The rising cost of fuel is having a significant, and adverse, impact on not only individual consumers but also the operations of all levels of government – and private-sector organizations and agencies as well. Businesses are forced to limit face-to-face visits with clients, and more of them are allowing employees to telecommute; many small businesses, moreover, are totally unable to keep up with the rising cost of fuel and face the possibility of closing or at least reducing their scale of operations. Meanwhile, state and local governments are talking about increasing taxes, putting an additional burden on their already overburdened constituents, just to meet normal operating costs.

The question that arises is a fairly straightforward one: Is the nation’s struggling economy having an impact on the ability of public-safety agencies to deliver their customary services? Considering the major increases over the last year in the cost of fuel – which, today more than ever before, is a primary cost consideration in public-safety operations – that question can no longer be ignored.

It is no secret that police departments burn a lot of fuel in carrying out their everyday patrol duties. Most police cars in this country are on the road on an almost 24/7 basis (but some officers are fortunate enough to be assigned “take-home” cars, which therefore have more limited running times). The use of take-home cars provides an important additional benefit – namely, that it keeps the car in better operating condition for a longer period of time, and a car in good running order uses even less fuel. The downside to the take-home car policy is that it puts more cars on the road, so the real trade-off ratio is difficult to calculate.

An Historical First – At a Lower Price

In 1909, Detroit’s police commissioner had the brightea of using cars to transport police officers from call to call and around their beats. That is believed to be the first recorded use of police cars for everyday duties. Since then, of course, there have been many other ways developed to get police officers to and from their posts. But the fact that most of those posts continued to grow in size largely offset the benefits derived from the expanded use of police cars for routine patrols and other duties. It was recognized early, however, that the automobile allows an individual officer to cover more distance in a shorter period of time than would be possible by using a bicycle or by patrolling on foot. Another relevant point to factor into the equation is that fuel costs in the early years of the 20th century – only about 20 cents per gallon – were much lower than they are today (even when allowing for inflation).

Earlier this year fuel costs were $4.00 per gallon or more for consumers and – because they do not pay taxes, and usually buy in bulk – a few cents less for government agencies. But, when the cost of fuel rises for the general public, it also rises for government agencies. However, the real issue here is that rapid and frequent increases in fuel costs leave all levels of government unable to accurately predict future costs and, therefore, to budget for such costs on a long-term basis. This lack of predictability is particularly difficult for public-safety agencies because the key to quick and effective responses to emergency situations usually involves the availability and use of cars, motorcycles, ambulances, and/or fire engines or other wheeled vehicles.

What Are the Chiefs Saying?

Public-safety chiefs and directors around the nation are faced with the same difficult situation. Three months ago, Lawrence, Kansas, Police Chief Ron Olin was quoted (in a 2 June 2008 article by Mike Belt in the Lawrence Journal and World News) as telling the city commission that, if prices continue to increase, the city’s patrol officers “might have to park more often” – i.e., patrol their beats on foot. “More foot and bike patrols might be necessary,” Olin confirmed. (Among a number of other measures to reduce fuel consumption that are being discussed in various jurisdictions around the country is a reduction in the size of the engines in patrol vehicles; it obviously would be very difficult to predict the ROI (return on investment) from implementation of that idea.)

Although the cost-reduction measures discussed by Chief Olin and his counterparts in other jurisdictions might on the surface seem to be at least partial solutions to the funding problem, they all have significant drawbacks as well. Taking officers out of their cars for foot patrols, for example, reduces the effective patrol area those officers can cover, so additional police might have to be hired, or other patrol areas might have to be increased in size to compensate – increasing fuel consumption as well. The same drawback applies to bicycle patrols. (On the other hand, though, it apparently does boost citizen confidence in neighborhoods and other areas being covered by policemen on foot or bike patrol.)

James McLoughlin, executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, was quoted in another article as saying that cost-saving ideas such as doubling officers up, limiting the miles driven per shift, carrying out more stationary surveillance, and buying the cheapest local gas are among the other economizing measures being taken by some of the Lone Star State’s police departments.

Other public-safety officials – Beaver Dam Facilities Director David Stoiser, for example – are taking the offensive and telling their communities directly that service cuts may be inevitable if fuel costs continue to rise. This is an honest position, but it does not comfort most communities, particularly those that are seeing an escalation in crime statistics caused, at least in part, by the same economic difficulties. One conspicuous type of crime on the increase is the actual theft of fuel. In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, for example, a fuel truck was stolen earlier this year – not because of the value of the truck itself, but because of its valuable contents. The truck later was recovered by local police, but that brazen theft seemed to be a typical example of what is happening elsewhere throughout the nation.

Widespread and Continuing Shortages Predicted

Although the public-safety agencies are in most if not all American communities the most visibly affected by funding shortages, it should be remembered that the same jurisdictions that are having trouble paying for the fuel needed by emergency responders also have to buy fuel – usually in lesser amounts, though – for their public works, transportation, maritime, and other agencies.

In some jurisdictions, finance directors have had to shift funds from other programs to offset the rising cost of fuel – or, in some instances, cancel some programs. According to a recent article by Liam Farrell in The Capital newspaper (Annapolis, Md.), Maryland is “the wealthiest state in the nation.” But the principal focus of Farrell’s article was the cancellation of the 42nd Annual Maryland Seafood Festival, discontinued because the organizers anticipated an approximately 20 percent loss of patronage.

Public-safety departments around the nation are working hard to find innovative ways to maintain their ability to provide an appropriate level of service to their constituents. Police chiefs, fire chiefs, public-safety directors, and other officials in communities throughout the country all face the same situation – and all are asking more or less the same question: “Where do we go from here?” Not a single public-safety leader in this country is comfortable curtailing services to his or her respective community — and rightly so. But how to avoid cutbacks while constrained by a pre-set budget – or a budget that does not project increases in fuel costs – is an almost impossible task.

It would seem that government officials will have to benchmark the services that they must provide to separate them from those services that they can terminate (almost always with considerable reluctance). There is no universal answer to this dilemma, short of a much improved economy. As these officials decide which programs are curtailed or reduced in scope, the argument will surely become more visible, particularly in the communities most severely affected by the cuts mandated for any particular program. Governors, mayors, county executives, and other officials throughout the nation will undoubtedly be struggling to find a viable solution to “the funding problem” for many years to come. Unless and until that solution is found, public-safety agencies, and programs, will continue to be under-funded, and the principal loser will be the American people.

Gary Simpson

Gary Simpson is a 32-year veteran of the Annapolis Police Department who, after he retired (in the rank of captain), was hired back to serve as the emergency management director for the City of Annapolis. Two years later, he shifted back to the police department as director of domestic preparedness and in that post was responsible for the department’s anti- terrorism planning, technology management, and intelligence operations. He also has served in CID, the Arson & Explosives Unit, Public Affairs, Patrol Operations, Special Operations, SWAT, the White Collar/Fraud Crimes Unit, and Communications. He left the department earlier this year to start Simpson Security Strategies LLC, a security consulting company.

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