Staffing and Its Impact On Firefighter Safety

Aug. 1, 2003
The issue of staffing comes to the attention of everyone with each and every firefighter's death on the fireground. This occurs whether the death occurred at a high-rise building or a one-story home. Much will be said for a short time, then the conditions of staffing will return to the same levels as before the firefighter was killed. Think about your experiences. How many close calls have you been involved with? How many after-action reports have you read that talk about being shorthanded?

I have spent 30 years of my life with the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department. During that period, the department has been hacked and slashed to the present form. When I became a member, there were 32 two-piece engine companies with a staffing of one officer and four firefighters. This let us become 64 single-piece engine companies with the call-back of personnel. Since 1991, we have had 33 single-piece engine companies with one officer and three firefighters. We have 16 truck companies staffed with one officer and four firefighters. When I started, we had 17 trucks staffed by an officer and five firefighters.

Recently, the department was slashed by an additional $5 million. An appointed political official informed us we were actually better off than the year before and we were supposed to believe it, I guess. Is this insanity? No, it is the mentality of our officials, which we have allowed to prevail. How did we get here? Why has so much rhetoric taken place and yet we still have fire apparatus across the country going out the doors of the station with two or three people onboard?

The answers lie on many fronts. If you read the National Fire Protection Association's NFPA Handbook, 11th edition, 1954, it states that seven-member engine and truck companies are needed for high-hazard areas. By 1969, they had changed their position to four-member engines and trucks, regardless of the area. Warren Kimball wrote in Fire Attack I that seven-member ladder trucks were needed to perform the necessary duties, but in his later book Fire Attack II he changed his message to whatever you can bring. Even International City Managers Association (ICMA) wrote in its Managing the Fire Service, 1967 edition, that five-member staffing was a minimum. Yet, in the 1988 edition they reserved the right to staff at any level. Thus began the unsubstantiated, in my opinion, reductions to our service and direct correlation to the impact on firefighter safety. Plus, most of our work is EMS related. How many people are required to perform EMS assistance? The answer is three. One person to drive the fire rig and two to assist with patient care.

The last staffing study of national significance was performed in Dallas in 1984. This only measured the ability of different-size crews to complete specific tasks; the ability to stretch a line by three-, four- or five-member engine companies, for example. Now, I'm sure other departments have also done testing, but how was it done and who published it nationally?

The problem with the testing conducted so far is that it has missed the most important concept. We don't perform separate tasks to perform our job. An article was written by Dr. Denis Onieal in 1992 in which he talked about the total picture of what is needed. He referred to tasks that must be performed concurrently and also those that can be performed consecutively. For example, an engine company making an attack down a hallway will be safer if a truck company is on scene and performing ventilation both vertical and horizontal. (Dr. Onieal is the superintendent of the National Fire Academy. See page 82.)

One of my best memories of yesteryear was the DCFD truck companies who prided themselves for opening up windows just as the engine company made the turn from the stairwell to the hall. Any engine guy will tell how much better a basement job goes when the truckies have ventilated. In today's world that can't possibly occur. If you have been reading the trade journals in the past few years, you would have noticed that injuries and deaths from flashovers are on the increase. A friend of mine who works on a three-person truck in Florida has to play Solomon and prioritize what actions the crew can take. In fact, many SOPs across the country that I have read mention this selection process of multitasking and prioritizing.

Many of our top fire service leaders have written extensively on this topic. Names like Dunn, Brennan, Carter, Mittendorf and Smith (the Philly one) have given us more than ample justification for increases in manpower. But others in our world have attempted to warrant reduced staffing by espousing quints with two or three aboard or aggregate delivery of personnel to be divided on the fire ground into teams. In DC we deliver four engines, two trucks, one heavy rescue squad and one battalion chief within five minutes of the receipt of the alarm. There isn't enough time to break up into new teams. The fallacy with these theories is the belief that the fire goes into a holding pattern while we call the play or the victims hold their breath. A quint-type apparatus can be a great tool, but only if you staff with at least seven members. Any less than that and you leave many tools on the rig unused, in my opinion.

