Archive for August, 2011

Public Safety: Top Priority or Collateral Damage?

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

During the first few years of the economic downturn, police and fire departments across the country often were protected to the extent possible from budget cuts, layoffs, and furloughs. After all, isn’t public safety a core function of local governments? More recently, however, that automatic protection has been removed – as arguably it should be. However, in their zeal to cut their budgets, politicians and administrators seem to have gone from one extreme to the other in how they treat these agencies – and by extension, the services they provide. Instead of being a top priority, public safety suddenly seems in danger of becoming collateral damage in the political budget cutting process.

By “political budget cutting” I mean a process in which politicians and administrators resort to ineffective resource allocation tactics such as engaging in “proportionate sharing” or choosing to retain programs and services that are popular with constituents but non-essential, instead of setting priorities and making the tough decisions that they were elected or hired to make. One reason why the proportionate sharing tactic is ineffective is that it lumps essential and non-essential services in the same basket, and subjects them to the same percentage cuts without considering the fact that providing public safety and infrastructure are the only reasons government exists, whereas things like staging parades or providing pretty hand-printed proclamations to constituents are not core government functions. If public safety is, in fact, the top priority of a city or county government, then why do those whose job it is to allocate resources treat it exactly the same as they treat services that clearly do not represent life and death matters?

I am not ignoring the fact that public safety costs represent a major component of many, if not most, local government budgets. There is no question that the levels of fire and police pensions have become unsustainable in many areas. (At the same time, let’s not forget that when pensions are negotiated through a collective bargaining process, as most are, both parties have to agree to the terms and conditions of the contract. Public sector employees are not the “bad guys” simply because they accepted the very generous pension and benefits terms their politicians offered them.) It is clear that unsustainable public sector pensions must be addressed. More immediately, however, let’s focus on how we can ensure that public safety is treated as the top priority by politicians who must cut budgets, rather than as collateral damage.

Everyone has a role to play to ensure that public safety is treated as a top priority rather than becoming collateral damage. Here are a few suggestions:

Fire departments and police departments:
– Educate the public and decision-makers about what you do, how you do it, and most importantly, the impact your actions and choices have on public safety. Things that are obvious or second nature to you because your training is in the fire service or law enforcement are not on the public’s, or too often the politicians’, radar screens. You have a moral responsibility to educate people on the likely consequences of actions that affect public safety. Don’t make them find out through experience. And don’t allow politicians to hide behind the excuse that they didn’t know what the consequences would be.

– Educate your stakeholders in ways that are personally meaningful. By that I mean, describe to them specifically what the impact on public safety will be if a given service is taken away, or delayed, or partially provided, or reduced in quality. For example, one of the proposals in Long Beach is to reduce the number of firefighters on engines from four to three. Some people seem to think that this is a reasonable to response to budget cuts in tough times. Those are also the people who have no idea how that change affects public safety. Citing dozens of studies that show why this idea has a serious negative impact on safety is not helpful in making your case. Instead, explain the likely consequences in personal terms so people can “get” it. Few people know that if they are trapped in a burning house and an engine with only three firefighters arrives on scene, federal law prohibits those first responders from entering the house until a fourth person shows up. It’s your job to tell them.

Politicians and administrators:
– Instead of focusing primarily cutting dollars, begin by deciding what level of public safety you choose to provide to the community. To do otherwise is to shirk your responsibility and put the public in jeopardy. Articulate that decision clearly to the public. Tell your law enforcement and fire service managers what you want the public safety “picture” to look like, and let them inform you what resources are required.

– If the necessary resources are not available, ask your public safety experts for options that come with clear explanations of each one’s impact on public safety. For example, how is “actionable” response time affected by each option? (By “actionable” response time I mean the amount of time it takes for officers or firefighters or medical personnel to arrive and take immediate, effective action to resolve the emergency, not merely the amount of time it takes for them to arrive on scene and wait for additional personnel and/or equipment.)

– If you SAY that public safety is your top priority, make sure your decisions and your actions match your words.

– Prioritize the services you choose to provide given the available budget. I am NOT advocating that public safety comprise 100% of the budget – far from it. Quality of life is an important issue that should be considered in the mix. The question is, where should it rank on the list of priorities relative to public safety?

The public:
– Lean about what public safety providers do to keep us safe, what changes are being proposed, and how those changes will impact the safety of our communities.

– Consider the big picture. Times are tough, and government isn’t able to afford all the “nice to have” services it has provided in the past. Decide where public safety should be on the list of priorities.

– Ask questions – of public safety officials and of politicians and administrators. Engage in constructive dialogue with others in the community.

– Let’s not forget that politicians are in office because a majority of those who voted cast ballots for them. It’s up to us to speak up and tell them what level of public safety we want and are willing to pay for.

– Become active advocates for what we believe, and back up our beliefs by voting for politicians whose actions match their words. If they are acting out of personal interest rather than out of the community’s interest, it’s up to us to hold them accountable and vote them out of office. Otherwise we are enabling their “me first” behaviors.

The bottom line is that public safety is everyone’s business. We all have a stake in ensuring that our communities are safe, and each one of us has a role to play. When any one party abdicates its role, especially in times of extraordinarily tight budgets, public safety is in danger of going from top priority to collateral damage. It’s up to all of us.

What will YOU do?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.