20 Tough Questions For the Fire Chief: Are You Prepared To Answer Them? Question 9

These questions get to the heart of the fire department’s efficiency. Set aside for a moment that it is extremely difficult to predict when an emergency will occur. On-duty staffing serves, in some respects, as an insurance policy for businesses...


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The time needed to perform many of the department’s activities and duties are, in fact, predictable and relatively stable. The time needed to clean, perform equipment checks, cook and eat meals, and conduct daily training and public education are examples of a workload whose time commitments are relatively stable and predictable. Even the time to handle most EMS calls and many of the fire-related calls is predictable within a range.

What is not predictable are the most critical and time-consuming calls for service, like rescues, structure fires and extrications. It is impossible to program for these and when they happen, it’s going to set off a chain reaction that will impact all of the scheduled activities for the shift. A house fire, for example, can easily last two hours with an additional two hours for cleanup and getting all the equipment and apparatus back in service. Such events will have a four-hour impact on other scheduled activities. As well, the physical demands of a working fire or a rescue may also warrant a rest period for personnel to allow for physical and mental rejuvenation.

It is also unrealistic to expect first responders to remain physically engaged in programmed work-related activities for extended periods (beyond 10 to 12 hours). First responders need to be rested and prepared for the physical and mental demands of their high-stress, high-consequence work. Responders may get only one chance to get something right – be that a decision at an emergency scene or a medication calculation for a critically ill patient. Physical and mental rest is important in this line of work.

The argument for being physically and mentally rested noted, many organizations still have opportunities for greater utilization of personnel time. In fact, personnel in some departments have become – putting it bluntly – lazy. And it is such laziness that leads to more scrutiny of the efficiency of operations.

Track what personnel do and how much time they spend doing it, then ask yourself the hard questions about the essential nature of that work. Is it busywork or is it productive work that advances the department’s mission. Are personnel being kept engaged in activities that advance the mission at least eight hours of the shift?

Work schedules

Many fire departments staff the same number of personnel around the clock. However, statistically speaking, the volume of emergency calls probably follows a predictable pattern that reveals different times of the day and night and different days of the week are busier than others. This is where critics can challenge staffing models. Let’s say you have 40 on-duty, response-ready personnel for fire and medical emergencies. Further, let’s assume your call volume is busiest from 7 A.M. until 9 P.M. and then it tails off significantly. Your community’s call experience may mimic this example or it may be very different, but be assured there is likely a distinctive pattern for emergency responses.

Critics of consistent-staffing models may argue it would be wiser to staff up for periods when call volumes are predictably higher and then staff downward for periods when call volumes are predictably lower. Fundamentally, this makes sense. However, the fire department needs to have a solid “Plan B” in place for those anomalies – those times when the moons and stars align and the call volumes are far above expectation. While this can happen at any time, it’s not likely to happen all the time. If it did all the time, it would change the pattern and predictability curves for call volume.

It is not realistic or financially feasible for most communities to have enough staff on duty to adequately handle worst-case scenarios 24 hours a day. In fact, only the largest metropolitan departments may be able to ensure that level of resource availability. For the rest, the goal should be to staff for typical and predictable call volumes and workload demands and have a solid call-back system and/or a pre-established mutual aid/automatic aid program in place to serve as the safety net for larger-scale, far-less-frequent events.

Determining adequate staffing is somewhat more difficult for volunteer agencies, primarily because of the uncertainty of response. Volunteer chiefs don’t always have an accurate idea of which responders or how many will turn out for a call. Not having a static number of personnel on-duty, but relying on a mobile workforce, complicates the chief’s ability to predict adequate fireground staffing. For example, attempting to define volunteer staffing for day events can be very frustrating. Attendance may fluctuate daily, by the week or even seasonally.