Firefighting: It's a Whole New Ballgame

  There is little doubt the recent recession has had a significant impact on the nation's fire service. Hardly a day goes by when there's not some news about an organization that has downsized, rightsized or capsized. There are all kinds of terms...


  There is little doubt the recent recession has had a significant impact on the nation's fire service. Hardly a day goes by when there's not some news about an organization that has downsized, rightsized or capsized. There are all kinds of terms being attached to what is happening. One I...


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It could be argued that on a fire scene, like on a baseball field, some positions may be more essential than others. For the sake of this analogy, let's say the proverbial field positions (key roles) at a structure fire are command, safety, vent, entry, search, attack, backup, salvage and overhaul. Isn't it ironic that it's the same number of essential key roles whether it's for baseball or firefighting — nine. The fact that there are nine key roles is not saying a fireground can operate with nine people. Each of the key roles identified above requires a team of players, not one individual. How many players in each essential team role is the subject of much debate. If each role were staffed with just two people (which is woefully inadequate for all roles except perhaps command and safety), that would set the bogey at 18 firefighters (minimum).

So which roles on the fireground are the essential ones — tantamount to the pitcher, catcher and first base position in the baseball example above? Again, this could be the basis of much debate and since it is not the point of this column to identify the positions that are essential and which ones could be eliminated, hypothetically positions of command, search and attack will be identified as the essential ones. All other positions are subject to reduction consideration.

If the baseball team reduced some field positions it could, arguably, make adjustments for the losses. The physical expanse of the field does not afford one player the ability to cover two geographic positions at the same time. It simply is not possible. However, the infield or outfield could shift, physically, to provide coverage for the lost position. The shift, however, would create a hole in the standard line of defense for the baseball team — a hole the opponent would surely identify and quickly exploit to its advantage. This scenario makes it relatively easy to predict the team is going to suffer losses.

On the fireground (setting aside the three hypothetically essential roles of command, search and attack), the roles subject to reduction are safety, vent, entry, backup, salvage and overhaul. Reducing staffing for any of these roles creates holes in the fireground operation the same way holes are created on a baseball field. Firefighter responsibilities can be shifted to provide coverage for the lost roles. However, as with the baseball example, this shift creates deficiencies in the department's standard line of defense for a firefight, a hole the opponent (in this case, the fire) will surely identify and quickly exploit to its advantage. As in baseball, it becomes relatively easy to predict there are going to be losses.

On the baseball diamond, when a team loses a game, there is little significance to the overall well-being of players, fans, owners or the general citizenry. The sense of loss is only temporary because the impact is so minimal in the big picture. However, on the fireground, the significance of a loss can be very substantial to firefighters, the city, the citizens and the overall community. As a fire department reduces resources that impact core services, the opportunity for bad outcomes increases exponentially as the opponent (the fire) finds ways to exploit the department's shortcomings.

The Strategy

Some organizations may be able to survive a reduction in resources by focusing on reducing non-core services. During abundant times, when organizational budgets and staffing were growing, some departments sought opportunities to start new programs and services and perhaps in the process created new staff positions. Some of those programs and services may not be directly tied to the core mission of the department.

Now, as times have become lean, organizations may be forced to determine whether there are any non-core programs and services that can be shed (perhaps only temporarily). Applied to the baseball analogy, this might be the equivalent of making reductions in concessions.

The first task may be to figure out what the core services are and try to preserve those. But who gets to make those decisions? This question can raise a host of potential challenges as cities contemplate their priorities. Is planting flowers in the parks more important than a fast paramedic response? Is snow removal on park pathways more important than having police officers on patrol? Unfortunately, in some cities, flower planting and pathway cleaning are higher priorities than public safety. The debate on the fairness of this disparity can rage on, but the reality is you have a limited impact on the decision making of elected officials.