How Much Fire Department Do You Need and Why?

Recently it has been my sad duty to note that there has been a significant drop in the level of fire protection that many communities have. This is not in just one area, but it exists in a wide number of different areas of our nation. I have seen this in communities of every size. I have seen this in career, and combination, as well as volunteer departments. Far too many appear to be taking a knock-out punch from their political and administrative leaders.
As an observer of the fire service scene, I have chosen to take a close look at the reasons why fire departments appear to take a disproportionate hit at budget time.  Please stay with me as I will begin this by acknowledging my bias in favor of the fire service. Heck, it has been my life for the better part of five decades. We must all recognize a number of things:

• Crime pays (at least for the growing of local police budgets).

• Fare too many fire departments are unaware of how big they should be, how many people they should utilize, or how much equipment they need.

• The average fire person does not seem to care about the larger picture of protection within their community.
• There are those who fail to see the fire service as a multi-service discipline (This amplifies the above statement)

I have long marveled at the amount of money which was available for police departments, and that seemed to flow in an endless stream from sources that seemed almost mythical to a poor old fire service lad such as myself. It is tough to find a culprit to pin this one on. But I have noticed something recently. Even the cops are getting their butts whipped at the budget table.
In my former place of employment, the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department, hard times are at hand. On October, 2010, thirty-two officers retired from the department. Another twenty are due to leave on November 1, and another like amount on December 1. Many of these fellows would like to stay, but they are being forced to retire by changes (and potential changes) in the pension rules.
In addition to these retirements, some level of fire department layoffs is still pending. In addition, my old assignment as Battalion One has been taken out of service, along with four more engine companies. Things are not well in the old Brick City. The police are looking at the loss of 175 people, along with a raft of demotions. Is the city that much safer? Are the remaining people suddenly going to be able to do the work of two (or three)? I think not.
I guess each of us must share a bit of the blame, because we have not fought to establish grants programs with the same intensity as our colleagues in the police world. Oh, we have the FIRE Act and the SAFER program, but is that enough. We are working to address that problem in Congress, but there are a host of other places, both public and private, that we need to cultivate.  However, the worm has truly turned. Police grants are way down and the level of layoffs is rising.
Let me now suggest something which many among us are thinking. I do not know about you, but I think that the federal government kicking us to the curb. I am suggesting that our FIRE Act money is being siphoned into that vast reservoir of terrorism money. Terrorism my aunt Hanna, I am sick of hearing about terrorism.  Most people I know are responding to car wrecks, heart attacks, and house fires. However, I suggest that rather than crying foul, we need to refocus how we do business.
I guess what I am saying is that we have done enough crying over past tankers (not tenders) of spilled milk. If we are to take our place in the world of government affairs, we must begin to operate in a far more organized fashion. Here is where we need to demonstrate that we can operate like a business.
It is time to remember that in the world of government it is most often the squeaky wheel which receives the grease it demands. This was a lesson my professors taught me at Rutgers University. It was my modis operandi when I was working in the political trenches of Newark City Government.   However, the one thing which you need on your side if you are to be a truly effective squeaky wheel is a well-thought-out plan. That is what this blog entry is all about.
If we are all to be in a position that allows us to develop fire departments truly representative of the communities they protect, we must become intimately familiar with risk analysis and community defense fire plan development. We must adopt a system that allows us to assess the need for fire department, in terms that are readily understandable. We must discover just how many people, pieces of fire apparatus, stations, and the like, are right for our community.
A fire risk assessment of the hazards within any community requires that a determination be made regarding those events that might occur in that community. If a department fails to give this potential emergencies due consideration, their ability to respond to them, should they occur, will be limited. It may also reduce the effectiveness of their overall level of municipal fire protection.
Every fire department should consider adopting a pro-active approach to planning for those potential incidents that may happen in the future. You cannot expect that the future will always be kind to you. You must envision that bad things that could happen and prepare for them.
A great deal of what I exists in each community is there as a result of past practices. More time needs to be spent in planning for future operations. A number of variables exist that can serve as the basis for various potential emergency scenarios. Each must be consciously considered as a part of the planning process. They are as follows:
• Population

