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Couples to Companies: The Staffing Debate Continues...

                Whether career or volunteer, municipal or private, urban or rural, firefighters are the cornerstone of the fire service, and have been since the Vigiles of Ancient Rome.  Without firefighters, a fire department has nothing and can do nothing.  A fire station won’t provide maintenance to its own apparatus and equipment.  Apparatus can’t drive to fires and pump themselves.  A Halligan bar won’t force a door, a hook won’t open up void spaces, and a 15/16” tip will not flow 185 gallons per minute at 50 pounds per square inch, without brains, brawn, and flesh-and-bone courage manipulating them.  It is 120% the “human factor” that defines the fire service.  Thusly, it is sad commentary, that so many officials, even some in our own industry, cannot or will not understand that without firefighters to operate it, even the best piece of equipment is rendered useless.

                The importance of firefighters to a department echoes throughout every aspect of our job.  In this piece, we will discuss how it cannot be overstated, first and foremost, the importance of adequate and safe staffing to provide the best service to our customers.  I live and work in a region, where paid on-call, or volunteer staffing models are still very prevalent.  However, paid on premises (locally referred to as “duty crew”) and career firefighters are becoming increasingly common, as several regional fire departments have made, or are making, the change from paid on-call to paid on premises to combination and career fire departments.  With these improved staffing models, resources are brought to bear faster, and often times more decisively, than ever before as a demand for services rises.  As always though, there is a trade: where many formerly volunteer or paid on-call fire departments once responded with a minimum of two, but more commonly anywhere from four to six firefighters (or more) per company, many operate with staffing models of three, or, more commonly to my region, two firefighters per company on duty.

                NFPA 1710 states that career fire departments must assemble a response of 15 personnel within 8 minutes of a call for service.  The requirement increases to 17 personnel if an aerial device is in use, or if an extra engine is added to water supply (as in a relay).  This accounts for a 60 second turnout time, 4 minute response time, and 3 minutes of initial fire ground operations consisting of all essential fireground tasks.  NFPA 1710 thusly states that crew sizes of a minimum of four firefighters are necessary to facilitate this deployment, in a career setting.    And while full NFPA compliance is an all-or-nothing endeavor, and as such is not necessarily “gospel”, would it not be due diligence of officials to ensure that, if for nothing else, the safety of their firefighters, and the efficiency of which they provide service, is held to the utmost of priorities?

                In April 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), partnered with several other accredited organizations, to release the Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments, wherein they conducted research of residential fire response by crews of varying sizes.  This accounted for the fact that the majority of fires faced by firefighters occur in single-family homes, and measured 22 essential fireground tasks, as specified by NFPA 1710 with variables such as crew size (2- to 5-person crews), crew stagger, and first due arrival time.  These variables were tested through more than 60 full-scale live fire experiments.  While the study is extensive, two of the most significant results came in overall scene time, where 4-person crews completed all 22 tasks (on average) seven minutes faster than 2-person crews, and 5.1 minutes faster than 3-person crews, and industry standard achieved, wherein 5-person crews met the NFPA 1710 standard 3 minutes faster than 4-person crews.  2- and 3- person crews were unable to meet NFPA 1710 industry standard.  This science translates directly to our ability to provide service to the public in the primary manner for which we exist.

                The area in which I live and work, for example, is served by predominantly paid on-call fire departments, with a recent shift toward paid on premises or combination models.  That being said, most departments do not recognize NFPA 1710 as a standard that applies.  Instead they turn to NFPA 1720, which outlines the resources assembled by volunteer or combination fire departments with a substantial (>80%) volunteer percentage of membership.  The problem with this adherence, however, is that much of the areas covered by these departments are considered “urban” areas; that is, areas with a population density of >1000 people per square mile.  NFPA 1720 in this respect, is nearly identical to NFPA 1710, stating that 15 personnel must “assemble an attack in 9 minutes, 90% of the time.”

                It can be argued then, that even adherence to the NFPA 1720 standard necessitates a minimum of 4 firefighters per company, to facilitate effective fire suppression operations in an urban-density area.  Many departments recognize that two apparatus (even ambulances, etc.) with 2 people each combine on scene to create a 4-person company.  This creates two problems: first, how often on a fireground, are these two companies treated as one and assigned together as a single resource?  Realistically, almost never.  And second, with PAR or PASS systems, how conducive to effective accountability is mixing and matching PAR tags between crews?  NIOSH cites a breakdown in accountability as one of the top five factors in firefighter injuries and fatalities.

                Typical national standards for minimum staffing place company sizes at 3 firefighters.  As many regions shift from paid on-call to paid on premises or even to combination and career models, many local fire departments are seeing company staffing reduced to three firefighters, if they’re lucky.  Most of my regional career or paid on premises departments operate with 2-person crews.  These companies, mockingly referred to locally as “couples” are proven through experimentation, to be an inferior deployment and staffing model, when compared even to 3-person companies.

                While the results of the NIST study can factually back up the need for safe and adequate per company staffing, there is still the human element to examine.  It is understandable that most departments do not flaunt budgets sufficient to carry 5-person companies, and for career departments, even upgrading from a “couple” to just a 3-person company is consistently difficult in terms of justification and budget, mostly due to public and municipal administrative perception alone (even while remaining below NFPA 1710 standard).  However, would it not be prudent to at least try to prioritize staffing levels beyond “couples” to levels that are more conducive to better service delivery? Especially on a paid on premises (duty crew) basis, where part time firefighters (with part time wages and benefits) prevail?  In critical life safety tasks, even a 3-person company performs a primary search 25% faster than a 2-person couple, and stretches a hoseline 56 seconds faster.  These are significant, measureable differences that can be improved with just one firefighter.

                Ultimately, there is no one catch-all solution to staffing issues across the nation.  Each Fire Chief must prioritize staffing and budget accordingly on an individual basis.  However, in doing so, the fact cannot and should not be ignored, that fewer firefighters per company, are measurably worse for the provision of our services.  A couple in lieu of company is a very real problem in today’s fire service, where fires burn faster and hotter than they ever have and do not distinguish whether your firefighters are volunteer, career, or some combination thereof.  If we as a service, are not willing to take a very real look at the issue of on-duty staffing per company, and begin taking steps, even slowly, to address it, then we are doing a disservice to our on-duty firefighters already doing the best they can with what they have available, and most importantly, we are doing a disservice to the citizens who rely on us and are the reason for our existence.

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