We have also contributed to our situation by trying to make up for understaffing by overaggressive interior attacks. The majority of structural fires in this country are extinguished with a 200- to 300-gpm delivery rate of water. These are the type of incidents involving a room-and-contents up to several rooms. The problem is we appear to attempt to fight every fire with the same delivery rate.

If you are operating in a high-rise, then it is different fighting several rooms on higher floors than if that same fire is on the ground floor of a two-story house. First, everything that you need for a high-rise must be humped up to the fire floor by someone. Next, if anything happens to your water supply or windows blow out on the windward side, your position becomes untenable very quickly and it's not likely that you can bail out of a window. Finally, if there are 300 or 400 people in the building at the time of the fire, what exactly can you accomplish safely? We always seem to justify our overaggression by using the word "rescue," but too often members are killed with nothing to show for efforts. Is command the problem?

Too often, incident commanders do not receive adequate size-up reports. They operate blindly until they arrive on the scene. Even after arrival, many attempt to piecemeal their requests for additional resources. If they depend on long-distanced mutual aid, this can lead to disasters. Or, companies attack with good intentions, but little or no strategy except for putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. This means the incident commander must support these poor decisions to protect personnel or pull the personnel out and put in a plan B.

Too many incident commanders are reluctant to take the necessary command steps and pull out. It is commendable that our front-line troops are willing to sacrifice themselves to make up for short staffing, but even after they do this event after event it does not equate to increased support from city hall. In fact, in many of the cities where firefighters have been killed on the fireground the city leaders have attempted to still cut positions.

Simply put, I believe the level of staffing per apparatus has a direct bearing on our ability as fire service commanders to protect those who work for us. If you honestly believe a two-person rapid intervention team is sufficient, then sit in a building and wait for them to get YOU out. It's been proven many times they can't; it will take as many as 20 or 30 people to get you out, if conditions warrant. If a company officer cannot perform a rational size-up and underestimates the fire conditions, then you as an incident commander will be facing disasters in the making on every run with this company.

So what can we do? I hear about what the cops get all of the time. If you have ever attended a council meeting, when it comes to the police they will always phrase every question posed to them with, "If I only had the funding; in fact I stay up at night worrying about your issue, but I need more money." Yesterday and today and tomorrow, every fire and EMS response in this country will be mitigated to 100% closure. The average closure for police departments is between 20% and 30%. The fire service will consistently come out on top of customer surveys and yet come out a distant second or third when it comes to dollars and staffing. The reason - we can't predict when fires will occur and therefore the public's fear factor is not as great as a rise in crime. BUT we can predict with certainty what will happen when a fire does occur. With the current fears surrounding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incidents there hasn't been too much written about the fact that firefighters will be killed in higher numbers even though we more than proved that fact on 9/11.

Instead of attacking each other, labor vs. management, whenever firefighters are killed, let's work with each other to package the programs necessary to educate politicians and the public everywhere regarding the nature of this thing that we do. Educate our own as to when unwarranted aggression becomes suicidal. Educate our commanders and hold them personally accountable for the safety of those under their command.

We can and should be able to remain safe only when adequately staffed and not have to depend on luck or statistics. We operate as a team and that has been proven to be safe and effective when we can accomplish all of the tasks of engine, truck and rescue work necessary in the time span where they are required. Stay safe!

Michael L. Smith, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 30-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department, currently deputy chief/suppression and shift division commander, commanding all fire, EMS, hazmat, special operations and special events activities in the District on shift. He is a 30-plus-year fire service veteran and is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. Smith is a Certified Municipal Manger (CMM) from George Washington University and has degrees in fire science, construction management and public administration. He holds a journeyman's card with United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and lectures nationwide on fire service topics, including management, command, rapid intervention, building construction, and strategy and tactics for all types of buildings.

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