Unlike previous downturns, the recent recession has been different in many ways, especially in how it has impacted those who serve in public safety. In earlier economic cycles, municipalities did everything possible to retain public safety services and personnel at all costs. Although this still may be the overall objective, with scarce resources now exhausted, the ongoing economic crises facing cities and counties across the country have spared few police officers, firefighters and paramedics entirely from the budget ax. Although public safety remains the last area where cities and counties want to cut budgets, many have regrettably reached the point where they have no viable alternative but to reduce funding.
In fact, 79 percent of cities surveyed by the League of Cities indicated that budget constraints had forced them to lay off staff, and 25 percent said they were implementing outright reductions in public safety personnel. The city of Camden, N.J. — ranked as the second most dangerous city in America — laid off 45 percent of its police department and one third of its firefighters in January, reported by Financial Times on March 6, 2010. Such draconian and shortsighted steps that reduce both the numbers and effectiveness of public safety personnel serve as a stark example of the severe tradeoffs communities have made to address radically reduced funding.
But that’s not all. Communities throughout the country have also looked to public safety as a new source of revenue — often focusing on services provided by first responders. According to an article in the New York Times on December 16, 2010, the New York Fire Department may begin charging up to $500 to motorists involved in accidents requiring a service call beginning July 1, 2011. The new plan proposes to assess the highest fee of $490 for car accidents or car fires in which people suffered injuries. In addition to raising fees, the City of New York may also close up to 20 fire companies between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. everyday. On the other side of the country, the City of Garden Grove, Calif., implemented a Non-Resident First Responder Fee in mid-2009 that seeks to collect a $350 fee from non-residents involved in accidents. Although these fees may not ever raise sufficient funds to fully cover the cost of services provided, they raise the potentially troubling dynamic of pitting those who serve in public safety against the public, rather than united them in a common community.
The wisdom of attempting to raise revenue through such fees remains an open question. But the message is unequivocal. Public safety agencies will now be held even more accountable not just for their efforts, but also for their efficacy. Such radical budget pressures may not be uncommon in other areas, but it is a new dynamic for public safety agencies that have historically enjoyed being at least somewhat “recession-resistant,” if not “recession-proof.” Along with the rest of America, public safety agencies are expected to tighten belts and work harder and smarter. Without funding to hire additional personnel to deal with the challenges of growing populations, public safety has become increasingly dependent on technology to fill the gaps.
At the same time, public safety agencies have faced increasing challenges in protecting their communities due to aging legacy technology systems. Although the case of Camden, N.J. and the others cited may (thankfully) serve as extreme examples, many public safety answering points (PSAPs) are operating with outdated and failing systems that further hinder their ability to protect citizens and officers. In addition to trying to adapt to waning and constrained resources, nationwide budget cuts have depleted staff and forced public safety officials to make tough choices that have begun to threaten the overall safety of communities they serve.