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5 Tips for Planning Your Fire Department’s Budget

Bill Gardner

Fire departments across the country are feeling the squeeze of tighter budgets and making do with less. Sometimes pitching your budgetary needs can feel like going into battle, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Armed with a smart data strategy and leaning heavy into the return on investment your department delivers, you can walk into your budget meetings feeling confident and looking forward to what you’ll bring to the table.

So how do you get there? It’s true, budgeting can seem overwhelming, but we’ve put together a few tips to help ease the process and provide you with real-world insight that can keep you on the right track.

1. Recognize the Value of Data

For so long, fire department budgets were viewed as “untouchable” in city budget planning. But after multi-year recessions and low revenue in cities and towns across the United States, it became hard (if not impossible) to not tap into every available budget to keep cities running. It can certainly feel as if cities are between a rock and a hard place, and that is often the case. So how can a fire department prove that what it’s requesting is essential and beneficial to the community? A good place to start is to recognize the value of data in making budgetary requests.

Data – the metrics and trends in your own department and the community – is one of your most powerful tools for creating and sharing your “data story” (more on how to do that here). Whether it’s fire incidents, response times, and even how a CRR program has improved community safety – data shows, in a numerical manner, what and how you deliver to the community.

By understanding how data can assist in planning out your budget for the year, you’ll have a better argument for why you need additional or continued resources and what impact you provide. The result is that you take the emotion out of negotiations and lean into the data.

2. Good Data In for Good Data Out

The good news is that if you apply data to your budgetary process, you’ll often wind up with a great evidence-backed story as to why you may need additional staff, apparatus, or technology to solve a problem in your community. The bad news is that if you don’t have clean, accurate data, it can make the process much harder and even hurt your credibility.

Start by cleaning up your data now. Ensure data gets entered in all of the necessary fields, every time. For example, make sure to include estimated property loss when writing a fire incident report. Tighten up your processes and training so that all team members understand which variables must be tracked each and every time.

It’s helpful to identify the variables you want to prioritize in your data tracking. What comparison and trends would be most impactful to share with your council members or the general public? What are some areas of focus where your team is making a real difference? If you are unsure as to what data points your departments should be tracking, check out this guide to the top six data points all fire departments need to track.

3. Survey Your Crew and Community

There’s a saying that “two heads are better than one” when it comes to problem solving, and that can definitely be true when identifying what your budget needs may be. By crowdsourcing ideas/problem areas to solve, you may bring attention to needs that you didn’t know needed addressing.

An easy way to start is by sending around an informal survey asking your crews to identify where they would invest new dollars in the station in the coming year. Ask them to respond with their idea for investment, what problems it would solve, approximate cost, and what the value would be for the department. For example, you may learn that paper checklists take up a lot of their time and software could help reduce hours spent conducting daily checks. Or you could find that a new training program would teach your firefighters a more effective way of responding to certain call types.

Additionally, you should consider input from the “customers” of your department: the citizens you serve. One way to identify potential needs in your community is through an annual survey. You could do this by either asking for general input, or by proposing two or three different programs you’re considering implementing and asking the citizens which they would be interested in.

Getting input from your crew and community not only opens channels of communication and encourages teamwork but could lead you to innovative ideas that could really improve your department’s performance and impact.

4. Show the ROI of Your Budgeting Needs

A return on investment (ROI) is one of the smartest things you can bring to a budget meeting. For example, while it’s beneficial to say you’ll get “better reporting from a new fire RMS,” you’ll have a stronger argument if you can say you’ll “save 5 hours a week on reporting and have access to new reports for metrics.” The more specific you can be the better.

Think of this as an “if/then” statement but with data backing it up. If we add two new stations then we will be able to deliver on “X”, “Y”, and “Z.” If we continue the CRR outreach in this part of town, we could reduce the number of properties with no smoke alarms by 75%. If we add an additional apparatus, we could respond 40% faster to calls within a 25-mile radius. Look into your own data on your incidents for trends on your community and your responses to build your case.

Remember, numbers talk. By using specific, real-world data to illustrate the potential impact, you’re painting an instant picture for your audience that’s easy to grasp and hard to argue against.

5. Educate Your Audience

Finally, you should invest time in educating your audience. You know the work you do inside and out because you’ve spent time in the fire service. However, the average city council member or planner may not be as intimately familiar with the services you provide.

Take time to review your presentation and explain things in layman’s terms where possible. Avoid jargon and tell a story with your data. Ask questions to check for understanding and rehearse key talking points and your answers to potential questions in advance.

The effort you put into helping others understand the value of the fire service not only improves your current conversation but can help future discussions down the line. Sharing your department’s fire story in real-world, undeniable terms is yet another way you’re working to ensure the safety and protection of your community for years to come.

 

Budget planning is often seen as the tedious, “necessary evil” of running a fire department, but it doesn’t have to be so painful. By keeping the big picture in mind, building your plan with smart data points, and showing in real-world terms the impact you’ll be making, you’re working smarter, not harder. Not only will you have a stronger case to present at your next budget discussion, you’ll have measurable benchmarks to use throughout your upcoming year and easier planning in each session to come.

Want more ideas on using data to see your department’s needs, improve your data entry, and more easily see trends and analysis? Learn more about the integrated record management system built specifically for fire departments, ESO Fire RMS. Watch this video overview or take an in-depth tour now.

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