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The Results Are In: Size Does Matter

The arrival of the new National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) deployment study is great news my friends. It provides solid, well-researched data that we can use to build our case for improved staffing levels. It has been able to tie the number of people needed to deliver verifiable operational efficiency levels. It provides a solid foundation for us all.

Let me also share an important tidbit of information with you. This study tells us old-timers something which we have known for a long time now: More people equal a better and safer firefighting operation. While this NIST study was limited to the high-rise fire environment, their findings are good news across the board for all of us. They can be extrapolated to all of the other operational areas within the firefighting world.

This is the type of study for which I have served as an advocate for a long time now. It has been a long and lonely vigil my friends. It is that what when you stand up and challenge the prevailing wisdom in your field. I can recall being hooted down at a major convention when I stood up to suggest that research was needed to determine if the things we are doing today are indeed correct. It has taken a long time, but now that the data is coming in from a variety of sources

I am pleased to see that a lot of us who have been wandering around in the wilderness for decades spreading the tale of the need for better staffing were on the right track after all. The basic support data has been there for a long time now, but it is only us old-timers who can honestly say that the new data is great, in that it confirms a lot of the old data with which we have long been conversant.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is at this point that I would like to officially identify myself to you as a real, honest-to-goodness old-timer. Those of you who know me should not be surprised, because you have known me for a long time now. Many of you have shared the last several decades of life with me in the trenches of the fire service. However, I believe it is important for me to explain myself to you younger and newer troops in our beloved fire service. What are some of the clues which have awakened my personal knowledge of my seniority, longevity and my mortality?

In the first instance, I can recall riding on the back step of a 1962 Mack B-Model pumper nearly 40 years ago as part of a five-man engine company in the Newark, NJ, Fire Department. Under the leadership of the late Chief Joe Redden, we were a well-staffed and highly capable firefighting organization.

Such does not seem to be the case any longer. Did you know that there are fire departments which send out one or two people on a pumper and have the gall to call that fire protection? People have been injured because of the penurious, penny-pinching people who populate our public-sector administrative leadership positions.

These are people with no idea of what it is we do telling us how to do it. 

I can also recall living across the street from the fire station here in beautiful, downtown Adelphia when I first was married back in 1972. In those days there were a lot of fire company members living in the village and I really had to hustle to make the first-out fire truck. These were the days when the turnout gear was all on the fire truck. You had to hope that there was something available in your size when you climbed up on top of the hose bed to don your gear. That is how it was in many volunteer fire departments of that era. To save time, I had my personal turnout gear on a clothes horse at the front door of the Church Parsonage house where my wife and I were living at the time. We had lot of folks on the roster in the fire company and we got out quickly.

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." 

It personally quite interesting to state that a full 20 years before we gathered in Tampa for the 2004 Life safety Conference efforts were under way to assess the dual impacts of staffing levels and firefighter safety.  Chief O'Hagan' study assessed, "three simulation scenarios and a full-scale fire scenario." What were these scenarios you might ask?

  • An apartment house fire
  • A fire in a high-rise building
  • A fire in a private residence

Chief O'Hagan goes on to state that, "...individual performance will vary within a group as large as the Dallas Fire Department. To obtain valid data on the ability of different crew sizes to manage common fire situations, 91 simulations were conducted using, in every simulation, crews composed of five, four, or three firefighters." At the end of this intensive study, it was determined that the optimal crew size for firefighting operation was five people. I have long taken this number as the gold standard for operations.

Of course you can only imagine the number of times that departments with which I have been associated have not reached the gold standard. In far too many cases we were lucky if we hit the bronze level. But even that is going by the wayside. Sadly, there are now far too many administrators out there today who seem to be saying that for firefighting operations we can settle for a new staffing standard. As I review the literature, I would suggest that we label this new standard of municipal fire protection the "cardboard" standard.

Let me portray this in the worst possible light that I possibly can. Just to make my position perfectly clear to you, there are people out there who really do not care if you or I live or die, just so long as the budget is a low as it can be. I have seen this sort of behavior for decades, but unfortunately it has gotten worse here in the 21st Century. This new standard of administrative care calls for providing the absolute least number of firefighters and then hoping for the best.

Chief O'Hagan told the story nearly three decades ago. I would hope that you understand how pleased I am to see that the latest research has re-affirmed the rightness of his work in 1984. I just hope that we can use the new data to support of contention that firefighter safety is dependent upon providing an adequate number of firefighting personnel to accomplish our tasks in the safest possible manner.

Let me suggest that you review my recent commentary on patience and persistence as an adjunct to this commentary on staffing levels, because that is what it will take to battle for an adequate level of municipal fire protection. Let me also suggest that you will need to create a reasonable, fact-based plan, with all of the necessary supporting data which will allow you to put forward your case in a logical and professional manner. Do not, and I repeat, do not go off on a rant about how people will die in your community if firefighting staff is cut. That just does not work, and in my experience it actually does more harm than good. 

I am pleased that financial resources are being devoted to research on staffing levels, as well as a wide arrange of operational issues. The NIST study on ventilation and the other studies on firefighting operations are pointing the way towards how we should be operating at fires today. As an old-timer, you might imagine that I am opposed to change. Sorry, that is not who I am. If there is a better and safer way to operate, I am all for introducing it into out operational tool box. 

Let me urge you to spend time reviewing the new report on fire department staffing. You will need the facts available in this report to begin building the case for your future operational needs. You cannot build a 2013 fire department based on aged data. I learned within the learned groves of university study that a person's case is stronger when it is built on more current research.

However it is extremely pleasing for me to see that the new figures seem to justify the older findings. Take note of this and operate accordingly. As a number of my friends in the city were always so fond of saying, "what goes around comes around." I can see now that the NIST report is telling us that when it comes to the size of firefighting crews, size does matter. Take note and stay informed as the new data continues to come rolling in. Knowledge is, after all, power.

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