From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, first responders have dealt a dearth of PPE, thinned ranks from exposed and infected colleagues, and staggering call volumes as they served their communities. Now, as the crisis stretches on, the familiar foe of budget cuts threatens further hardship on our public safety infrasctructure.
It hasn’t even been a decade since state and local government budgets were battered by the last economic crisis. A study from the State Fiscal Health Project at Pew found that between 2008 and 2013, states lost $283 billion in tax revenue to the Great Recession. In another Pew study of cities at the heart of the country’s 30 largest metro areas, by fiscal year 2013, operational spending levels had not recovered to 2007 levels. That year, one third of those cities faced a 7-year low in spending on city services. Two-thirds had made cuts to spending on public safety by 2011.
In comparison to the Great Recession, the gap states are facing now could be over 2.5 times worse. The Center on Budget and Policy estimates that states will see a revenue shortfall of $650 billion over the next three years. The story is the same for counties and local governments. With businesses closed and scores of residents filing for unemployment benefits, nine in 10 of the 2,400 cities polled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors expect a budget shortfall in 2020. These are budget gaps like $115 million in Louisville, Kentucky, $200 million for Cook County, Illinois, and $100 million for Alexandria, Virginia.
As the Great Recession wore on, fire departments across the country were asked to “do more with less.” Vacancies went unfilled, training stopped or was significantly reduced, fire prevention programs in the community were halted. Replacement—and maintenance—schedules for apparatus and gear were stretched as far as possible and furloughs became common. Some cities even resorted to brownouts—temporally taking fire companies out of service—to contain costs, leaving Baltimore City’s Fire Chief James S. Clark to remark, “It’s roulette,” as fewer resources led to longer response times.
Fire departments are already beginning to feel the sting of budget shortfalls. A survey by the International Association of Fire Chiefs found that already, approximately 1,000 fire department employees, including front-line responders, have been furloughed or laid off. Over the course of this year and the next, that number is expected to grow to at least 30,000.
The CARES Act, which Congress passed at the end of March, added $100 million to the Assistance for Firefighters Grant program, and created a new $150 billion fund for state governments, all to help offset the enormous cost of responding to the pandemic. However, as budget projections reveal, these funds are not nearly enough to fill gap.
Whether more assistance will be forthcoming is as of yet up to political discussions. The House has proposed over $800 billion in aid for state and local governments in a recently passed stimulus bill, which the Senate has indicated it is unlikely to move. While political rancor, as much as coronavirus, defines our times, government responsibility still includes meeting the need for safe and effective emergency response, as laid out in the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. Traditionally, in the U.S., that responsibility falls to local governments. However, in unprecedented times, non-traditional measures may be the only way to actually fulfill the responsibility citizens expect.
Learn more about the components of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, including the critical role elected officials play in protecting citizens and first responders. Additional information can be found by visiting the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute webpage.