The Missing Ingredient

Studying the reports of major fires and other emergencies should be a part of every firefighter's on-going education. There's a lot to be learned from reading how different departments have handled situations similar to problems you may face or already have encountered. Whether it's an official investigation or a story in this magazine, I've seldom read a fire report that didn't contain a worthwhile lesson.

Perhaps the most interesting and important part of any report is the actions of the first-alarm companies and the initial size-up by the first chief officer on the scene. That's when the crucial decisions are made when it comes to saving lives and property. As a reporter covering major disasters, I always made it a priority to interview the firefighters on those first-alarm companies because they always had a significant story to tell. Invariably, they told of heavy fire when they arrived on the scene and a valiant effort to try and save lives that were lost before the bells ever rang in the firehouse.

But there have been times when it was painfully clear that the companies were under-staffed and didn't have the manpower to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. I recall one report in which it was casually noted that the first-alarm response for a career department was two engines and a ladder truck with a total of seven firefighters between them! Not surprisingly, the fire spread to adjoining buildings and you had to feel sympathy for a fire department that never had a chance to stop the fire where they found it. They had the equipment, but they didn't have enough of the most important ingredient firefighters.

Sometimes you have to read between the lines to figure out that something is drastically wrong because the story doesn't reveal anything about the staffing of the companies. I recently received a letter from Lewis J. Harris, retired Chief of Operations of the New York Fire Department and a commissioner of the Lido Beach, NY, Fire Depart-ment, where he also served as a volunteer for more than 40 years. Whenever I have a chance to learn from a high-ranking FDNY chief, I sit up and pay attention, especially when he expresses concern about a problem that also has been on my mind. Chief Lewis writes:

"After 45 years of reading accounts of fires and other emergencies ... I note that most neglect to provide a clear statement regarding the makeup of the manpower responding to an incident. This lack of information limits the reader's opportunity to understand the problems fire units and incident commanders face on arrival and subsequent alarms. I suggest that editors require that descriptions of responding manpower be included in any account of an incident."

He offers a format in which the first mention of a responding unit would automatically list the staffing of that unit. For example: "... Engine 27 (A1-B2-C3) responded from quarters ..." In Chief Lewis' format, A is the officer, B the pump operator and C the number of firefighters. I think it's a great idea. My only suggestion would be to simplify it by merely writing: Engine 27 (1/1/3); for ladder trucks and squads you note: Truck 15 (1/4) or Squad 2 (1/3).

Carrying it a step further, you could also apply this format to volunteer departments where one or two people may respond with the apparatus while most members arrive on-scene in their own cars. For example: "... Engine 34 (1/1/0+5) responded from quarters ..." That would indicate the pumper responded with only an officer and a pump operator, but five additional volunteers reached the scene on their own.

It's a shorthand method that helps the reader understand the problems fire companies confronted in carrying out their assigned tasks. For example: "... Squad 2 (1/3) was ordered to search the second floor while Truck 15 (1/4) opened the roof and second-due Engine 71 (1/1/3) stretched two 1 3/4-inch lines to the rear ..." That immediately tells us these units had sufficient manpower to execute their assignments without delay or undue stress.

That's how it should be, but I suspect most reports these days would reveal that the staffing for an engine company on a career department was (1/1/1) and (1/2) for the truck. Reading that, you know it was more difficult and had to take more time to accomplish their tasks. Now it's easy to understand how the building became fully involved and why the fire spread to exposures. As for the dozen additional companies that eventually responded on the second and third alarms, by the time they got there it had become a surround-and-drown operation and all they could save was the sidewalk.

My thanks to Chief Lewis for proposing an excellent idea to improve fire reporting. It's important to know how many pieces of apparatus responded, but it's meaningless information if we don't know how many firefighters were on each company especially on the first alarm. Some departments may be embarrassed to reveal this information, but we're long overdue in bringing the truth about manpower into fire reports.

Who knows? If we can do a better job of educating the fire service, maybe one of these days we can convince the citizens and elected officials that they have to provide the money to put the proper number of firefighters on those shiny trucks.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.