Urban Fire Protection: Up To The Task At Hand?

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Over the past three decades, a real problem has developed in many of the urban areas throughout North America. Many large-loss fires have occurred because of inadequate staffing of fire units.

Please take care to count regional population centers in this urban category. Far too many people think of places like Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles when they hear the word urban. I would like to broaden the practical working definition of urban to include such places as Williamsport, PA; Billings, MT; and Lancaster, OH. They serve as the commercial focus for a number of smaller communities. Perhaps the problems there are even worse. The bigger the city, the greater the ability to apportion costs across a wide spectrum of taxpayers. This may not be the case in smaller cities.

In any case, I wish to use the vehicle of this article to equip you with some planning tools to help you create a viable fire department organization. As in all past articles on the topic of planning, I am going to ask you to begin by insuring that you have the necessary records to prepare for the future. How can you know where you wish to be in the future if you have no clue as to where you are today?

Why, you may ask, do I harp on research? It is because to succeed in building your organization, you need three things: facts, figures and friends.

Without a valid record-keeping system, you will be unable to supply the necessary facts or figures to build your case for more fire protection. For the sake of this example, let us suppose that you have a good, computer-based record-keeping system; one that has been in place for more than five years. I would then call upon you to answer the following questions:

  1. How many times in the past five years have you experienced a simultaneous deployment of forces to multiple incidents?
  2. How many times have you deployed to a fire where a force of two engines, one aerial and 12 people operated under the command of a chief officer?
  3. How many times have you requested mutual-aid resources to respond to a fire in your community?

While these seem to be very simple questions, I ask them for good reason. By assessing the past, you can develop an understanding of what your people may be expected to encounter. The possibility that your people will encounter large working fires increases your need for sufficient staffing to handle those situations. Remember that ours is a labor intensive business and that people equate directly to delivery capacity when it comes to fireground work.

One of the primary shortfalls in the planning game is the inability to properly lay out our case to the powers that be. If they think of you as a group of people who wear suspenders and play checkers, you are in trouble.

If you are to tell your story, you must spell out the wide array of labor which must be delivered. At the very least your fire department must supply the following to get the job done:

  1. Incident command.
  2. Application of water.
  3. Some kind of water supply.
  4. Ventilation services.
  5. Search and rescue services.
  6. Forcible entry.
  7. Utility control.
  8. Salvage.
  9. Overhaul.

A review of the appropriate technical literature, as supplemented by my 33 years of experience, tells me that the following elements make up the minimum recommended response to a residential dwelling incident:

  1. A force of 12 firefighting personnel.
  2. An incident commander.
  3. Two fire department pumping engines.
  4. An aerial unit, or squad unit if no aerial is available.

Having listed a minimum for which you should strive, let us return to the world of research. If you want to justify this level, your research should show that it has been used frequently over the past five years. Your records should also show the consequences of a failure to achieve this standard. Some of the indicators of this are:

  • Number of instances where that size of force was deployed.
  • Instances when multiple alarms were turned in quickly by the first-due unit.
  • Large-loss fires.
  • Any anecdotal information from your staff (when fewer people led to a loss of life or property).

Other elements which can be used to help you grow your department come from the overall service delivery world. You must be able to show that more people will translate into more work productivity. These people could be used in the following ways:

  • In-service inspections.
  • Public education to all age groups (day and evening).
  • First responder to back up EMS.
  • EMS.
  • Paramedic system, if laws allow.

It is important to insure that you and all other members of your department are on the same sheet of music. It would not look good when you are trying to sell productivity to your town government if your members go on record as liking cable TV and beach volleyball on duty. Therefore, it is critical for labor and management to come to the table jointly to create and support a better fire department.

Once you have won this year's battle of the budget and are enjoying the fruits of your staffing victories, be warned. You may lose it all next year. Therefore, the job of planning and preparing is a continuous task. In this column, I have listed a number of weapons which you can employ to help you create a strong urban fire department. It's up to you to use these tools to your advantage.


Dr. Harry R. Carter, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a battalion commander with the Newark, NJ, Fire Department. He is also a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company. Dr. Carter is an Associate of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (AIFireE).

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