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Leadership Forum: Recession challenges leaders to be effective

A story in the March 13 Montreal Gazette says: “The police and fire departments are on the hook for $21.45 million of Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s $155 million budget-cutting exercise.” The fire department has been told to cut $7.6 million.

June 1, 2009 
By E. David Hodgins

A story in the March 13 Montreal Gazette says: “The police and fire departments are on the hook for $21.45 million of Mayor Gerald Tremblay’s $155 million budget-cutting exercise.” The fire department has been told to cut $7.6 million.

A headline in the March 16 Chronicle-Herald in Nova Scotia, says “Volunteer fire chiefs fight for funding”. The story quotes Emergency Health Services spokesman Paul Maynard: “They keep referring to hard economic times,” he says. “They’re not willing to give us the funding.”

What effect does the current state of the economy have on your department? How should leaders in fire/rescue and emergency management react? These are tough yet pragmatic questions. I recently read another newspaper account about London, Ont., which is requesting that its police and firefighter associations accept an across-the-board voluntary wage freeze. The president of the firefighters’ association responded that the city needed to show him its books and that city officials had better come prepared with lots of information and not just a general statement about times being tough. The police association administrator said he wanted to ensure the city was not squandering money on so-called soft services while putting his members and the public at risk. It doesn’t take much imagination to gauge the reaction of the city’s senior administrative and elected officials.

I have seen many different responses from senior emergency services officials when asked to develop operating budgets to address financial challenges. The typical knee-jerk response is: “No way, not us – we’re special.” Then comes the threat that any cuts will put the response staff and public at risk. This is the old babies-will-die-in-their-sleep approach that was used to frighten senior administrators and elected officials in the hope they wouldn’t reduce the emergency services budget. Hopefully, this tactic has been abandoned.


Given the dramatic and negative impact of the economic crisis, it’s time for real leadership in the fire service. Any response that suggests we are special and should be immune from having to work with the limited financial resources available is not an option.

Now is the time for fire service officers with business and political acumen to demonstrate their leadership skills and be first-rate corporate citizens. When I refer to leaders, I mean individuals from both management and the associations. Dealing with cuts is tough and the degree to which you will feel the heat depends on your rank or role in the department. If you are at or near the top of the organization, a lot of heat will be applied to you from beneath to just say no. There will also be significant pressure from those above you to find economies similar to those found by other corporate departments.

This is where true leaders shine. Innovative thinking and great ideas often come about as a result of adversity. In the words of Albert Einstein: “In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.”

The first thing good leaders do is talk to all members of their departments. If there are savings to be found, the people on the front line will have the best ideas. At the same time, it’s the staff who will be expected to operationalize budget-reduction strategies. You need to look for opportunities to fine-tune programs and service delivery and to generate revenue. Don’t immediately offer up resources that will reduce emergency response services. In the interest of your long-term success, don’t play that game.

Pennsylvania’s joined-up fire and emergency management program implemented a strategy to generate revenue to address financial challenges. It collected 10 per cent of all traffic fines and used the money to fund fire-training programs. The rationale was that firefighters need training to respond to motor vehicle collisions and the drivers who cause the most collisions should pay for the training through fines. Another great idea comes from Maryland, which added $1 to the cost of every motor vehicle licence plate issued and entirely funded its world-class air ambulance program. What could you do in your jurisdiction?

To sit back and ignore the challenge in the hope that it will go away or to aggressively push back and say no are not options. I am not suggesting that you let others run roughshod over what should be your decision. Rather, make sure you are part of the solution, not the problem. •

David Hodgins in the managing director, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. He is a former assistant deputy minister and fire commissioner for British Columbia. A 30-year veteran of the fire service, he is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager. Contact him at

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