Industry Perspective: Tackling Budgets, Technology, Facilities and Pensions

When it comes to budget and solutions, understanding capital planning is critical in planning and accounting for future expenditures.

by Jerry Napolitano, wireless mobility solutions architect, Motorola / March 6, 2013

Nationwide, departments and agencies are forced to make difficult decisions that are closely watched by their local taxpayers. They struggle with budgets, technology, facilities and pensions -- issues about which I've gained an increased understanding in my 24 years in the wireless industry. 

And in 2011, I became one of the five fire commissioners for the Eastchester, N.Y., Fire Department, where I strive every day to bring value to the department and to the citizens we protect, namely in budget management and how to make the organization more efficient -- something all agencies and departments can benefit from.

Tighter Budget Constraints, Fewer Resources

As fire commissioner over the last two years, I've gained a deep understanding of how department budgets operate and what agencies tackle daily as far as expenses and unique solutions. What may initially seem like a large department budget, for instance, is primarily spent on salaries and benefits. This leaves about 15 percent for operating costs and upgrades to the department’s stations and technology.

When it comes to the Eastchester Fire Department’s budget and solutions, understanding capital planning is critical in planning and accounting for future expenditures.

Living and operating in the Northeast means the majority of firehouses are 50-plus years old, and many will need to be renovated and repaired in the coming years. Having a solid capital development plan and knowing all potential costs upfront will help the department predict and allocate what those costs may be in the future. This understanding of our current costs, along with potential upcoming costs, will hopefully lead to the revitalization of the area’s firehouses during my time as fire commissioner. 

One of the biggest challenges moving forward, however, is the cost of pensions. Because many state pension systems aren't gaining as much money as they were years ago, the offset is pushed down to local governments -- which means that cities that had a 6 to 9 percent return on statewide pension funds five years ago now see much less. In fact, local communities are being forced to make up the difference.

I hope that the financial situation will get better to offset these costs, but pensions and benefits continue to be the two costliest things for our departments. These rising costs lead to cutbacks in our departments and result in difficult decisions that affect taxpayers and firefighters alike. 

The Need for Technology and Equipment

While I am constantly managing current budgets and forecasting future costs as a fire commissioner, my job at Motorola Solutions concurrently keeps me abreast with the latest technological innovations that can be beneficial in helping fire departments achieve the highest levels of mission-critical public safety communications. 

When it comes to fire service solutions for departments, accountability is critical. This is especially true in cases of mutual aid, where supporting resources -- such as firefighters, EMS and officers that assist with an emergency situation -- may not be people that the on-scene incident commander recognizes. This leaves open the possibility that someone may be impersonating a firefighter or EMS technician, leaving the incident commander with tough decisions to make if credentials cannot be verified.

Technological advancements aim to address this issue with solutions such as credentialing and smart carding that ease concerns for incident commanders. This accountability paired with radio technology allows commanders to be positive they have the right resources at the fire scene, enhancing service levels and improving accountability. 

However, budget management and new equipment that allows firefighters to do their job better, safer and more efficient do not always go hand in hand. It can be a balancing act to determine when departments are able to put funds toward technology advancements and upgrades, versus station upkeep and various ongoing costs. But through careful planning and consideration, it can be done.

While there is a clear need for these types of fire service solutions for any department, upgrades are not always feasible due to budgets. 

Several things for any department or agency leader to consider when deciding how much of the budget is allocated to upgrades and new technology as opposed to renovations or other areas that need funding include: 

  • Grants: Departments can look into grants on upgrade plans, but commissioners and leaders should be ready to carefully think about the balancing act that comes with forecasting and working through smaller department budgets. 
  • Specialized Upgrade Plans: Do not assume that your smaller budget will not allow for new or upgraded equipment. Talk to your technology manufacturer about the options. Most will work with you to outline an upgrade plan that best fits your department's needs and budget. 
  • Mutual Aid: Ideally, more fire departments will be able to utilize technology for accountability and credentialing, which would allow departments to do a better job of leveraging mutual aid. Leveraging mutual aid could effectively decrease the costs of some fire departments by having them support each other. Rather than having hard boundaries between towns, there should be more soft boundaries that encourage and allow support among areas.

It is my job to make sure that my department has the necessary equipment and upgrades to keep Eastchester’s firefighters and citizens safe. Through careful forecasting and allocation, fire departments across the country will be able to operate efficiently without breaking the bank. Though the answers may be different for each department, measures can be considered to cut costs in the long run while continuing to serve citizens in the best way possible. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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