• Geography and topography

• Demographics

• Transportation mediums

• Level of industrial development

• Level of residential development

• Level of commercial development

• Predominant construction types

• Available water supply

These are the factors that affect how much fire protection will be needed in your community. Let me assure you that there is a direct relationship between an increase in the number of people who live in you community, and the number of emergency service responses that will occur in your area. I have seen this time and again as new developments have opened here in my fire district. These are the indicators which I have used for nearly 30 years in my community fire risk analysis program.
My area here in Adelphia is no different than any other place in the world. If there are more houses, there exists a greater potential for problems. Even if the percentage of chance in any single home remains the same, there are a lot more places for that chance to occur. It is better to prepare for what may occur than to be cause short.
In line with this, a solid plan for the future will allow you to budget for growth over time. It is better to increase your requests a little bit each year than to be faced with a sudden jump of major proportions. Let us look at how each of these might be addressed in a target community.
1. The population has continually demonstrated potential for growth.

2. The demand for service has increased as the growth has occurred.

3. The changes occurring in my community may have a negative impact upon our ability to recruit new members for the fire department.

4. There has been a decided increase in the number of residential occupancies over the past two decades.

5. Commercial and highway zone development has entered a new growth stage.

6. Our road network does not always allow for ease of apparatus movement throughout the entire fire district. We have a number of smaller, township roads in our response area.

7. Our new residents require the assistance of the fire department to understand the unique safety skills of living in a suburban setting.

8. I observed each of the following transportation and movement mediums during our visits:

a. Roads and highways

b. Aircraft over head (Heavy air traffic from your local airport)

c. The impact of the transport mechanisms must be a part of your planning for future emergency service needs.

9. The potential exists for the development of additional multiple dwelling residential occupancies which occur in response to low-income housing concerns been seen at the state level.

10. It has been my experience that where you have an increase in a given population base that this normally translates in an increased potential demand for service. We have seen this.

11. Most new construction is of a type that is not friendly to firefighters.

12. This creates structural integrity problems, as standards have been diminished to some extent by those construction and materials practices that are allowed by the building code minimum requirements.

13. This problem can be partially attenuated through an increased emphasis on installed alarms, and automatic suppression devices.

14. There are a number of areas which are not protected by fire hydrants. Hopefully this will decrease with an increase in development. Fortunately, a number of water system improvements are under way.

Once the issues like this have been addressed, you must assess what the community will demand of you. You do this by laying out a series of possible events that might occur. Here is an example from a recent consulting job performed by my firm.
After giving each of these criteria a due level of review and concern, I offer the following for your guidance. I believe there are five basic scenarios which exist and that merit additional thought on the part of fire department planners in our community.
• A multiple-dwelling fire

• An industrial/commercial/institutional occupancy fire

• An aircraft crash

• A transportation/haz-mat highway incident

• A large-scale, multiple-casualty emergency medical response on the highways of your township.

Once this is completed, you must assess exactly what your fire department can do with regard to these potential incidents, as well the Target Hazard threats in you area. Target Hazards have been defined as being those occupancies that pose the undue risk of life loss, personal injury, or property damage. Hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, lumberyards, schools, and garden apartment complexes are some of the more common examples of Target Hazard occupancies. A fire department will face large-scale human or property challenges in these sorts of properties.
Just what can your fire department do? Do you have enough people? Are there a sufficient number of apparatus to provide the necessary tools and water? Do sufficient people respond on a regular basis? Are your stations properly positioned to protect your community? Each of these questions must be explored and answered in a satisfactory manner.
If you are short of people, what do you do? How does one get more volunteers? How might you increase your career staff? Only you can answer these questions for your community. The same holds true for every other part of this equation:

People + Apparatus + Water + Tools + Labor = Effective fire protection.

You must not put off until tomorrow what should be done today. The answers to these questions are neither cheap nor easy to solve. Ignore them at your own peril. Let me suggest that not is the time to begin to change the way you think today.