Establishing Fire Prevention Bureaus - Part II

The first of this series was a focus on how to create a fire prevention bureau. We examined the importance of ensuring the functions of the fire prevention bureau are clearly defined through the mission statement and implemented through fire prevention involvement in the fire department strategic planning process. We are now in a place to evaluate what staffing levels are needed to meet our mission.

The following model on the side illustrates how the staffing level of a fire prevention bureau is influenced by the changes in the department's strategic plan. As the strategic plan of the fire department changes to address the needs of the community the staffing level and needs of the fire prevention bureau most likely will be impacted. The types of services provided by the fire prevention bureau as well as the level of services are directly impacted by a change in the fire department's strategic plan. The circular flow from the strategic plan to the level of services represents the need to adjust the organization while monitoring the internal and external changes. These changes may be driven by the political climate or the evolving needs of the community. In some cases it may be a combination of both.

The driving force of the size and complexity of a fire prevention bureau is dictated in the implementation phase by the level of services the fire prevention bureau will provide to the community it serves. It is our firm belief that the ideal structure of the fire prevention bureau should have the person responsible for the fire prevention bureau reporting directly to the fire chief. A direct report to the fire chief is critical to enable the Chief of the fire department to ensure the mission of the department and strategic plan reflect the needs of the fire prevention bureau. This also ensures the fire chief is aware of the issues facing the fire prevention bureau that may involve him or her at a later date.

What Services do we Provide?
The services provided by a fire prevention bureau will differ from community to community. In some locations the fire prevention bureau may not be responsible for fire investigations or even fire and life safety education. However, we strongly encourage the fire prevention bureaus perform these functions.

  • Fire protection engineering or construction document review
  • Fire and life safety education
  • Fire inspection and code enforcement
  • Public information responsibilities
  • Pre-incident planning
  • Fire investigations
  • Occupant services (post fire services, after the fire)
  • Wildland risk management
  • Training

Identify the Level of Service
The level of each service is determined by the policy makers. In the ideal world we may have enough staff to inspect each occupancy more than once a year, provide fire and life safety education programs more than once a year to each grade level and have a staff of fire protection engineers capable of reviewing construction documents within days of being submitted. However, the level of services the fire prevention bureau provides is not determined at the fire prevention bureau Fire Marshal level. He or she can recommend the level of services but the ultimate decision rests with the policy makers.

Staffing Levels
As a guide, the first step is to determine the organizational framework for the number of resources needed to provide your level of service. The number of inspections you will accomplish per year should equate to the available staff to conduct the inspections. It is at this point where it may obviously that your fire prevention bureau will not be able to inspect each occupancy once or twice a year. The complexity of the facilities to inspect is also a factor. The hours allocated for an inspection will be different for a 500,000 square foot complex industrial facility compared to a 1,500 square foot mercantile occupancy. The other functions performed by the fire prevention bureau will depend on the department's available resources. At some point policy makers will need to be informed the department can only provide certain services with the existing personnel. Comprehensive analysis of the community's fire problem and comparable staffing levels of similar departments are valued information that must be collected and shared with the policy makers to assist them in determining the level of services and subsequent staffing levels.

Staffing Options
The greatest resource of a department is its people. The old adage of the fire prevention bureau is a repository for the sick, lame and lazy is a thing of the past. The fire prevention bureau is no longer the dumping ground for troubled employees. The complexity of the fire alarm and sprinkler systems combined with technological advances in performance based design makes the fire prevention bureau one of the most technical positions in the fire department. There are no longer just three types of sprinklers and pipe scheduled designs! The present demands placed on fire prevention bureaus call for a technically well trained and motivated staff.

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 shift 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. They have experience usually in structural fire fighting 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 the personnel are taken from the duties they like the most (suppression) and are forced to perform fire prevention activities. This in itself may lean toward poor performance issues.

Civilian personnel may not lack the suppression skill set the sworn personnel posses. It is truly a benefit to understand what issues the fire fighters will face when called to fight a fire in the building. Keep in mind fire codes are both for fire fighter and building occupant safety. In most cases civilian personnel can be hired at a cost savings to hiring an additional fire fighter. 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 turn over of civilian fire prevention personnel.

Another frequently used practice to reduce work loads 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 type of option is good for departments that can not afford to have a fire protection engineer on staff or where the work load does not substantiate a full time position. Some of the disadvantages of outsourcing services is the department can loose ownership of the project and the third party agency may not have a grasp of the entire history of the project.

The best staffing options lie with the ability to understand what services the department needs to provide and what skills do the existing personnel have to provide those services. In many cases it is best to use a combination of ach of the options in building your fire prevention bureau. The sworn personnel can bring the skill set of understanding the operations of the fire department and certain civilian personnel may be able to compliment the division with his or her formal education or specialized fire prevention technical skills. As fire prevention bureaus continue to evolve in to one of the most complex technical service of the fire department, it is critical to be able to have the best person for the job based on his or her ability, not their sworn or civilian status.

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