Speak Up 9/2013: The Realities of Short-Handed Firefighting

Staffing is a hot-button topic for many fire departments. We as firefighters know what is needed to safely and effectively get our job done, but all too often our towns and cities have a hard time filling the seats on the apparatus. There are a variety of...


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Staffing is a hot-button topic for many fire departments. We as firefighters know what is needed to safely and effectively get our job done, but all too often our towns and cities have a hard time filling the seats on the apparatus. There are a variety of reasons for this, money being the most common.

Firefighting isn’t cheap nor do we provide a means of generating significant revenue to supplement our budgets. We ask for millions of taxpayer dollars and spend every penny, but we interact with only a small percentage of our customers. We are there in case an emergency occurs. Our time is put to good use by maintaining our expensive apparatus fleets, training to keep up our skills and a host of odds-and-ends. Yet, when your town or city needs to cut costs, your fire department’s budget is an easy place to look for savings.

The rumors and speculations begin at the firehouse kitchen table about what cuts may be coming for the next fiscal year. Maybe this time the truck that was going to be speced out will be pushed off another year. The hose that has to replace damaged lengths from years past won’t be making the cut. Tools will not be upgraded. Overtime pay may be drastically reduced. All of these can be frustrating and maybe even become a safety concern, but the one thing fire departments can’t afford to lose is staffing.

Fewer resources

Departments all over this country and around the world are short-staffed more than ever due to the current economic crisis. Apparatus that once had every seat filled are now rolling out with one or two members. Bigger cities are seeing station closings and companies having to travel farther to cover alarms. Smaller cities and towns are doing away with entire shifts and firefighters are forced to work more hours or even cover calls while off duty.

As first responders we are obligated to be masters of our trade. To be at the top of our game when duty calls is what this job is all about. At the time of an emergency, the public cares not that you show up with a full complement of apparatus and staff. In fact, most of our customers have no idea what comprises a fully staffed fire department. What they expect of you and your company is to gain control of the situation and correct the problem at hand.

Working for a fire department that is understaffed makes our job more complicated. Having an extra set of hands to assist in a search, stretch a line or throw grounds ladders is invaluable at fires. Having an extra set of eyes to watch your back

 

while on calls or to free up the duty officer to be able to command an incident from outside the building instead of being the “combative commander” are all important jobs that will be delayed due to low staffing levels. These examples add to an already lengthy list of reasons you or a member of your crew may not come home.

With short-handed firefighting usually come changes in strategies and tactics to get the job done. Fewer firefighters on the fireground means more time may be needed to carry out essential functions such as rescue and extinguishment. Some functions like placing ground ladders and assigning rapid intervention teams may not be done when they should be, if at all. While nothing you can do will be as helpful as having more firefighters, there are a few ways to lessen the burden.

Strong leadership

This is where it all begins. To be successful, management positions must be filled by strong leaders. They must have their subordinates’ trust in their ability to lead. Management must have a firm grasp on what incidents the departments can handle on its own and when to ask for help. Plans for stacked alarm assignments or automatic mutual aid must be in place well ahead of any emergency.

Management must also be willing to trust that the members are capable of doing the job or make sure they get the training they need to be productive members of the team. Being understaffed makes each member all the more valuable when it comes to workload. If the phrase “You’re only as strong as your weakest link” is true, then the weakest link in your two-person crew had better be someone you can count on.

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