Learn Key Issues For Planning A Police or Firefighter Training Center

The how-to’s of formulating a comprehensive plan for training facilities

The Interact Business Group provides expertise in writing business plans for public safety training facilities. Their well-recognized plan is being used all over the country. In this article, company president Bill Booth outlines his approach to strategic plans for funding and operations of training centers. David Schoonover, who is battalion chief and manager of training for San Jose (CA) Fire Department, shares his first-hand experience in planning his department’s new $25 million-plus facility. Interact Business Group didn’t write the plan for the San Jose Fire department, but much of what the department learned through their three-year planning process is the same service the Interact Group provides to public safety agencies around the country.

Start With the End In Mind

That is a key point to keep in mind when planning for a new training facility. Focus not just on what you need today, but also on your future needs.  Because of the costs involved, a new facility will likely have to service your department for twenty, thirty or even fifty years down the road.
In the fast-changing world of public safety, more and more fire departments are finding that their current training facilities are outdated and sorely lacking in the equipment and props to adequately train their growing numbers of personnel. Both within departments themselves and within the communities they serve, most people recognize the need for highly trained professionals to serve in the fire department. But while the need is easily acknowledged, figuring out how to plan and ultimately finding funding for a new or refurbished facility is often daunting for departments.

Planning is essential

Any new business venture is enhanced by a straightforward, well-researched plan, and training centers are no exception. In developing a strategic plan for the development of a training center, it is imperative to fully assess the needs of the department and other involved entities, as well as the cost of building and maintaining the facility. Departments also need to look to the future, mapping out their expected growth and the training requirements that will accompany that expansion.
The Interact Business Group specializes in delivering the “full equation” through comprehensive business plans. A solid business plan assesses current and future needs, identifies costs and synergies and culminates with a clear funding objective. Without a doubt, obtaining funding is a business problem. Engineering and architectural firms are on the front lines and can provide valuable input into the process, but they can contribute only part of the equation. A business plan delivers the full equation: everything that is needed to move a project forward.

In essence, a business plan should answer every question that elected officials or grant providers are likely to ask. Likely questions include: Who will use the training facility? What training will the facility provide? What will it cost to operate the facility annually? In the case of multiple partners, how will the center be managed? What are the training facility’s costs and practical benefits? Should the facility be open to outside users in order to generate revenues? What private, local, state or federal funds are available? What is your funding strategy?

A comprehensive business plan can facilitate a broad range of goals in building a training center. But most importantly, a plan is crucial for obtaining the necessary funding to move a project forward. Ultimately, without a comprehensive cost analysis, elected officials and grant providers are reluctant to open the coffers for development. There is competition for that dollar, and a business plan gives departments an extra edge when applying for limited funding.

A Plan for the Future

The Interact Business Group advocates a seven-step approach to planning for a new training facility, culminating with the most crucial step – the funding strategy. In fact, the previous steps become obsolete unless the department can convince those holding the purse strings to support their cause. The cost of new training facilities run the gamut depending on the size and requirements of individual departments, but can run from $500, 000 to as high as $50 million or even more. San Jose’s initial planning process concluded with a $48 million price tag – about double the amount it has received through a bond issue.

Obtaining funding is a business problem. In San Jose, the department has benefited from the passage of a public safety bond issue that allowed the city to earmark about $20 million of the $189 million total for a fire department training center. Other departments may not be so fortunate and instead will have to lobby for funds and/or grants from local and state elected officials as well as from national governmental entities.

Because of that, a comprehensive business plan is crucial. The following summarizes each step, putting forth the Interact Group strategy first and then relating the first-hand experience of the San Jose Fire Department.

1.) Needs Assessment. This first step identifies exactly what the department or departments using the facility will need to ensure proper training, both for the immediate future and for several years down the road. How many classrooms are needed? How much office space? What about a tower, or Hazmat training equipment, EMS or special operations training? These and myriad other training requirements could figure into a needs assessment, based on the specific needs and desires of the individual department or departments involved. The needs assessment may also assess the feasibility of sharing facilities with other public safety organizations or with community colleges, and evaluate the possibility of charging tuition for training outside agencies.

