It was two years ago this month that we found my father in the basement – barely conscious, in pools of blood; his face nearly unrecognizable. His fall resulted in a traumatic brain injury; yet, my father is still with us – and that is all the evidence I need to understand the value of public safety services in our community.
As Mapleton grows, citizens are observing shifts in how the city does business; re-evaluation of operations, strategies, transparency and accountability, communication, and funding allocation are examples I’ve observed from attending the last four months of Planning Commission and City Council meetings. Some citizens are pleading for a respite, while others recognize the inevitability of and the opportunities which accompany change; and, some are doing a little bit of both!
There is a nation-wide decrease in volunteerism associated with fire departments which has piqued my interest and concern, since it impacts both the operational side of the department and the reliability of emergency services. The article entitled “NC Chief Sounds Alarm on Volunteer Shortage” (https://www.firehouse.com/careers-education/news/21083892/bolivia-nc-fire-chief-concerns-volunteer-firefighter-shortage-crisis) included two poignant findings:
- “According to a report published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in March, the number of volunteer firefighters has reached an all-time low. The NFPA data shows that there were 814,850 volunteer firefighters in 2015. That number dipped to 729,000 in 2016, and decreased again to 682,600 in 2017.”
- “A study published by the U.S. Fire Administration in 2007 examined the challenges in recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters. The study found no single reason for the decline. Among the contributing factors were a decline in civic responsibility, changes in the nature of small town industry and farming, more stringent training requirements, and more demands on people’s time in a modern society.”
Unfortunately, Mapleton is not immune to this decline and we may be more susceptible due to the nature of our population working out-of-zip-code (unavailable for daytime emergencies). We’ve implemented some changes to address the changing demographics of volunteerism and the particular demographics of Mapleton, but how can we ensure we’re meeting the long-term needs of our community? (Hint: More Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes.)
Mapleton Fire Department 2.0: The Proof is in the Pudding
The timing of investment in emergency services is tricky and comes with varied perspectives – none of which appear particularly wrong. On one hand, a municipality with tightly-leveraged resources (such as Mapleton) may opt to then leverage volunteerism in exchange for conservative budget management. (Sounds prudent, right?) However, the contrary argument is that public safety should be the first priority of services a city provides and, therefore, receive priority financial support adequate to compensate or supplement shortfalls in volunteerism. (Yeah, we want our emergency services, too!)
In 2018, Mapleton moved forward an initiative to combine its fire and EMS departments and hired a full-time fire chief. Having personal context through which I view emergency services, I’ve carefully observed this transition. Fortunately, the change has resulted in numerous recognitions from many entities regarding our Public Safety departments’ ongoing improvement initiatives. I’ve featured many of these things on my Facebook page Top 10 Things I’ve Learned lists, but have consolidated achievements here, too:
- Expanded paid positions for part-time positions and increased volunteerism.
- Increased response reliability by adjusted staffing schedules to guaranteed schedules, increasing emergency coverage to 6AM-6PM every day and 24-7 structured on-call support.
- Acquired new equipment (the “baby” fire engine, I call it) and also acquired new gear courtesy of a $26,460 grant from Firehouse Subs (and received several other grants).
- Enhanced strategic planning through the development of a Community Wildfire Prevention Plan.
- Implemented the ISpyFire App as the first adopter in Utah County. (The app gives responders up to two minutes lead on traditional radio or pager notifications. It also has mapping (to which all the fire hydrants locations were uploaded) and notes for quick info-sharing. Now almost every agency in Utah County uses the same app. I particularly love that a technological innovation is resulting in potentially lifesaving – literally – results. I understand the app is cost-saving as well!)
While the change from a volunteer-led fire department can be challenging and culturally disruptive, it also shows foresight in the management of city resources and concern for the safety of our growing population. Regardless, change is easier to embrace when there is supportive evidence, as I hope is the case with the ongoing recognition for our Public Safety.
And, we’re just getting started.
Planning for Our Safe Future
One of my concerns associated with growth is how we manage community expectations, cultural shifts, and technological advancements, while also avoiding burning out our employees and volunteers. In addition to the decreasing volunteerism for fire departments, we also see an increasing rise in incentive-based pay to recruit full-time fire fighters/EMS and police officers. Neighboring communities are actively hiring and likely hungry for both our skilled personnel. As such, now is the time to identify strategies to mitigate these threats. For example, we could enhance our incentive programs (for employees and volunteers), bolster the competitiveness of our pay scales, and transitioning more roles to paid positions. These initiatives will enhance the reliability and scalability of our Public Safety. Although there may be some days we have only one emergency, I would not want to imagine having my father’s care being delayed due to inadequacy of resources that horrific morning.
The positive side of these initiatives is that they’re realistic; the negative side is that they’re contingent upon adequate financial resources. As our city budget increases, the City leadership should continue prioritizing and scaling funding for Public Safety. Hiring a full-time paid fire chief was a wise investment in our community.
What Can Citizens Do?
If you’re interested in supporting our Public Safety Department, here are a few thoughts on how to get involved:
- Support Special Projects – While we have a call for support for both the Historic Town Square and Parks and Recreation, I’m not aware of funding requests for Public Safety. Let’s start small and adopt an initiative to raise funding for more solar-powered, lighted stop signs. What about a stretch goal to fund a new full-time Fire Captain/EMS position within the Fire Department for two years?
- Provide Grant Writing/Editing Support – Public Safety can apply and access grants. While we might not yet be able to justify a grant writer, we could provide community support in helping write and edit grants.
- Volunteer – We need a deeper roster of trained volunteers; we will even provide the training.
- Educate – Our Public Safety Department is keen on visiting schools and neighborhoods to educate. Schedule them and help the kiddos connect with these important members of our community!
- Deescalate Rumor – Contrary to media portrayals of us-versus-them mentality about police, our police force actually is the “us”. We can avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes or rumors regarding Public Safety so that our kids want to reach for that sticker badge and proudly wear the plastic fire hat (my son has three of them!).
- Follow Public Safety Facebook Pages – The City in general is working to get more connected. The same is true for our Public Safety Department. Give them a follow on Facebook so you can stay in the loop and get to know the personnel.
- Express Gratitude – My cushy desk job does not compare to the strenuous, dangerous, and often thankless efforts of our police and fire/EMS. Regardless of how we feel about ch-ch-ch-changes, we all rise together when we support those people who we trust to support us when we’re most vulnerable. Reach out and give one of these folks a bear hug (or an email, or drop off some Fiiz cookies). You’ll leave smiling and leave a wake of smiles behind you.
Do you have a topic you’d like me to research or write about? Let me know – shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!