Getting Funding in the Private Public Safety World
By: Thomas Powell
Funding is something that everyone prays for in public safety but no one wants to hunt. The public safety community is built on budgets that get pulled in too many different directions. For example, if a department has $100,000 to spend, that may sound like a lot of money. For most people, that amount is more than they make in a given year working almost every day. Despite this, even in a small-town department, that sum has to be spread over different teams, equipment orders and replacements, training, service and repairs, and even little things like office needs. If 5 sections within a department are fighting for dollars and the money is split equally, any one section is only looking at $20,000. As divers, we know this sport can be costly when the equipment, training, and activity fees are viewed at one time. Now imagine trying to personally fund 10 new divers across the board with all the normal dive equipment plus full face masks, communications systems, redundant and/or emergency gear, and hazardous materials dry suits. Very quickly, a team can be left with minimal financial resources and needs that cannot be met anytime soon. So, where does money come from and how do we get more of it? Is there a way to look outside of normal public safety programs to meet certain needs for a smaller price tag?
The traditional methods of funding often first come from local government. Monies are set aside based on need and availability. In most cases, everyone gets part of what was needed so that no one group goes without. In rare cases, a special team such as a dive team may get a lion’s share of the budget on a cycle so that the team can plan for big purchase years. Similarly, other special teams get larger dollar amounts as their time comes up in the same overall cycle.
In contrast to governmental dollars, most people at one time or another have seen firefighters holding roadside boot drives or fundraisers in an attempt to fund needed equipment or training. The department itself may not have enough funding available in a given year, so personnel reach out to the communities they support for assistance. In some cases, corporate entities even offer donations for certain needs in the interest of community relations and care. The truth is that it seems like the perfect financial world never really exists, and gear, training, and safety concerns could always be improved.
The Private World
Outside of your typical public safety dive teams, there also exist private groups and organizations that seek to help communities and perform public safety services. In many cases, these groups own or operate unique equipment or provide services outside the scope of something like a typical public safety dive team. One example can be found in the use and provision of unmanned robotics such as remotely operated vehicles. Systems such as these can be very expensive. Once the secondary costs of “add-on” items such as sonar systems, hull skids, or grappling arms are considered, price tags only grow larger. We already know that “big-ticket” items are not often something that each and every department can afford. Employing these organizations to conduct certain parts of operations could increase efficiency, providing the appropriate equipment for the job while reducing a department’s necessary manpower for the specific task.
To provide an example of clarity, divers discovered that unmanned systems could search faster than divers for a victim, and this meant divers were only in the water to check found items or to perform a recovery. Keeping many well-trained and well-equipped divers on staff to conduct searches for long periods underwater using tactile methods may not be the most financially efficient model.
The reality is quite different.
You would think that the types of aforementioned businesses would have investors lined up to cash in on the possibility of reduced man-hours, and the expenses and hazard that come along with them, in the water. The reality is quite different. The vendor with no credentials and a generic understanding of technology, offering cheap services, using cheaper technology, and a lower price tag (but lesser value) gets chosen. On many occasions, I have sat with the private organizations when they asked, “Where do people get the money needed to grow, and how do you convince people that what they are buying is not what best reduces liability and ensures the highest level of success?”
The next suggestion would be to tell these guys to get out and sell themselves. Go do demos. Get your face in front of the right people. Just to explain that thought process, they have done all of this for generals, corporate CEOs, and even manufacturers. They meet an existing need, and still the money does not come. This is a situation where a small organization could use some of its resources in general business to become highly successful, while also allocating resources for public safety groups that have needs. For instance, would it not be incredible if every county in a state had access to a trained team of unmanned operators with aerial, ground, and subsurface systems that could be called in to provide support? Teams would not have to buy the equipment or stay current on training. They would only need to know how to support this specialized group. Instead, an annual fee could be paid on some level to always have people available outside of standard mission requirements.
For whatever reason, people continue to fight over local budgets, create bidding wars with dealers, and hope for the best in the training department. Not too long ago, someone jokingly asked if I remembered when thermal imagers were a “new thing.” They were too expensive and people wanted them but never bought them. Today, you find thermal imagers on vehicles at almost any fire department. They are a valuable asset that is considered a necessity to protect firefighters and potentially save lives. When does this shift take place as new technology is developed and who makes this transition?
The Reality of Money
The truth of the matter is that everyone always seems to want the dollar for his or herself. The idea of sharing wealth or finding an available shared resource that spreads liability and expense often feels like you are getting less, so people avoid it. Investors often want the newest toy that rockets to the front of sales and creates a fortune, so getting monies can be tough these days. The idea of spending to prevent the loss of human life rarely becomes apparent as a need until someone does not come home. Even with loss, the courtroom is often where recognition of dollar value finally becomes apparent.
As you read this, take a moment and think of the resources you currently have on your team. Do you have everything you need or do you wish you had something that your department just cannot afford? Does the team down the road have the item/s you need? If so, do you have a mutual aid agreement to make their resource available rather than waiting five years to buy your own? Is there a local group who has the resources to improve safety for your divers? Have you thought of a proposal for your department that might bring their resources into your operational tool kit? This type of thinking may help reduce exposure time for your personnel and increase the potential for mission success.
Funding is not always a big pot of gold. Sometimes it is an agreement, the act of training together, or opening your doorway to someone that keeps getting locked out. To use my earlier example, would you rather search for hours on end for a victim in the worst conditions? Or would it be better to let a piece of equipment be exposed to the elements for that period and then only splash divers for the actual recovery period? It seems logical that 10 minutes in the water poses a smaller risk than multiple hours.
Where there is a need, an answer can often be found that fulfills that need. Just open your eyes to abnormal resources or seek to be friends with the team across town that has been more financially successful. After all, the safety of your divers is the most import thing, and the methods you use to keep them safe may come from many different outlets.