Business Blueprint For A Public Safety Training Center
by: Bill Booth
As the need for high-tech training becomes increasingly necessary, more and more police and fire departments across the United States are looking to state-of-the-art training centers for their staffs. Higher state and federal standards, a general increase in the number of firefighting recruits, and the ever-present and increasing threat of lawsuits have spurred many departments to take a second look at their training facilities, and many are seeing shortfalls there.
Assessing a need is the first and least problematic step toward securing top-notch training facilities. Departments and other public service entities often find that getting from the first step, the needs assessment, to the second step, obtaining funding, is one of the most daunting aspects of moving forward.
A balancing act few question the need for high-tech training facilities. Communities demand and deserve highly trained professionals working in their fire departments, but assessing the cost of building and maintaining a training center is often one of the biggest hurdles faced by departments. Fire chiefs are skilled professionals in their line of work, but often find the minutiae of calculating the exact needs and costs of a training center out of their realm of expertise.
Furthermore, in many instances, two or more fire departments, and sometimes police and public works departments, will jointly use the facility. Each agency has its own needs and desires, and the departments involved may have difficulty balancing the contribution and usage for each entity. In most cases, a business plan can help alleviate such a problem.
Any new business venture is enhanced by a straightforward, well-researched business plan, and training centers are no exception. A business plan for the development of a training center is imperative to fully assess the needs of the fire or police department and other participating agencies, as well as the cost of building and maintaining the facility.
Larry Pitzer, chief of the San Bernardino (Calif.) City Fire Department, found that out firsthand when he and others in his community began laying the groundwork for a training center. In San Bernardino, the community college, the county government and fire department, and the city government and fire department formed a joint powers authority.
“When we got together, we had nothing except a concept and the knowledge that the faa was going to award a grant for a training facility,” Pitzer says. “We had all these questions: How will this work? Will it be financially feasible? What type of facility would we recommend to meet the needs of the fire service and faa? How can we show we have overall management capability? How many students can we run through? Is the land acceptable? All of those questions needed to be addressed.
“What the business plan meant to us was that it gave us the foundation,” Pitzer continues. “It gave us the fundamental information that we could market to our governing bodies.”
Lee Leighton, deputy chief of the Sparks (Nev.) Fire Department, also says that business plans score high marks. The department’s regional project encompassed both police and fire, and involved four jurisdictions. Leighton says the groups dithered around for months before calling in an expert.
“Our local government boards wouldn’t let us get off base until we could give them a formal business plan relative to the cost-effectiveness of the project, and why it would be an advantage,” he says.
The project was complicated by the fact that police and fire departments would share the facility. “When you put police and fire together to use the same facility for their own needs, it gets complicated,” Leighton says. “With that many jurisdictions and police and fire having their own interests, we needed to have an outside facilitator with some knowledge of public safety to bring the groups together. Without that business plan, we would never have gotten to where we are.”
The full equation Obtaining funding is a business problem, not just an engineering, architectural or financial issue. Still, all of those elements are involved.
When a fire department begins planning a new training center, it usually turns to an architectural or engineering firm. These firms can and should be an integral part of the planning process, but the reality is that they can contribute only part of the equation. Meanwhile, a solid business plan delivers the full equation, everything that’s needed to move a project forward.
Architectural or engineering firms provide site plans, layouts and, in some cases, construction costs. While invaluable, those details make up only part of what’s needed to begin the quest for funding. Elected officials, city and county executives, and anybody considering the project for possible funding also must know building and annual operation costs, as well as the cost benefits of such an operation.
Most fire departments are hard-pressed to come up with those figures. They know how many hours of training they need, but they’re often perplexed by the details, such as how many classrooms are needed, how much staff it will take to run the facility and how much facility maintenance will cost.
With a quality business plan, all those details are outlined in advance. Cost projections are based on a factual assessment of building and operation expenses after a careful look at the needs and desires of those who will use the facility. The plan’s author will interview all the parties involved to find out their specific needs, then calculate the number of classrooms needed, how many students the facility can handle on a daily or yearly basis, and how much users can expect to pay for maintenance and operations.
Partnership perks The high cost of training forces many agencies to join with other public service organizations or departments from other jurisdictions. Often, it also makes sense to have the local community college or another educational facility join the process.
