Staffing and Its Impact On Firefighter Safety

The issue of staffing comes to the attention of everyone with each and every firefighter's death on the fireground. This occurs whether the death occurred at a high-rise building or a one-story home. Much will be said for a short time, then the conditions...


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One of my best memories of yesteryear was the DCFD truck companies who prided themselves for opening up windows just as the engine company made the turn from the stairwell to the hall. Any engine guy will tell how much better a basement job goes when the truckies have ventilated. In today's world that can't possibly occur. If you have been reading the trade journals in the past few years, you would have noticed that injuries and deaths from flashovers are on the increase. A friend of mine who works on a three-person truck in Florida has to play Solomon and prioritize what actions the crew can take. In fact, many SOPs across the country that I have read mention this selection process of multitasking and prioritizing.

Many of our top fire service leaders have written extensively on this topic. Names like Dunn, Brennan, Carter, Mittendorf and Smith (the Philly one) have given us more than ample justification for increases in manpower. But others in our world have attempted to warrant reduced staffing by espousing quints with two or three aboard or aggregate delivery of personnel to be divided on the fire ground into teams. In DC we deliver four engines, two trucks, one heavy rescue squad and one battalion chief within five minutes of the receipt of the alarm. There isn't enough time to break up into new teams. The fallacy with these theories is the belief that the fire goes into a holding pattern while we call the play or the victims hold their breath. A quint-type apparatus can be a great tool, but only if you staff with at least seven members. Any less than that and you leave many tools on the rig unused, in my opinion.

We have also contributed to our situation by trying to make up for understaffing by overaggressive interior attacks. The majority of structural fires in this country are extinguished with a 200- to 300-gpm delivery rate of water. These are the type of incidents involving a room-and-contents up to several rooms. The problem is we appear to attempt to fight every fire with the same delivery rate.

If you are operating in a high-rise, then it is different fighting several rooms on higher floors than if that same fire is on the ground floor of a two-story house. First, everything that you need for a high-rise must be humped up to the fire floor by someone. Next, if anything happens to your water supply or windows blow out on the windward side, your position becomes untenable very quickly and it's not likely that you can bail out of a window. Finally, if there are 300 or 400 people in the building at the time of the fire, what exactly can you accomplish safely? We always seem to justify our overaggression by using the word "rescue," but too often members are killed with nothing to show for efforts. Is command the problem?

Too often, incident commanders do not receive adequate size-up reports. They operate blindly until they arrive on the scene. Even after arrival, many attempt to piecemeal their requests for additional resources. If they depend on long-distanced mutual aid, this can lead to disasters. Or, companies attack with good intentions, but little or no strategy except for putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. This means the incident commander must support these poor decisions to protect personnel or pull the personnel out and put in a plan B.

Too many incident commanders are reluctant to take the necessary command steps and pull out. It is commendable that our front-line troops are willing to sacrifice themselves to make up for short staffing, but even after they do this event after event it does not equate to increased support from city hall. In fact, in many of the cities where firefighters have been killed on the fireground the city leaders have attempted to still cut positions.

Simply put, I believe the level of staffing per apparatus has a direct bearing on our ability as fire service commanders to protect those who work for us. If you honestly believe a two-person rapid intervention team is sufficient, then sit in a building and wait for them to get YOU out. It's been proven many times they can't; it will take as many as 20 or 30 people to get you out, if conditions warrant. If a company officer cannot perform a rational size-up and underestimates the fire conditions, then you as an incident commander will be facing disasters in the making on every run with this company.