Fire Prevention Bureau Staffing: A Critical Need

Choosing the Best Staffing Option for Your Fire Department At a recent breakfast with fire marshals from neighboring communities, the topic of staffing options for their fire prevention bureaus was discussed. It seems the fire departments use different...


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Options to staff the fire prevention bureaus can be from sworn personnel, civilian or the fire prevention services may be outsourced to a private company. There are advantages and disadvantages with each option. The key is to find which option or combination of options works for your community.

Sworn personnel may be assigned from shifts in a career department or a volunteer from a volunteer organization. Sworn personnel have an established relationship with the line or shift personnel. This relationship may help to integrate the fire prevention activities into the fire department operations. Usually, they have experience in structural firefighting in their community. They may not have the formal education to allow them to address the complexity of many of the fire prevention bureau issues faced today. Typically, their skill set is in suppression, not prevention.

In some cases, personnel are taken from the duties they like the most (suppression) and forced to perform fire prevention activities. This in itself may lean toward poor performance issues. In some cases, sworn personnel have the opportunity to work a suppression shift and then work in the fire prevention bureau on their days off. This can provide employees an opportunity to work in both environments. This option has benefits, but can be complicated by labor contracts.

Civilian personnel may not lack the suppression skill set the sworn personnel possess. It is truly a benefit to understand what issues the firefighters will face when called to fight a fire in the building. Keep in mind fire codes are both for firefighter and building occupant safety. In most cases, civilian personnel can be hired at a cost savings to hiring an additional firefighter. Civilians can be hired for a job with a specific skill set or educational requirement such as fire protection engineer. Because of the limited promotional opportunities and pay, some fire departments experience a high turnover of civilian fire prevention personnel.

Another frequently used practice to reduce workloads and defer cost is to outsource services through privatization. This is the transfer of the government function or duties to a private organization. Duties such as construction document review can be performed by a private company with fire protection engineers and be used on a cost-recovery basis. This option is good for departments that cannot afford to have a fire protection engineer on staff or where the workload does not substantiate a full-time position. Among the disadvantages of outsourcing services are that the department can lose ownership of the project and the third-party agency may not have a grasp of the entire history of the project.

Whether the fire department uses civilians or sworn personnel or outsources its staff, it must attract, motivate and retain fire prevention bureau personnel. Nothing is more frustrating to a fire prevention bureau manager than having a good employee spend only a few years in the bureau before he or she is transferred back to shift work or leaves the department for another fire prevention bureau job. Considerable time and money is spent training the individual. Typically productivity is less during the first few months of training. Losing an employee has a large impact on the division as well as an impact to relationships developed with other important agencies and departments that contribute to the fire protection of a community, such as the building and planning departments. Many employees don't just leave an organization to increase their salary. Recent studies are showing quality of life and the ability to meet family demands play a significant factor in job selection.

One way to attract and retain employees is the use of alternative scheduling such as compressed work weeks and the use of flex time. Compressed work weeks let the individual perform the equivalent of one week's work in fewer than five days. Compressed work weeks can achieve many work-scheduling objectives such as improving recruitment and decreasing turnover, increasing employee loyalty, extending customer service hours, improving scheduling flexibility and increasing the opportunity for the employees to further their education. Flex time also allows the individual to meet educational needs or other family demands. Flex time lets the individual alter his or her daily schedule as long as the total weekly hour requirement is met. Improving a person's quality of life and ability to meet family demands can outweigh salary benefits for many perspective employees.