Community colleges are logical partners. They’re in the business of running schools and can facilitate the scheduling and operations at a training center. Since they aren’t affiliated with public safety organizations, they’re often viewed as a trusted third party. Furthermore, many community colleges have fire science or police science programs already in place, and they can become essential partners in both the operations and funding of a training facility.
As the cost of training continues to rise, departments may find that the training facility they want is out of their reach. A business plan can also facilitate phased funding plans in the case of multi-year or multi-grant efforts. So while your dream center may not be viable in the short term, a business plan can help stagger the costs and make the long term a reality. In some cases, however, a business plan may indicate that a training facility isn’t justifiable.
Detail oriented A business plan should be all-encompassing, answering every question that elected officials or grant providers are likely to have. A business plan should answer seven key questions.
- 1) What are the preliminary site plans and equipment requirements? Most departments already have an idea of the land that will be used before a business plan is considered. If not, that must be assessed. Also, equipment requirements, such as drill towers, burn rooms, classrooms and field drill grounds, should be included.
- 2) Who will use the training facility? Obviously, firefighters from the participating departments will be the users, but a business plan should also consider other agencies. Involvement by other departments may be important because of the potential shared operation costs or revenue through tuition charges.
- 3) What training will be provided at the facility? This often is directly linked to the design, size and scope of the project. Departments can opt for a more basic training facility that provides essential classroom courses and live fire burns, or they can go further with advanced options, such as trench rescue or high-angle rescue. The options are as broad as the agency’s imagination and resources.
- 4) What will it cost to build the facility? This includes estimates from architects and engineers, based on the needs outlined by the department. There are several architectural and engineering firms that specialize in training center construction, and they often work hand-in-hand with the business plan developer in assessing building costs.
- 5) What will it cost to operate the facility each year? A business plan should assess the estimated yearly expenses for necessities, including staffing, electricity, water, janitorial services and maintenance.
- 6) How will the training center operate on a daily and yearly basis? Particularly in multi-department facilities, assessing which entity is best equipped to run the day-to-day operations at a training facility is essential. Everything from hours of operation to scheduling of classrooms or equipment use must be taken into account.
- 7) What is the cost benefit of the training facility? People or entities providing money for a training center want to know how much revenue the facility is expected to generate, whether joining with other departments or jurisdictions provides cost benefits, how much each user will be expected to pay in tuition, and so forth. A business plan clearly defines all the expectations, operational and financial.
A comprehensive solution A business plan gives the user a full understanding of the project’s overall scope. All the elements needed to make the project come to fruition, as well as run smoothly once the facility is completed, are included in a comprehensive business plan.
There should be no major questions left unanswered. That’s particularly important when dealing with elected officials and grant providers. Elected boards are regularly inundated with requests for project funding. A business plan shows that those involved have thoroughly thought through the process and can provide well-researched, fact-based cost analysis that creates confidence. Elected officials don’t like surprises, particularly when they pertain to costs. A straightforward approach is often the best way to convince them that a training facility meets community and agency needs.
A business plan also has polish. “The faa certainly does not want an amateurish, hen-scratched plan put before them,” Pitzer points out. “If they are looking at a $5- to $6 million grant, they don’t just hand those out on something that is unprofessional.”
Once the business plan is complete, the plan’s author might be in a position to take the process to the next step, which is convincing the grant and funding providers of the benefit and value of the project. The author knows the ins and outs of the plan, is familiar with the needs of each department involved, and is well-versed in the nuances of the plan’s economic requirements. He or she is often in the best position to represent the agencies involved in their quest for funding.
Once funding is established and a training center is built, a business plan is the operational blueprint and can be invaluable in the daily operations of a training facility. The community college or other operating body can use it as a guideline to facilitate meeting each party’s needs.
“The business plan was the cornerstone for us to convince our governing boards and the faa,” Pitzer says. “It’s the springboard for us in the construction of the site and managing it once it is operational.”
Clearly, a comprehensive business plan can facilitate a broad range of goals in building a training center. But most importantly, a plan is necessary for obtaining the necessary funding for a project. Ultimately, without a comprehensive cost analysis, elected officials and grant providers are reluctant to open the coffers for development. A business plan is crucial to success, providing all the details that are needed to move a project forward.