The Results Are In: Size Does Matter

The recent NIST staffing study tells us old-timers something which we have known for a long time now: more people equal a better and safer firefighting operation.


In the next instance, I am here to tell you that the building construction in our communities back in the day was pretty darned substantial. Building collapses were not a frequent occurrence, and when they did happen, there was usually a major-league sized fire which was the root cause. Those folks who built the structures back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries built them to last for the long haul. Many of the buildings I see being built in my area over the last two decades barely have the ability built into them to withstand a stiff breeze, let along a working fire. 

Let me also share a little bit more of my personal history with you. There was a day many years ago when I entered burning buildings wearing ¾-pull-up boots and a canvas turnout coat, along with a personally fitted leather fire helmet. There was a day when I wore a Chemox oxygen-generating canister. There were also days when I fought structure fires while wearing an all-service canister mask. I am pleased to say that I have been a long-time advocate of the work which has been put forth toward improving the weight, performance, and safety features on our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). The unit I wear today is so much lighter and comfortable that the models which I wore back in the late 1960's and early 1970's. 

So there it is my friends. You now have an understanding of my personal fire service pedigree. However, I am not a prisoner of the past. I recall the past, but live in the present and work toward preparing for the future. Let me suggest that I have worked over the years to stay ahead of the curve when it came to fire service trends. I have suffered a great many bumps and bruises fighting for better fire department operations. There have been successes and there have been failures. However, I always had an eye to the future. 

If my life's history is any indication fire department staffing has long been an issue in the fire service. Back in the day, when salaries were lower in the cities, we were usually swimming in staff. Heck, my starting salary in Newark back in the day was $10,500. My kids wonder how my wife and I were able to live on that kind of money. The answer is simple. My new car in 1972 cost $2,500, gas cost $.35 a gallon, and my car insurance cost $600 per year.

The same level of positive staffing also held true in the volunteer world. This was in a day when the majority of people still worked in the towns where they lived. Both of these situations have changed drastically. As a result, the staffing available in 2013 does not often measure up to my memories of the past. But we still have a job to do protecting our fellow citizens. 

It has been my good fortune to have met and worked with some of the really great leaders in the American Fire Service. Let me tell you about one in particular. Back in the 1980's I worked as a consultant with the late John T. O'Hagan, who was in his day was the Fire Chief and Fire Commissioner of the New York City Fire Department. It was my privilege to work with Chief O'Hagan for the better part of a decade up until his death in 1991. 

One of the projects he undertook as a consultant was the classic 1984 staffing study in Dallas, Texas. Let me state for the record that I was not a part of the study team for this project. This study has been held up as the gold standard for assessing firefighting crew performance for the better part of three decades.

The purpose of that study was to assess the relative performance differences which were created by varying staffing levels. Simply stated, can crews of three people do the same amount of work as a crew of four, five, or six? Now I don't know about you, but it seems like a simple matter of commons sense to state the obvious, which is that, "?many hands make light work." How old is this particular little bit of wisdom? It was written by John Heywood (1497-1580). So you can see that this idea of sharing the work is not of recent vintage.

In order to prepare for this commentary, I pulled my copy of the staffing study off my book shelf and spent a bit of time reviewing Chief O'Hagan's findings. Let me share the following quotation from Chief O'Hagan's executive summary. "An evaluation of the staffing levels for fire company crews involves careful analysis of the effects of reducing staff, in terms of accomplishing the objectives of fire control: saving lives and property and adequate safety precautions for the fire control staff."