Thursday, July 28, 2011

Front Lines of PBB: Fire Department Cuts Costs, Increases Services

"The call we made is really to give the best service we could with the dollars available"

Many organizations embarking upon the path of Priority Based Budgeting are particularly interested in knowing how this process has impacted traditional public safety departments like Police and Fire. Like they expect to hear, we demonstrate that because many of the programs offered within Police and Fire departments show strong influences on most communities objectives like "Safe Community," "Vibrant Economy," "Quality Neighborhoods," "Effective Transportation" and so on, that many (not all) programs offered by these departments rank highly relevant through Priority Based Budgeting.

But that's not the end of the conversation, it's truly the beginning: how does a department with highly prioritized programs evolve to meet new demands, start new programs, become more effective when (even though PBB suggests they won't be cut) there aren't new resources to grow the department?

Grand Island's Fire Department provides this absolutely inspiring story. We urge those considering PBB to read it and be encouraged by what can be accomplished...

Grand Island's Fire Department is looking to actually increase services.

Fire Chief Troy Hughes has submitted a budget plan that would demote three existing fire department captains in order to save money and to staff a third ambulance -- at least part of the time.

"The call we made is really to give the best service we could with the dollars available," Hughes said.

Currently the Fire Department has 15 captains. They serve as the day-to-day commanders of each of the city's four fire stations for each of the three daily shifts. There are five captains on duty each day to ensure that each fire station has a captain on duty even if someone is out on vacation or sick leave.

Under Hughes' plan, two of those captains would be reduced to firefighter/paramedics and one would return to being a firefighter/emergency medical technician. That personnel could staff a third front-line ambulance -- a service that has been growing in demand as the city population grows.

"It wouldn't give us a third ambulance every day, but there would be more days that we would have a third ambulance going to that system," he said.
Hughes told the council in 2009 that the city's medical calls have more than doubled in a decade -- from 1,800 patients in 1999 to nearly 4,300. A third ambulance has been in demand on numerous occasions in the past few years when simultaneous medical calls come in or when there are multiple injuries at an accident scene.
Hughes had requested additional staff in the past (the city last added fire staff in 2000), but the expense -- even with grant funding that was secured, but rejected -- hasn't been approved. That led to this year's creative proposal involving the demotions of fire captains.

Such demotions are allowed under the Nebraska Civil Service laws, which govern government public safety positions.

"We'll do an evaluation according to the civil service rules to determine who the three would be," Hughes said. "Some of it is based on performance -- and seniority does have a factor in it. There are several factors when that situation occurs that civil service has us look at."

When the three are determined, if the city council approves of the plan, Hughes believes they will step down in position, partly because they would still be eligible for two years to return to the captain ranks without having to retake the civil service test for captains.

"Obviously, the three that move down, it won't be an ideal situation for them personally, but the public will still see the same level of service and maybe even improved service," Hughes said.

The department used grant funds to make three of the four fire stations more energy efficient, resulting in lower utility bills. It's also seeking federal funds to replace a 25-year-old pumper truck and hopes to purchase a new combined rescue/pumper truck to take the place of two outdated units.

"We're real fortunate to have what we have," Hughes said. "Some of the things we had to do, with the adjustment of the captains and other things, were ways we accommodated that so we can provide the service and the public won't feel any drop in service from our proposal."

- Grand Island Independent Newspaper, Tracy Overstreet, July 24th 2011

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