San Jose’s experience: For San Jose, figuring out what was needed required seeing what others were doing. Trips to state-of-the-art training facilities in other states helped identify the right approach for San Jose. We advocate talking to others who have been through the process, finding out what worked and what didn’t, what they’d do differently if they had the chance. We also benefited from having spent four years researching and completing a Training Master Plan. By going through a “forecasting” process (see number 3 below), we identified the types of training we wanted to do, and how frequently we planned to provide it. We projected number of students per day times the hours of training to identify size and number of classrooms. By listening to department personnel involved in specialized training (Haz Mat, USAR, ARFF, EMS) we were able to identify special props and classroom needs.

2.) Operations Plan. Outlining the day-to-day management and operations of the training center. It is essential to map out details such as class scheduling, operational procedures, safety issues and procedures to delivering training courses that meet national standards and unique local requirements. The operations plan may include logistic and managerial scenarios for possible joint partnerships with other agencies or the local community college.

San Jose’s experience: We knew that our new training center would not be a collaborative effort with other public service agencies. Except for a driver training course, police and fire departments each would build new and separate facilities. Still, to assess all our training needs, we came up with a year-round training calendar that has eight concurrent, parallel, training tracks. Then when trying to pare our budget, we needed to juggle some scheduling to maximize use of such basics as classroom space and parking facilities. We also plan to open the facility for outside use where warranted. For example, our three Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) companies need classrooms, a specific site layout and specific training props. They may only use the dedicated facilities 15 weeks of the year, so we’ll offer our facilities to others. There are nine other agencies in the county, and several of them have rescue squads. We can share resources.

3.) Facility Assessment. Expanding on the needs assessment, the facilities assessment identifies the scope and magnitude of the training facility, zeroing in on the number of classrooms and offices, as well as types of specialized training equipment. The assessment also identifies the most cost-effective and advanced specialty training equipment available. The evaluation should take into account future needs as well as current requirements. One of the biggest regrets voiced by many departments is that they didn’t look into the future and assess their needs 20 or 30 years down the line.

San Jose’s experience: We recognized that we needed to forecast where the fire department and the fire service were going to be 30 years from now. By graphing the growth history of both the department and the city over the past 30 years, then working with city planners to assess where the city will be 30 years from now, we came up with a plan that projects the department will grow by at least 25% during that period. That means 25% more turnover, 25% more people hired and promoted, and 25% more training needs (classroom space, parking, training officers). Put into play in our planning process, it made us realize that while our current recruit academies average 25 people, designing a classroom for 30 isn’t the best course of action. In the future, recruit academies are probably going to be averaging 35 or so people, so now we’re designing classrooms for 40. The crystal ball approach was also necessary in anticipating training that we aren’t currently offering but would like to in the future, and planning for that expansion.  We had to develop a vision of the future, a vision of what fire training was going to be like for the San Jose Fire Department 30 years down the road.

4.) Site Requirements. If a specific site exists, the business plan reviews potential infrastructure costs, permits and neighborhood issues. If no site has been identified, the business plan establishes the minimum size required, identifies potential environmental issues and creates a budget for land acquisition.

San Jose’s experience: We knew from our initial facility needs study that an ideal location addressed environmental concerns (smoke, noise, night lighting, water runoff) and “NIMBY” issues. Ideally, it would be central to most stations to reduce travel time, and in an industrial area away from residential development. The $20 million in bond money doesn’t have any funds earmarked for site acquisition. We are currently negotiating with the city to find a suitable site on city-owned land. But compromise is essential. Our original study identified 18 acres as “ideal” to accommodate all our training needs. Instead, if financial negotiations are successful, we’ll probably end up with about 10 acres. Everyone we talked to identified the need for space as critical, including space to expand for unforeseen future needs.

5.) Financial Assessment. A crucial question, of course, is how much everything is going to cost. A financial assessment outlines the cost of building the facility (based on the needs assessment), taking into account local construction costs. It also provides estimated values for all aspects of the training facility’s design, construction, operation and maintenance, as well as revenue potential. It also must include an estimate of annual operations expenses.

