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Are Fire Department Cuts Worth the Cost?


By John Morse

When money gets tight everyone wants to take a piece out of the fire department.  If you listen to any of these political debates these days, you will hear the candidates talk about how great the police and fire departments are.  But out of the other side of their mouth, they want to cut pensions and benefits.  You never hear local politicians talk about cutting expenses other than pensions, why don’t they ever look for other things.

The buzz word going around these days is “unfunded pension liabilities”.  If you listen to the news, it sounds like these pension liabilities are some unfair penalty they are required to pay.  Everything would be great if they didn’t have to pay that bill.

The real meaning of that phrase is that the pension hadn’t been funded properly and now we are playing catch up.  Most of these pension funds we cheated when other projects came up.  Instead of properly funding the pensions, the money was used for other projects.  Now the pension bill is due and they want to blame the firefighters.  Sorry, but when I agreed to take this job that didn’t pay all that much, the pension was a part of that deal.  In the small handful of communities that did fund the pensions, there is no negative talk about the pensions.

Manpower is usually on the top of the list when things need to be cut.  Village administrators rarely understand, or take the time to learn why, we need the proper amount of manpower on our apparatus.  The problem is that administrators look at how many paychecks are riding on that engine and not what they do.  Manpower cuts affect many things when we arrive on the scene of an emergency, most importantly is our safety.  There is a lot to do when we first get on the scene and the fewer people we have, the more we have to do and the longer it takes.  Less manpower means a lot greater chance of someone getting hurt.

Another way that departments try to cut corners is by overusing mutual aid from other departments.  Mutual aid was designed to help out occasionally when there was a big fire.  Today it is so common we made up a new name and now we call it automatic aid.  It is automatic because we call other departments for help before we even know if we need help.  A lot of people in the fire service will tell you that it is better to call for help and return them if you don’t need them. The people saying that are not the guys riding on the aerial ladder two towns over because that department was too cheap to buy or man their own ladder truck.  One town saves money and another pays the price.

When it’s time to save some money in your town, make sure they look everywhere.  The old story about saving taxpayer dollars don’t really hold water when it comes to cutting manpower.  If you break down the average tax bill, you will find that the portion of that bill that goes to the fire department is very small. If you do the math on that amount to figure how much that homeowner is saving in a year by not hiring a couple fireman, it comes out to less than the price of one cup of coffee. Educate your administrators and your residents and you will be way ahead.

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