2014 was an exciting year for me personally and professionally. At home, my wife was saved by a lifesaving double lung transplant, my FD got a new tax levy passed that will allow us to purchase desperately needed equipment, increase staffing and create additional officer positions, and I served my first year as President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). This position has allowed me to meet and work with some amazing firefighters, fire officers, instructors and chiefs. It was a great year, but one filled with a lot of debate among many in the fire service. Some constructive and some not so much, but I think something is missing from many of the conversations.
Much of the debate in 2014 revolved around fire dynamics research, organizations like UL, NIST and ISFSI as well as many people who are on different sides of terms like transitional attack, SLICE RS, RECEO, etc. There has been very lively discussion on websites, blogs and magazine articles. The more I read and talk to people the more I feel there is one critical component that is missing from most of the discussions, and that is STAFFING.
I have read a lot of articles/blogs where some have accused people of ruining the fire service, destroying the tradition of aggressive interior attack and making firefighters whips. What I haven’t seen in many of these debates is anyone assessing the STAFFING. We, as a fire service do a terrible job addressing STAFFING, and our own actions as Chiefs make it even harder. When and where did 2 person companies become acceptable? In most communities paid staff was hired due to a rising call volume driven mostly by EMS and to some extent, false alarms. Volunteer daytime response was replaced with two paid staff to ensure an ambulance was available. Soon we started to cross staff an engine with the same two people and so it began.
I often wonder if some of the bigger city/county firefighters and instructors realize that many of the fire departments that are changing their tactics are rolling in with 2 on an engine? I think it’s wrong, but its reality and it’s those departments that really need to be adjusting their tactics and training to match what their STAFFING will allow- as opposed to what is typically taught at fire school or many conferences. If you don’t staff like a metro city don’t try to operate like one, as you’re just setting yourself and your firefighters up for disaster. What you can do is address the STAFFING.
For full disclosure my FD is a single station combination department. We staff 7 personnel per shift, cross staffing several pieces of equipment, backed up by off duty personnel and automatic mutual aid. Our minimum staffing on an engine is 3, but we typically have 5 and on occasion have 6 personnel when responding to a fire. It’s amazing what a 5 – 6 person engine can do when arriving first due compared to the 3-person crew. NIST studied it in 2010 at the Montgomery County MD Fire Academy, there report can be viewed here: http://www.nist.gov/el/fire_research/residential-fire-report_042810…
But the short of it is a 4 – person crew is about 30% more effective than a 2-person crew, not sure that we needed a study to tell us more people = more effectiveness but there it is.
As a fire chief, I want well-staffed fire apparatus so we have adopted the policy of when we are dispatched to a fire “y’all come” everyone may respond. Full-time, part-time, volunteer – it doesn’t matter. Keep rolling until we say it isn’t a fire. Any available off duty personnel may (and should) should respond on a reported fire and they do. Typically, our second out engine, which is completely staffed by off duty personnel, arrives 2nd or 3rd due and it often beats the staffed/paid Automatic Mutual Aid Response System (AMARS) companies into the scene. It’s a great system and works well to provide us more STAFFING on a fire in a cost effective manner.
With that said, our strategy and tactics change depending on our staffing and yours should too. When we have a 3-person engine we may “hit it hard from the yard” or use more of a transitional attack so we can wait for adequate back up. When were staffed with 6 and you can hear the wail of the Q’s in the distance we operate much like many urban areas mounting an offensive fire attack typically with 2 hand lines with second and third arriving companies handling normal truck duties and back up tasks. It is STAFFING, coupled with our scene size up (360 by first due) that dictates our strategy and tactics, not one policy or one way of doing things every time. This requires a lot of training, situational awareness, good policies and good training as well as always being alert to what our staffing is, who is on the run card, how far away are they coming from and what’s their STAFFING?
Winter is here which means I am already thinking about baseball. MLB has determined that to field a team and compete they need a 25-man roster, plus coaches. To relate that to the fire service we have studies and standards as well as dozens of NIOSH LODD reports that cite STAFFING, the need for more/safe STAFFING levels to be critical to successful outcomes on the fire ground. Here locally in Southwest Ohio we have embraced the need for safe adequate staffing levels and adjusted our run cards and how we respond.
Not every community can achieve this on their own. A community of 5,000 residents with very little commercial properties can’t field a major league firefighting team on their own. However with the use of AMARS as well as a combination of STAFFING methods (Full-time, Part-time, paid-on-call, volunteer) they can. We used to design our run cards based upon the number of resources we thought we needed. For example, 3 Engines, 1 Ladder, 1 Rescue, 1 Medic. Today we base our resource allocation not only on the resources we need, but their STAFFING. If we know department A staffs 2 on their engine than we will call two 2-person engines instead of 1. This is to ensure we get the STAFFING we need, not just the trucks. Ultimately a fire truck can’t do much except water supply and maybe a master stream without adequate STAFFING.
Locally we identified not only a need for more firefighters on the fire ground but command officers as well. Baseball doesn’t field a team of 25 and have one manager, they have one manager/Chief and several assistant’s for first base/Side A, Third Base/Side C, Pitchers/Safety, etc. Locally, we established paging groups of 5 – 7 chief officers who are paged on every reported structure fire to respond, regardless of jurisdiction, to safely and effectively manage the team. This response provides the command STAFFING to manage the team/fire companies that respond. The first arriving Chief typically takes command and then sizes up the incident based upon incident objectives, common assignment are Side A, Side C, Safety, Accountability, Div 1, Div 2, Command Aid etc. STAFFING adequate command officers further addresses the needs of the incident.
At the end of the day I think the debate over strategy and tactics, science and research, fire dynamics, hose stream etc. are very important to the fire service. Each community should read, and study the information and then apply what they learn to their STAFFING, for without people we are just 2 men and a truck and at least here in Ohio that’s a moving company not a fire company.