Science-Based Research Should Help

On April 28, 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released an important report dealing with fire department staffing and deployment decisions. This first-of-its-kind research effort will not only be helpful to fire chiefs and union officials when addressing these critical issues, but it should also be of great value to elected officials who approve the resources that are so important to the effectiveness of a fire department response system. Past research studies addressed fire department staffing and deployment, but none have the credibility and research expertise of this work completed and released by NIST.

NIST was founded in 1901. It is a non-regulatory organization within the U.S. Department of Commerce. The mission of NIST is to "promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life."

NIST has worked closely with the fire service on many investigative research efforts over the years, but until now had not been deeply involved with in-depth research relating to staffing and deployment decisions.

NIST partners with many organizations when conducting its research. This staffing and deployment study was no exception. Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. Principal partners included NIST, the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). Additional support for the field experiments was provided by the Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue Department and Fairfax County, VA, Fire and Rescue Department. These organizations ensured that the study was conducted in accordance with agreed-upon research protocols and within the limitations and requirements of the grant funding.

Local elected officials and other decision-makers must make difficult determinations concerning how to allocate limited resources, especially in these tough economic times. As far as funding for fire departments is concerned, these decisions have an impact on not only the safety of the public, but the safety of the firefighters as well. That set of challenges, and the consequences of decisions that are made regarding staffing and deployment of fire department resources, make the NIST study of great importance and value. The report is lengthy, so it's unlikely elected officials or others outside the fire department will take the time to read and understand the entire document. It's incumbent upon the fire service (management and labor) to communicate the content in a way that is concise and can be easily digested by non-fire service leaders.

In addition to the assistance it can be to local authorities, it will also better inform the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710 Technical Committee in developing consensus fire service standards relating to deployment of resources. This science-based data and outcome will be of great value in validating the content of the standard and forming the basis for decisions that guide these issues throughout the fire service.

As indicated in the NIST report, the following research questions guided the design of the residential fireground experiments that were documented:

• How do crew size and staggered arrival affect overall start-to-completion response timing?

• How do crew size and stagger affect the timing of task initiation, task duration and task completion for each of the 22 critical fireground tasks?

• How does crew size affect elapsed time to achieve three critical events that are known to change fire behavior or tenability within the structure:

• Entry into structure?

• Water on fire?

• Ventilation through windows?

• How does the elapsed time to achieve the national standard of assembling 15 firefighters at the scene vary between crew sizes of four and five?

The findings in the report provide great information and data that answer these questions. It is important that decision-makers (whether elected officials or others) are armed with the best information possible when making decisions regarding fire department staffing and deployment. This study does that and more. It provides explicit data and makes valid comparisons in critical areas such as:

• Overall scene time

• Time to water on fire

• Ground ladders and ventilation

• Primary search

• Hose-stretch time

• Occupant rescue

• Achieved industry standard

This NIST report is not the end of these research efforts; in fact, it may be the beginning. A sister study dealing with EMS should be completed soon, and studying a more complex fire incident is under consideration.

Like most things, it will be up to the end user (you) how useful this report really is. It's available online, and it is so important that leaders in our industry become familiar with its content and use it in a way that educates those in positions of decision-making. The future quality of fire and life safety services delivered by fire departments, the safety of the public and the safety of our firefighters can be positively impacted through the application of this study, but to some extent that is up to each of you. Get it, study it — and use it.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When in Doubt, Lead series: Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, and many other articles and publications. He is also co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services and the author of the soon-to-be-released book Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and as assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is the past chair of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. He is also chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and the chairman of the Home Safety Council Board of Directors.