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.


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.