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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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.