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Straight Talk: September 2012

The economic challenges that most governments face today seem to have driven a phenomenon of assessing service delivery to the highest levels once again. And yes, it is once again.

September 7, 2012
By Kevin Foster

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The economic challenges that most governments face today seem to have driven a phenomenon of assessing service delivery to the highest levels once again. And yes, it is once again.

The industry of government has become a cycle of building to save costs, dismantling to save costs, then building again to save costs.

I will rely on anecdotal comments from friends, colleagues and family who have been part of that process in one way or another for more than 35 of the last 50 years; they often speak about having seen this process before and describe what will happen next, usually to an amazing degree of accuracy. You’ve all heard the famous line by Albert Einstein that that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results: rationally, this build-dismantle process seems redundant but it has become inevitable in today’s world and the concept of value for service is generally an afterthought. The purpose of the public service is just as the name implies: to serve the public. I believe this is the fundamental principle that must drive the future of protecting the people of this country.

It is becoming more common that, along with the traditional emergency-response agencies – fire, police and EMS – we read in local newspapers or see on local TV reports many other organizations are becoming involved with incidents in the community. It is not uncommon to hear about of the involvement of community service clubs, NGOs, emergency managers, and labour inspectors. At times, it seems the response activities happen in an unco-ordinated, overlapping-of-services fashion rather than in an organized system, as if the multiple-agency participation were a matter of self-justification/preservation. Some might view this as nothing more than a power struggle for survival of the fittest. I am dumbfounded as to how this is in the best interest of the poor Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones who is in need of help. Now, by no means am I saying that other agencies couldn’t or shouldn’t have a role at an emergency incident; but if they do, then it is imperative to ensure that everyone is on the same page as to the part each agency plays and perhaps, more importantly, what the roles they do not or should not tackle. Quite simply, this is a planning step in advance of an incident: you cannot make up this stuff on the ground at the time of need.

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That said, we in the fire service continue to hear from our councils and others that we need to do more with less, yet again – perhaps still is a better way to frame it – but there is no do-more-with-less; we are at the cusp (indeed, some are already over it) of doing less with less.  Doing less with less certainly isn’t going to help Mrs. Smith at her time of need.

But perhaps the business concept could be flipped to first analyze the needs of the community then determine which agency may be best to deliver the service in the most cost-effective manner.

All of the sudden this is like business, if you think of the just-in-time shipping system that now monopolizes the manufacturing sector; my widgets need to be there by such and such a time, what cartage carrier can deliver them by then and of those, which one can deliver them the at the lowest cost?

I struggle with the fact that we find some expansion of services beyond the traditional mandate without a value assessment for such. The self-professed experts will tout that they have this great new idea about how to re-invent the business of the state: run it as a business, they say. This isn’t about making a better widget to improve profitability; it’s about providing services for the greater good.

The fire service must take a leadership role to continue to ensure that our communities have available the necessary emergency response services, regardless of who provides what. Otherwise, this research and planning to find cost efficiencies will go on for months and years, leaving everyone in a state of flux while the operational needs of the communities we serve must continue to be met.

I venture a guess that many public-service managers are facing some of the most difficult challenges of their careers, trying to justify and ensure the services they lead continue to have their piece of the pie. Today the fire service may be well positioned as the all-hazards responders but we need to be looking to tomorrow.


Kevin Foster is in his 25th year in the fire service, having begun as a volunteer firefighter in East Gwillimbury in 1987. For 11 years, Foster was a firefighter with the Richmond Hill Fire Department and in June 1999 he became the first full-time fire chief of the North Kawartha Fire Department. Foster was appointed to his current position as the chief with the Midland Fire Department in November 2001 and is Midland’s community emergency management co-ordinator. Foster is president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, a certified municipal manager, level III with a fire-services executive designation, and is currently enrolled in the Ryerson Polytechnic University public administration program. Contact him at kfoster@midland.ca


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