The issue of understaffing is a hot topic these days. Staffing reductions are one of the impacts of our struggling economy. On a number of occasions I have discussed this topic – mostly from the perspective of budgets and politics.
Now, it’s time to look at the stark reality of how staffing can impact the situation awareness of commanders. In my book on Fireground Command Decision Making, I discuss one of the most surprising findings of my research – how significant the impact of staffing is on command situation awareness.
One of the essential tasks of a commander at any emergency scene is to conduct a size-up. Commanders are taught to look at things like building size/type, construction material/features, smoke/fire conditions, contents and life hazards. One of the things that is RARELY taught to developing commanders is the “Personnel Size-Up.”
The Personnel Size-Up is the commander’s assessment of what tasks can be safely accomplished based on the personnel on-scene. If you’re being realistic, you know that all crews are not created equal. Crew size, quality, training, age and fitness all impact a crew’s abilities. When the crews arrive it is important to size them up. Is the crew on Engine 1 the “A Team?” Is the crew on Ladder 3 from the “Island of Misfit Toys?”
If you work on a department with on-duty staffing, this size-up can start at the beginning of the shift when you see the roster of who is working on each piece of apparatus for the day. If you are a member of a department where the staffing responds from home, then you do not have the luxury of knowing the quality of your crew until they arrive. A Personnel Size-Up will help you make that determination and set realistic expectations.
One of the essential components of good situation awareness (and decision making) is being able to predict future events based on current conditions and actions of your personnel. In other words, getting out ahead of what is happening now and looking at where things should be five our ten minutes from now.
The quantity and quality of your staffing impacts your predictions of future events. The assignment you give your A-Team might take them 3-5 minutes to complete while the same assignment given to your Island Dwellers might take 10-15 minutes (and it will probably be done wrong).
As a commander, conducting a Personnel Size-Up will help you set realistic expectations of crew performance and the resulting future events. This, in turn, helps you maintain strong situation awareness.
Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP