Economic challenges offer opportunities to shape the future

NOVEMBER PRESIDENT'S LETTER

Looking Forward: Economic challenges offer opportunities to shape the present & future
By Chief Jack Parow, MA, EFO, CFO, MIFireE

A look at our country’s history of recessions since the Great Depression shows that they are a very natural—though painful—part of the economic cycle. In fact, we’ve lived through no fewer than 10 recessions since the end of that era, although economists have declared the current recession, dubbed the Great Recession, as the worst of them. (Note: In September, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced that the Great Recession, which began in December 2007, ended in June 2009. However, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey shows that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the country is still in the throes of a recession.)

A History Lesson
The Great Recession is the fourth economic depression that I’ve experienced in my 35-year career. The others:
• The 1980–1982 recession was technically two recessions: the first 6 months of 1980 and 16 months from July 1981–November 1982. Oil shortages, inflation, high interest rates and reduced business spending contributed to the downturn and resulted in unemployment reaching 10.8%, the highest level of unemployment in any U.S. recession.
• The savings and loan crisis resulted in the 1990–­1991 recession. Fire stations were closed and many firefighters were laid off.
• The 2001 recession was attributed to the Y2K scare, the tech industry boom and bust, and the economic strain caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unemployment reached 6% during this recession.

Leading On
As for the current downturn, many economic experts agree that unemployment has topped off at 10% and that the job market should start to rebound in the short term. But what about fire and emergency services specifically? We’ve been dealing with an economic downturn and cutbacks since as far back as 2005, and many communities are still cutting positions and services.

Recovery will be slow for us, but the time is right to move from “getting through” to “leading on.” If you haven’t already, now is the time to start shaping the lessons of the past several years into a vision for the future.

Most of us have worked and managed through difficult economic times. The question is: Have we learned from the economic downturns of the past and truly capitalized on the enormous amount of technological advancements that we’ve seen in the past 35-plus years?
I’m not sure that we have.

Ask the Tough Questions
The current recession has changed the business world forever and established what everyone is referring to as the “new normal.” Today, those in the private sector are asking themselves what a “normal” world economy will look like after the biggest financial bust since the Great Depression. We in the fire and emergency service need to ask ourselves the same question.

To answer this question, we need to look at how we and other fire and emergency service organizations have survived over the past few years. We need to evaluate how we provide services, how we honor our traditions and heritage, and how we can lead successful and agile departments both now and in the future.

I believe the fire and emergency service’s “new normal” will not include restoring our departments to the way they were in the past. We must realize that an era has passed—which may be for the best. As fire service leaders, we owe it to our members, the community and the fire service as a whole to learn from this last recession, capitalize on the technology and use hard data to drive the way we do business into the future.

I urge every chief to sit down with their leadership and ask: What did we learn about our operations, personnel and community as a result of the Great Recession? What are we doing better now than we did before the economic downturn? Do we go back to the same way of doing business or can we capitalize on newly found efficiencies because of what we’ve been through during the past 3 years? And most importantly, what should the fire and emergency service look like today, and what will the “new normal” look like in our department?

Chief Jack Parow began his firefighting career in 1975. He has served as fire chief for 19 years, the last 16 of which he has served at Chelmsford (Mass.) Fire & Rescue. He is a past president of both the IAFC’s New England Division and the Fire Chiefs’ Association of Massachusetts, and has been active in many IAFC sections, committees and task forces. Chief Parow is a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer graduate and has received his Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation. In addition, he has been a professor at Anna Maria College in the Fire Science and Management program since 1996.

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