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 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.

Training standards

Training and experience are how firefighters progress in their careers. We all know that we are seeing far fewer fires than decades ago. Thanks to improvements in building codes, property inspections and fire prevention programs, we have lowered the risk of fires in our communities, but training must still be the top priority of every department. Cross-training members is one way to ease the burden of being short-handed. As the incident commander on the fireground you may have your first-due engine arrive with a line officer and one firefighter. Your first-due truck may be staffed at the same level and, depending on what job must be done first, you may have to combine the two to make one functioning company.

Having all of your firefighters capable of responding on both engines and trucks comes down to quality training and the high standards to which members are held. Being cross-trained provides command with more firefighters to choose from when various situations arise. It also allows for easier coverage of short-staffed shifts that result from sick leave or vacations.

Training all suppression personnel to be driver/operators of every piece of apparatus benefits a short-staffed department by providing flexibility for shift officers and command officers at a fireground. If your department runs with a four-handed shift and you normally leave the station with an engine and a ladder, the shift leader has the ability to bring two engines and leave the aerial. For example, the incident commander may want more water in an area that has no hydrants. This can be accomplished if your members are all trained to do so. While not every member may have the confidence to drive emergency vehicles, this can be overcome with a quality driver-training program.

Need for pre-planning

What better way to manage the response of your short-handed shifts than to pre-plan your response areas? Be proactive when it comes to pre-planning and use the resources that are available to your department to aid in the process. Mount a laptop in the first-due apparatus so the officer has the information needed to conduct a safe operation. Have the area mapped out so the remaining incoming apparatus can be ordered into position. If you run with only one member per apparatus, have the computer in a convenient location within the firehouse so the officer or senior firefighter can pull the information before responding.

You can also have your dispatch center flag hazardous locations. Pre-planning works well for all departments, big or small, but knowing the hazards that are present, the layout of the area and the initial response that you will need to mitigate the problem aids in maximizing a short-handed department’s response.

Numerous challenges face short-handed fire departments. To overcome these difficult challenges, there must be an open frame of mind in a sometimes “in-the-box” profession. We can’t limit ourselves to textbook tactics and strategies that call for full engine and ladder staffing levels. It is up to all departments that run short-handed to adapt and overcome. The only option is success.

Firefighter/EMT Christopher Whytock

Rockland Fire Dept.

Rockland, ME

The writer has been a member of the fire service for 15 years, starting at age 16 as a junior firefighter in Dixfield, ME. After high school, he obtained an associate’s degree in fire science at Southern Maine Technical College and participated in the school’s “Live-In” program as a member of the Gorham and Windham fire departments. In 1999, he was hired by the Rockland Fire Department and is currently assigned to C-Shift. He can be reached at whytockchris@gmail.com.

Backdraft theory

I just read Chief Vincent Dunn’s excellent Safety and Survival column “Challenging Backdraft Theory” in the July issue of Firehouse®. Some random thoughts:

1. I suspect that backdraft explosions occur much more frequently after the First Decay Stage 2 than at Second Decay Stage 4, since the fire usually vents itself during the fully developed stage (after flashover), thus never entering the Second Decay Stage 4.

2. Surely someone – the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), FM Global, etc. – has measured carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen (O2) concentrations during full-scale fire tests in an unvented structure as a function of time. This would reveal if CO concentrations were sufficient to achieve an explosive range with the introduction of additional O2. If the concentrations were insufficient to achieve a lower explosive limit (LEL), then that would debunk the theory of a CO-fueled explosion.

Joseph R. Guyther

Water Supply Officer

Mechanicsville Vol. Fire Dept.

Mechanicsville, MD

See www.mvfd.com/content/water to learn how the Mechanicsville Volunteer Fire Department employs planning, awareness and training along with up-to-date policies and procedures to support rural water-supply operations.

Meaning no disrespect

I am writing to express my distaste for the cover photo on the July 2013 issue of Firehouse®. I find that showing the American flag lying over an overturned vehicle is disgraceful in the fact that the United States of America flag was photographed lying in dirt and rubble. It would be my thought as a fire service member and a veteran of the Vietnam Conflict that this is unacceptable. Our flag means so much to so many and I would think that if any members of the emergency services would have seen this, they would have removed the flag and proudly placed it where it would have been flown with pride.

I am a Vietnam veteran and spent 14 months in a place that was, to say the least, horrible. At 18 years of age I was not only placed in an environment that was confusing and scary, but even to this day I am haunted with what I saw, did and had done to me. I guess that may be part of the reason that seeing our American flag on the cover of Firehouse® brought me back to a time during the Vietnam War when I saw our flag torn, walked on, burned and so much more. As a returning veteran I found myself being humiliated, cursed at, called a baby killer and even spat upon at the Boston airport. All at the young age of 20 years old, confused that our own American people would do such a thing to returning veterans. I am so glad that this great country has learned from that and is now able to help our returning veterans. Still today, there are many Vietnam veterans who are alone and feel so helpless. I could go on, but it hurts too much to think about those horrible days.

I understand the damage that was done to the community of Moore, OK, and really feel for their pain. After all, they went through a war called Mother Nature’s Fury. I have to believe that another picture depicting the destruction could have been shown. A picture of fire-rescue teams would have shown the meaning of us in the service of saving lives and property. After all, that is what we do best, no matter what the event.

Chief David R. Bergeron

City of Winooski Fire Dept.

Winooski, VT

Harvey Eisner responds: Dear Chief Bergeron, I received your comments about the recent cover. The photographer arrived after the tornado had gone through Moore and took a picture of the flag the way it was found among the destruction of a major portion of the city after the nearly 200-mph winds deposited it there.

I am positive that when civilians, firefighters or veterans saw that flag, they removed it and took care of it properly. What we were showing was the utter devastation to the city that first responders had to deal with. At the time, they were busy rescuing trapped civilians and searching schools, hospitals and other buildings that were completely leveled or severely damaged. There was no intent to dishonor the flag or what it represents.