such as the one we are facing now, the fire prevention and public education programs are the very first victims of the budget cuts.So, if the fire departments don’t have funding for the fire prevention programs at their local levels in the first place, and as a matter of fact they are forced to cut them down, then where in the world are they going to find the matching funds in their strapped budgets for the cost sharing part of the fire grant? That being said, is there any wonder why there are not too many fire department applications for the Fire Prevention & Safety Grants (FP&S), year in and year out?

What good is it to have the federal funding for the fire prevention grant, or even attempt to increase the funding, as I have suggested in the paragraphs above; when the current provisions within the system, have made it almost impossible for the fire departments across the land to be able to fully utilize the fire prevention grants?

That defies logic to say the least. We must change that, and do that soon, if we are indeed serious about addressing the fire problem in our country.

I can’t stress enough the importance of supporting CFSI’s efforts in fighting the many battles on the Capitol Hill on behalf of the fire service. The 2010 reauthorization of the AFG Program is a challenge that demands our attention and requires all our support.

The current global economic recession and our country’s political realities of today must remind us in the fire service that right or wrong, ready or not, “change” is upon us. And as a bare minimum, we need to adapt, even if all that we hope for, is to maintain the status quo and not lose grounds.

In my view though, it is even more important for us to take this opportunity to readjust our strategies, to enable us to provide the highest level of protection of our public, and maximize the rate of return on their investment on us.

It is important for us to recognize that we can’t do that solely by being reactive and responding to fires as, we have historically done. We need to be more proactive. Can we do that? If our new Commander-in-Chief believes that “yes, we can”; then so should we. That is of course if we put our hearts in it. I believe that not only we can; we must. After all, it is our professional obligation.

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