San Jose’s experience: We started with a grant from the city council earmarked to conduct a training center facilities study. This followed a Santa Clara County grand jury report issued in 1998 that said our training center was outdated and inadequate, and the city needed to build us a new one. The result of that study was a plan for a $48 million facility. Our plan was nearly finished when the public safety bond became a reality, which was providential since we had discussed such an approach within the department. The bond resulted in $20 million earmarked for a fire department training facility. Since we received the bond money, we’ve been trying to whittle away at what was “ideal”, getting down to the need to have items, while leaving space for expansion in the future.

6.) Cost-Benefit Analysis. This step is crucial when pitching your project to elected officials and other sources of funding. The analysis outlines the benefits of a training center, documenting as much as possible the tangible and intangible advantages to building the facility. It answers such questions as: Why is the training center a good use of capital funds? Who benefits and why? What legal requirements does the training center serve? What is the revenue potential for the training center?  Does joining with other departments or jurisdictions provide benefits? How much should each partnering agency contribute to the project and why? The cost benefit analysis should clearly define all these questions.

San Jose’s experience: We learned early in the process that a joint police-fire training facility wasn’t feasible. The cost benefits weren’t significant, and the amount of land required for a joint facility would be extremely difficult to find in the city. But the biggest problem we anticipated was explaining to the political powers why we needed the new facility. The big question — Will this help the fires go out faster? – is difficult to answer, to say the least.

7.) Funding Strategy. Exploring all funding outlets is the final step in building a business plan. The strategy should review all possible funding outlets, such as local, state or federal grant opportunities. It’s unlikely that you’ll receive all the funding at once; instead be prepared to accept phased-in funding that allows you to meet immediate needs, but requires you to postpone some of your long-term desires. Also, pay attention to budget cycles and filing deadlines. Most grants are offered only once a year – miss the filing date and you’ll wait another year.

San Jose’s experience: The $20 million in bond money doesn’t come close to meeting the financial requirements of our original plan, which had a $48 million price tag. We are now designing a training center that costs $20 million dollars, meets most of our immediate needs and as much of our future needs as we can squeeze in. It is designed to be able to expand to meet those future needs as they arise. Success requires a clear vision and being able to articulate your needs in a manner that your governing body is going to buy. This has been a failure of fire services over the years. We’re very good at fighting fires but we’re very bad at political-speak. You have to be able to speak to the decision makers with data and clear numbers, which means getting rid of the emotional arguments. It also means recognizing that there is competition for that dollar, and you are competing with interests who may be better at articulating their need than you are. Part of it is simply letting go of ego. Everybody wants the biggest, the best, the most. That stuff doesn’t work in public governments anymore. We are identifying what things we can outsource, where we can share resources. It’s not just what we want, but how it all fits in with the community we’re serving, in terms of location, cost, political realities and the realistic needs of the fire service. But, we haven’t given up the dream of eventually having a training facility that has all the things we identified that we wanted.

A comprehensive business plan considers all these seven building blocks and presents them in a clear, concise manner. As a result, haphazard and un-researched ideas about what is needed are avoided, and the department comes together with a cohesive plan for the future. The planning process is critical. Starting from the very beginning, everything should be pointed in that direction.

About the Authors:

 Bill Booth is the president of the Interact Business Group, which specializes in training center business plans for public safety agencies and industry. The Interact Business Group successfully uses its seven-step Business Plan Process, a business-plan development tool that assists public safety agencies in the planning and funding of their training center requirements. You can reach Booth at 949/588-1346 or via the company’s web site at www.InteractBusinessGroup.com.

David Schoonover is the Manager of Training for the San Jose Fire Department. The department has 725 uniformed personnel serving a population of 980,000 (11th largest city in the country) and an area of 200 square miles out of 31 fire stations. Schoonover is a state of California certified Master Fire Instructor, as well as the Vice President of the Santa Clara Country Fire Training Officers and TRADE Region IX Metro Co-Chair.


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