Fire Department Budget Cuts: What Do I Do?

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It’s the last thing you want to have happen to you or your firefighter spouse, but it is known to happen: fire department budget cuts.

Not only has it affected communities in the past, but it IS affecting them, currently, for reasons we are all too familiar with. But even outside of an extreme circumstance like the COVID-19 pandemic, it can still happen.

And honestly, though you shouldn’t ever expect the worst, there’s nothing wrong with being prepared for it. So if you do suspect firefighter budget cuts may affect your family, or if they already have, here is what you need to know to weather the storm. 

First, understand why these budget cuts are happening

In our current day and age, it’s pretty obvious what the major contributor to widespread budget cuts has been. In order to keep up with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities have had to cut or decrease funding across the board, and emergency services are not immune.

Back in May, the IAFC predicted that fire departments would see a $16 billion revenue deficit as a result of the pandemic. Eight months later, we’re still in the thick of it, and many communities have experienced the effects: especially decreased tax revenue as a result of shutdowns and layoffs, which in turn impact local emergency services.

But aside from the obvious, there are other reasons why budget cuts may happen: in times of economic recession or in the wake of new elected officials, for instance.

‘Politicking’ is a common reason for budget cuts, especially when Fire Funds end up in a general use fund that politicians can move around without any say so from the Chiefs.

What happens when a fire department experiences a budget cut?

When most people hear “budget cut” as it relates to their job, other scary words like “layoff” and “pay cut” usually pop up in their heads too. And yes, those are possible outcomes that are worth being prepared for. 

These can mean things like meeting with the Union to negotiate over current wages to save some of the crew, letting go of those that were hired with Safer Grants, scrambling to find money in the budget or not getting a new station or truck.

It can also mean that currently staffed stations can go unstaffed during “low” periods of time that politicians determine- likely to the detriment of the citizens.

Not everyone is at risk of termination, so if you remain at the station, there are a few things you can expect.

If there are layoffs in your department, then it’s likely that those who remain will have to pick up the slack, which can mean longer hours, later nights, and more difficult shifts. Firefighters might find themselves called in more often or working overtime. This, obviously, leads to high burnout and can actually cost the city more money in the long run due to high turnover cuts.

Back in July, it was predicted that the categories with the most cutback would be conference and training. But other areas, such as fire prevention education, firefighter physicals, fundraising, and equipment have been impacted.

It will only be a matter of time before we see the full effects as we go in 2021, but don’t assume that something is ‘safe’, unless you get it written into a hard contract.

We’ve identified the problems, now what about solutions?

If your or your spouse’s department experiences budget cuts, you don’t have to be sitting ducks. There are actions you can take, both as a citizen and as a firefighter, to help stem the tide and make things better for your community and your family.

First, keep yourself informed! Talk to your firefighter and encourage them to talk to their chief about what’s going on. Ask questions and make sure everyone is on the same page.

Second, write to your local legislator or encourage your fire department to do the same. Make your voices heard! In many places it is illegal for Firefighters to go on strike, so get a group together and organize picketing in front of city hall or somewhere where the citizens can see and help maintain the safety of their community.

Third, research local and national grant and relief programs for emergency services! The good news is that back in January, the federal government increased funding for AFG, SAFER, VFA, and other firefighter-specific foundations. 

Now, this isn’t to say there hasn’t been or won’t be competition for these grants, especially these days. But these programs are active and available, so if your department hasn’t utilized them yet, why not encourage them to go for it? And if they have used them, well, even better! you already know what they are looking for and can apply again.

Fourth thing to do is get the community involved, especially with social media. Reach out to the local newspapers, contact all the local churches, call up retired members, and let them know what you need them to do! Be specific, ask them to contact the city or come to the city council meetings. Video is very convincing and you should make that your top priority as people respond better to other peoples expressions!

Recessions happen every 10 years or so, and this is a different kind of recession. We desperately need to make sure that Fire Stations are staffed and equipped as they are the First Responders on the scene during this pandemic and the subsequent Suicide and Opiod Fall out brought on by the lockdowns.

Let your community know that you want to keep wait times low and keep education and fire safety a priority- this way they can help advocate with you to the elected officials.

What to do to protect your family… and your sanity

Communication is key to any issue, and financial crises are no exception. Talk to your spouse about what they’re experiencing and make a plan together. If budget cuts are impacting their work/life balance directly, be patient, understanding, and solution-oriented!

If budget cuts are going to impact your household income, then it’s probably time to revisit your budget and see where you can cut back or save up. 

For those of you that have planned ahead, having an emergency fund saved up (generally, 3-6 months worth of monthly expenses) will hopefully tied you over. If this recession caught you unprepared… no worries. Don’t let yourself give in to despair… stay focused on the positive, look for solutions, and recognize that this, too, shall pass!

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