Fireground Staffing...Yes! But What About Command Staffing?

Feb. 1, 2009
Part 1 - Leading, Tracking and Supporting Your Firefighters

This column, in two parts with the second to appear in March, covers one of the most critical aspects of avoiding close calls: appropriate staffing on the first alarm. In this case, however, there is an aspect that may not be covered within your first-alarm assignments. The series opens with a review of what is generally needed to give us the upper hand for simultaneously working companies (dispatched on the first alarm) performing multiple tasks at a dwelling fire. With a focus on single-family dwellings (for discussion purposes), part one reviews the basics of first-alarm staffing by responding fire companies and apparatus. The issue of how we support those companies initially will be the focus of part two.

For these two columns, I am joined by my own Chief of Department, Otto Huber, of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department, who has worked very successfully with chiefs in our area to create progressive solutions to staffing issues. Together, we address the issues of supporting and leading firefighter staffing on the fireground as an integral part of the first-alarm assignment. The importance of providing enough command-level officers to manage the companies arriving and operating at that dwelling fire is often overlooked as a part of the initial dispatch. This creates a "catch-up" scenario - and sometimes we cannot catch up. We feel strongly that while a department may (hopefully) send enough firefighters to do the predictable jobs, often the lack of enough command officers being dispatched on the first alarm may be a source of interest to the readers.

We want to share some thoughts related to the command challenges and roles specific to your staffing (firefighters: career or volunteer) being dispatched, responding, arriving and operating on the fireground. The focus of this two-part column is on taking staffing a step further by looking at the critical importance of "staffing your command" roles.

We have received a considerable amount of e-mail recently asking questions about this subject, and it is one that we can all relate to. We don't have to look far to find numerous examples of firefighter injuries as well as line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) where the issues of staffing - and specifically "commanding and supporting" our staffing - played a critical role before or during the emergencies. Several recent firefighter LODDs have provided us with examples of how quickly a command officer can become overwhelmed when things go bad.

For years, the fire service has stressed "span of control" at the company-officer level and we feel it needs to be included as a part of the entire fireground operation - including command. It is unreasonable to expect a fireground command officer to go beyond a reasonable span of control, as has been shown at some critical fires. We use some examples to try to improve upon the support we provide to our members.

Our sincere thanks go to Chief BJ Jetter of the Sycamore Township Fire Department, Chief Ralph Hammonds of the City of Sharonville Fire Department and Chief Rick Brown of the City of Blue Ash Fire Department for their assistance and cooperation. We also thank the other area and neighboring fire departments and their chiefs in our three-county area of Ohio for their mutually cooperative attitude so all firefighters - and citizens - benefit from a significant increase in protection and service with minimal cost.

Staffing falls under two primary areas:

  • The needs for staffing the interior - Doing the tasks that companies do
  • The needs for staffing the exterior - Supporting the personnel operating in hazard zones

Simply put, not unlike a football team, members of the "coaching staff" operating outside of the field use the information they see on the field to determine how they can win. The obvious difference we have is that our personnel are not playing - they are working, often at high risk.

While it can create justifiably very emotional discussions, the fact is that it takes firefighters to operate at fires along with all the related fireground tasks - like it or not. You can pick up a newspaper almost anywhere these days and find where this mayor wants to cut this or that city manager wants to cut that. And as hard as some fire officers and firefighters try, some community "leaders" either cannot provide what is needed because the money simply isn't there or they won't because they don't feel what we demonstrate is needed actually is needed.

When fire company staffing and alarm-assignment response staffing are cut, fire chiefs have a clear responsibility to openly and frankly explain what that can mean to their superiors, their elected officials and their communities. All too often, when cuts are made, the attitude is "we'll be OK" - and the "we'll" is the big question. What do you mean "we"? Who will be OK? Are firefighters now expected to perform the same tasks, but with delays or with less staffing? Simple math will show that the risk to the structure, the occupants or the firefighters is greatly increased. The fire will continue to burn and destroy until the required tasks are performed. When responses are reduced, companies are shut or staffing is decreased, there should be no question that the risk to the citizens and firefighters is increased. And there is a clear obligation for jurisdictions to make sure their citizens understand what we already know. There are other factors when it comes to budget issues, such as increased salaries and benefits, but this is a tactical column related to us trying not to get hurt or killed.

