New Study Focuses on Crew Size

Feb. 6, 2009
Firefighters took part in a study to determine if crew size really does make a difference when it comes to saving lives and property.

ROCKVILLE, Md. -- When the engines rolled up and four firefighters jumped off and grabbed ladders and hoses, it appeared to be just another drill at the Montgomery County Fire-Rescue Training Center.

But, that wasn't the case at all.

Those involved in the exercise Thursday -- Montgomery and Fairfax County firefighters -- were part of a study to determine if crew size really does make a difference when it comes to saving lives and property.

Funded by a FIRE Act grant, the study is being conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in cooperation with Worcester Polytechnic Institute and International Association of Fire Fighters.

For some time, fire officers across the country have pleaded to those holding the purse strings for additional firefighters. The one thing they haven't had, however, is the statistics.

That will change when NIST engineers release the results later this year.

There's been a multitude of planning involved. A 2,000-sqaure-foot two-story building was specifically constructed for the study on the grounds of Montgomery County's training center.

Rooms contain cameras as well as instruments to measure toxic gases and temperatures, explained Jason Averill, a fire protection engineer and group leader for the project.

The data is recorded on computers and other monitoring equipment located in a separate section of the building.

Averill said they are monitoring how two, three, four and five person crews handle the same tasks on the fire ground. Each assignment includes a truck and three engines.

The effort is a cooperative one that involves a number of partners. The IAFF has been coordinating the fire crews, while NIST is in charge of the technical aspects.

"We are having the crews perform the same exact tasks in the same building under the same conditions," said Lori Moore-Merrell, IAFF technical assistant.

She said fire officers across the country will be armed with the data when they approach their city or county officials for more firefighters.

The next phase of the study will involve more technology and science as flashover scenarios are planned. Firefighters will not be part of it. Instead, data collected will be interjected.

Furniture will be purchased, and the rooms furnished for the burn experiment. Researchers are confident the data will be justified nonetheless.

In conjunction with the NIST study, Skidmore College researchers outfitted each firefighter with a chest strap to monitor their vitals.

Heart attacks are the leading cause of death of firefighters across the country.

Skidmore College officials explained in a document presented to participants: "These well-designed drills will provide a great deal of information to the fire service about the effect of different crew sizes in terms of their ability to limit fire damage. However, a related question is how do different crew sizes affect the amount of work a firefighter must do. . ."

At the end of the exercise, officials measured the air remaining in their SCBA bottles.

Participants filled out questionnaires, and were assigned a number. Researchers also knew what tasks they would be doing as part of the controlled drill.

Moore-Merrell said it's vital to know how the crew size may impact civilian and firefighter injury and death as well as their ability to extinguish the fire.

Acting Montgomery County Chief Richard Bowers said his department is excited to be part of the NIST study. "This is an absolutely fantastic project."

He lauded firefighters from Montgomery and Fairfax Counties. "This is such a great opportunity for you all to make a difference. . ."

Bowers said one day the participants will look back, and realize they helped change the daily operations in the fire service.

Mark Light, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said he was happy to see the project underway. He said it's unfortunate and dangerous that across the country every day, engines are going out without enough crew members to do the job.

Fairfax County Assistant Chief David Rohr said firefighters across the country as they go about protecting their communities. The impact will be felt by both small and large departments.

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