The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, but the aftermath still lingers. The recovery has been glacial for most, and nonexistent for many local economies still suffering long-lasting effects. When local economies struggle with an eroding tax base, fire department budgets often take a major hit. For departments that are already stretched, the options are few—reduce personnel and services, combine with neighboring departments, or find new sources of funding.
Throughout the last decade, fire services have faced expanding demands with increased emergency medical services (EMS), additional public education, expanded technical response to hazardous material, and increased responses to the threat of domestic terrorism. Meeting the needs of an ever-expanding set of services in the face of eroding budgets has created quite a challenge for chief officers.
Of the many services provided by departments, one often overlooked service is a natural source of new funding. No one will dispute the importance of Fire Prevention measures—and yet only an estimated 20% of fire departments nationwide have a system in place for charging for these services. Inspections, reinspections, and re-reinspections cost money! The departments that have instituted inspection fee schedules have discovered some interesting findings—
Perceived value – It’s human nature to place greater value on things that cost money versus the things that are perceived to be free. When businesses recognize inspection fees as one of the legitimate costs of doing business, they tend to take inspections more seriously, which leads to the next item.
Fewer reinspections – Reinspections are somewhat annoying and distracting for everyone involved—they interrupt the business operation while consuming scarce fire department manpower. An escalating fee schedule for inspections, reinspections and repeat reinspections tends to create a natural deterrent.
Improved inspections – Let’s face it, a fully-funded prevention program increases expectations, but also provides the resources to provide full-time, fully-trained inspectors armed with the tools to perform professional life-safety inspections. Not only does this provide an important public safety service, it also reflects well upon the department—providing an important and visible public relations function.
Better results – More and better inspections eventually yields an ever declining number of violations and consequently fewer fire-related losses.
The fire departments that have adopted the “fee for service” approach have generally followed the same basic process to make it happen—create the plan, make the pitch, and implement.
Create the plan – Nothing elaborate, but you need to first create your vision of the new prevention program including the importance of the proposed fee schedule. Your plan should quantify the revenue (estimated fee collections) and expenses (manpower, vehicles, tablet-PCs, and software) required to adequately inspect all of your structures and occupancies within each year, allowing for a reasonable estimate of reinspections and new construction plan reviews and inspections.
Make the pitch – Paint the picture of your vision and summarize the key points of your plan contrasting it against the current scenario (“if we do nothing”) –the expected impact in terms fire safety and budget given an environment that resists higher taxes. Your presentation should be ½ sales pitch, ½ education. Once your city council or board of commissioners understands the situation, they’ll draw their own conclusions.
Implement – Sure, easier said than done, but implementing is the fun part! Just remember, adopting a fee for service model increases the expectations of your community—your citizens will expect to see a professional, capable team of inspectors, so don’t short-change the training and tools required to do a great job and meet the expectation.
Apart from staffing with well-trained personnel, technology is the next most important part of your prevention program. Tablet-PCs and proven software programs such as MobileEyes combine everything you need to schedule, perform and manage a full fire inspection or building inspection including the invoicing and financial management processes. The training and ongoing support provided by the MobileEyes team will also ensure that your fire inspectors and building inspectors know how to use the tools and function like a well-oiled machine. Don’t take my word for it, check around—you’ll hear great things about the MobileEyes software and the support.
Funding for fire services has become a difficult challenge for chief officers. Despite the pushback against higher taxes or new fees, it’s time to think outside the box, create the plan, and implement a solution that has already helped others overcome the funding problem while improving services.