Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on September 1, 2015.

ABOUT FIVE TIMES A YEAR, I have the opportunity to travel to states and meet with our partners in state forestry agencies, people who use NFPA’s Firewise Communities/USA® program to develop public understanding of wildfire risk and recognize local community successes.

Recently, these partners have told me that state budgets are having them do more with less funding and smaller staffs. In such fiscal environments, prevention and preparedness are often seen as luxuries by politicians who prefer emergency spending and fire response as the media-friendly versions of decisive action.

Our meetings with state agencies allow us to ask them how the Firewise program can better help their efforts. As one agency is asked to make 10 percent cuts to its budget each year, and another sees staff assume more responsibilities as positions are consolidated, any prevention-focused program must be nimble and maintain its value as an effective tool to the practitioner in the field.

The response I often hear from agencies facing budget issues is that “revenue generation” is off the table—“taxes” has become a nasty five-letter word. Yet as more residents and businesses move into the wildland/urban interface, preparedness and prevention cannot be seen as luxuries to be taken for granted in state budgets. Proper stewardship of our natural resources includes an investment by state forestry agencies and others in the health of landscapes and the economies of residents who live there.

The debate over revenue creates an interesting argument about how taxes should be explained. Like anyone else, I want to keep the income I make, and the restaurants in Denver certainly appreciate that. Yet, what if taxes were explained not as a ritualized personal mugging every April, but as investments in a future of safety and prosperity?

Advocating for prevention and preparedness through economic ups and downs is not foreign to NFPA. Nor is it foreign to local fire departments, state agencies, code officials, fire marshals, and residents who see the value in an ounce of prevention. NFPA’s new vision statement, unveiled at its annual conference in Chicago in June, is a full-throated endorsement of this belief: “We are the leading global advocate for the elimination of death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.” NFPA’s role, and that of Firewise, is to ensure the value of prevention and to advocate tirelessly for its adoption.

In its “Spring 2015 Fiscal Survey of States,” the National Association of State Budget Officers reports that while most states continue along a path of moderate spending and revenue growth, long-term pressures like pensions, education, and health care are growing faster than state revenue. Many governors have proposed income tax increases as a way to meet revenue needs, but some have proposed cutting taxes.

As debates over spending, prevention, and response continue, people move into the wildland/urban interface. Communities and local economies grow. These areas require investment in resource health and land management to safeguard their prosperity. The role state agencies play in this equation is important, and our collective investment in them can help ensure that the right resources are applied to the landscape before it’s too late. 

LUCIAN DEATON manages the Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities Programs in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.