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As we talk to fire service leaders from around the United States this is becoming a common question. Unfortunately, many fire service leaders are not used to having their response protocols questioned and find it offensive. This can lead them to view the question as an attack in their expertise. This, in turn, can lead to an emotionally driven response that may include statements perceived as using scare tactics. Such tactics may have worked in the past, but in today’s economic environment you’re risking the loss of your credibility. This problem can be made worse if you try to defend your position with inaccurate statements or incomplete data.
One concern revolves around the potential consequences of splitting up the staffing to satisfy the use of smaller vehicles on minor calls. The belief is this may reduce safety and effectiveness on the fireground. This can trigger emotional responses such as “people will die” or “buildings will burn down.” In our experience, it’s best to address these concerns with quantifiable data acquired from reputable organizations and institutions.
The need to keep crews intact to adequately staff the fireground is critical to firefighter safety. This is often the justification for why large fire apparatus with full crews are sent to all calls for service, including medical emergencies. When someone suggests splitting up crews, the topic becomes contentious.
When the suggestion to have two firefighters assigned to an engine and two firefighters assigned to a smaller response vehicle the justification is rooted in firefighter safety at structure fires. We need the crew of four firefighters, intact, to engage in an offensive structural fire attack.
There are many occasions where fire departments arrive on the scenes of structure fires with an initial-response team of less than four firefighters. They key is to ensure all firefighters are trained on how tactics vary based in staffing levels. The training is complemented by the discipline to only perform fireground tasks that can be safely completed with the staffing available. Departments should also train on how to perform initial tasks with limited staffing. This component can be missed during live-fire training because the staffing levels are always adequate – and readily available.
Department operating guidelines should also provide strategic and tactical alternatives based on staffing. These standards should also address crew expectations when arriving understaffed. Otherwise, firefighters may engage in the same fashion as when there is adequate staffing, increasing risk-taking to unacceptable levels. Organizations taking an all-hazards approach, striving to have the capability to handle any type of emergency call, can complicate the issue.
Supporting evidence for keeping staffing intact on structural fire apparatus may be found in the recent residential fireground experiments conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This research quantified the impact of crews arriving early and with delayed arrival as well as the overall effectiveness of staffing varying levels. The NIST findings offer validated research data that can support the need to keep crews intact.
We would argue that firefighter safety can be maintained even when splitting crews or when smaller crews arrive separately (not all on one suppression piece). In cases when the optimal response cannot be achieved, a calculated approach to the fireground must be taken. A risk-management plan, with a realistic risk/benefit analysis conducted, must occur before the operational mode is declared.
Additionally, fire service leaders must be prepared to address concerns about call volumes and patterns for call types. Data should be compared over time to identify patterns or trends. It should not be assumed that elected or appointed officials are able to look at data and see the problem. Visual representations of data can be a very effective way to illustrate the issues and demands for service.
Further evaluation of call types may be useful when considering changes to your response protocols. For example, evaluating where and when structure fires are occurring. This includes evaluating the occupancy types for structure fires. If most structure fires are in occupied dwellings it may help illustrate the risk and complexity of the response. For example, more resources may be required for apartment building fires than single-family-dwelling fires. Be prepared to provide data on how many of the reported structure fires are actually structure fires. There’s a big difference between what is reported and what is actual. Elected and appointed administrators deserve to be provided accurate data. You may be able to make an argument the response is the same based on how the call is reported but don’t try to fool them by overinflating the number of actual structure fires.