In some communities, those "in charge" have sliced and diced on-duty firefighter staffing to the point that it is virtually impossible for the fire department to do its job, but the problem is that many of those making the decisions do not understand our job. So let's take a quick look and use a very basic example of a small, single-family-dwelling fire involving a one-story, wood-frame structure in a hydranted area. And you have used the ISO guide to fire flow (here it is for your use in the future: ) to determine that you need, for example, a fire flow of 750 gpm.

Estimating Water Flows

In using the ISO guide, it generally means that if the structure is fully involved, you are not going interior, so that would be your estimated required flow to handle the fire-and it would be done from the outside with a monitor or large handlines. However, if the fire is interior with, let's just say, a room burning and extending into the hallways, you will generally have several crews go interior to extinguish that fire. So while you have less of a fire problem initially, you actually have more tasks because you are committing your members to the inside. And for success, these tasks should be performed as close to simultaneously as possible and as directed by command. Note: We do understand that some larger cities may operate with more and other areas operate with less, so this is a general overview to simply set the basis for the discussion of supporting the firefighters operating.

The tasks to be considered are:

  • Hoselines - We would want at least three 1¾-inch lines flowing approximately 180 gpm. Each line would require a minimum of three firefighters: the nozzleman, the officer and a control firefighter helping move the line. One line would go to the fire, another line would be a protection line (such as to protect the stairs, the search crew, etc.) and the third line is available for immediate deployment as required. If we have three hoselines, we need at least nine firefighters. Fewer than that potentially puts less water on the fire and takes longer. Water on the fire, in coordination with truck company crews and command, is the most critical role on the fireground.
  • Water supply - We would want one firefighter on the hydrant and one at the pump panel. We would assign two firefighters, as we must ensure that water reaches the apparatus and we must have a trained and qualified operator on that apparatus to ensure that we get water to the hoselines.
  • Forcible entry and search - We would want a crew to search each floor; in this case, there is one floor and the basement. We would assign four firefighters. Fewer firefighters slows down the process, which has proven to result in victims not being rescued and fire spreading.
  • Ventilation - Be it opening up the roof or simply taking out some windows, we would assign at least two firefighters. In a fire where we must vent, it must be done in coordination with the attack to ensure that the spread of fire and the removal of smoke are controlled; otherwise, we have the proven potential to injure members and civilians.
  • Firefighter rescue - We would want a crew assigned to this as a part of the first alarm (of any reported fire problem within a structure) because if this crew is called after companies arrive and go to work, it may be too late if something goes wrong. We would want at least one company assigned and, if conditions warrant, assign more based on proven rapid intervention studies. But for the first alarm, we would need four firefighters. While to goal is for firefighters to not get in trouble, we are in a risky business and sometimes the risk is necessary when there are potential victims. When members are operating inside, four firefighters are the bare minimum to just start the process of planning for rescue and removal.

Is Staffing Adequate?

While you may disagree and contend that the above number is too many firefighters, we respectfully disagree with you. Why? Because the above tasks are not optional if our goals are to get water on the fire and search for and rescue victims in a timeline that gives our personnel the best chance to survive. Of course, your initial size-up may determine that you have food on the stove. No problem; send the balance of the alarm assignment home. But if you arrive and do have a working fire, wouldn't it be nice to actually perform the above needed tasks with a chance to succeed? Maybe even more than nice.

Hopefully, you noticed that the incident commander is missing from the above discussion. That's correct, along with related command roles. Next month, we will pass along some important ideas on how we have locally developed an automatic mutual aid program that includes additional command-level officers responding on the first alarm and the clear roles they are expected to perform in supporting our firefighters.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected]. OTTO HUBER, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, has been the chief of department at Loveland-Symmes since 2003. Previously, he was chief of operations for 18 years. Huber is a member of Ohio Fire Executive Program Class 7 and the board of directors of the Clermont County Fire Chiefs.

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