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A successful response to this question can be reviewed as having three distinct parts: staffing, response time and resources (i.e., apparatus). Resources, in the form of apparatus required to get the staff to the emergency in a timely fashion, has become a contentious issue.
In an environment where many organizations are experiencing reduced funding, the fire chief must be able to justify how he or she determines the “right” amount of resources needed to efficiently and effectively manage an emergency. Each community individually determines its precise resource needs.
Presenting factual data that captures, appraises and predicts current and future outcomes is imperative to mounting a successful defense. Here are some recommendations to answer this tough question:
• Begin with a realistic assessment of the fire department budget, both expenditures and revenue. Anticipate factors such as legislative actions that may impact your future budgets.
• Scrutinize your budget internally. For example, look at your fleet costs in terms of fuel and overhead. Look for efficiencies in the fleet operational costs by considering the use of smaller vehicles to respond to calls for service that may not need a full-sized engine company.
• Conduct a retrospective analysis of your calls and call patterns. For simplicity, we will examine metrics to consider for structure fires.
• Evaluate call volume. Look at time of day, day of week, frequency of occurrence, location, occupancy type, staffing and outcomes.
• Look at responses to protected (sprinklered) and non-protected properties. Examine the same criteria as above, with particular attention given to the outcome. If the property was protected, what role did a heavy response of fire apparatus contribute to the outcome?
• Consider developing a demographic profile for the various demographic regions you serve. Consider the number of multi-family occupancies in one region of your town compared to another that may be primarily single-family residential.
• The distribution and concentration of fire stations will assist in determining the “right” resources. Partnering with neighboring communities may also improve service delivery and reduce costs. It can be very productive when there is cooperation to send the closest unit. Partnering also makes sense when there are response-time challenges due to geographic, roadway configurations or staffing challenges.
• Evaluate your staffing model. Evaluate the staffing of your previous emergencies to determine if and when you are able to staff your companies with your pre-determined minimum staffing (e.g., four firefighters on every call). Determine if your department can realistically and financially meet your staffing standard.
Analyze call data
In some departments, the number of firefighters available to respond to an emergency can be a persistent challenge. If a department is consistently understaffed, it could consider smaller response vehicles. Ideally, there should be sufficient redundancy or overlap in your system to handle simultaneous calls or a high call volume without compromising the safety of the public or firefighters.
After evaluating your historical call data, consider developing a response matrix. The matrix pre-establishes the response resources desired for each type of emergency. For example, low-risk calls may be handled with two firefighters in a utility vehicle or a mini pumper. This type of measured response can keep remaining on-duty personnel available for other duties.
Develop and communicate your department’s response goals and objectives. Align your response matrix with your benchmark and consider realigning resources to meet your goals. For example, the objective might be to have 15 firefighters at a structure fire in less than 10 minutes for 90% of the time.