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The Scaled Back Fire Alarm Response... friend or foe?

Many organizations across the country have scaled back their automatic fire alarm response over the past 5 years. Many fire departments are simply having a single engine respond to fire alarm calls, while others have cut back the response to an engine and a truck. For the sake of this article, we will not address Department of Insurance standards or the changing of these standard to allow for the reduction in responding assets.


Why cut back the response?


Money. The number one reason for trimming back the response on automatic fire alarm calls is of a fiscal nature. The amount of money a fire department has in a budget year dictates the allowable response at times. With many public safety organizations feeling the brunt of the recession, responses have been scaled back to save money.  Personnel, fuel, equipment maintenance, etc…. all costs money.


Complacency. Many of the fire alarm calls in the United States each year are unfounded with no emergency present. The majority are false activations.


Loss of focus. With call volumes on the rise nationwide, cutting back on some of the incidents companies respond to eases the load on the personnel. The few “working fires” that morph out of an automatic fire alarm are forgotten when these types of decisions are made.


Bandwagon Syndrome. Everyone else is cutting back the response to fire alarms. Something must be wrong with us if we don’t do it also. Right?


Safety. Why place more trucks on the road responding to a call that most likely will turn out to be false? It puts the public and the responders at risk.


What is wrong with trimming the response?


Firefighters operate in worst-case scenarios. Every incident may be the “big one”.


Why do you monitor a home on a CO call? Simply because you are treating it as worst-case scenario and ensuring that there is no hazards present. When CO is ruled out, the incident is de-escalated. The same should be true for fire alarm activations.


Fire alarm activations are structure fires until proven otherwise.


The above statement is the bottom line. Our job is to treat calls like the real deal until we; the firefighters prove there is nothing emergent occurring. Trimming back the response does nothing but foster complacency. One Engine Company responding to an incident that we know should be treated as a structure fire creates a subconscious cues in the brain that de-escalates the situation prior to arrival causing firefighters to treat the situation with less efficiency. In addition, the scaled back response delays firefighters from arriving with sufficient manpower on a working fire and create situations that do not ensure rapid intervention is organized in a timely manner, especially with a crew already on the scene going to work. In many locales nationwide, there is also a time lapse from when the first engine arrives on scene, declares a “working fire” to the time it takes for the appropriate assets to be dispatched, to the time it takes the crews to respond.


One Engine Company or one Engine Company and a Truck Company are not sufficient.


What is the solution?


The solution is to have enough resources dispatched that can appropriately handle a “working fire” situation for a period of time while other assets are dispatched and responding. A minimum of three engine companies and a truck company is my recommendation for automatic fire alarms. It is a scaled back response that ensures success on the first few minutes of a “working fire” situation. The first due Engine Company and first due Truck Company responds in an emergency response fashion. The other units respond in a non-emergency fashion, however maintains their state of readiness (full turnouts, tools, game plan, etc…) Here is how it breaks down…..


1st Due Engine Company (Emergent Response)- Investigation, Fire Attack


2nd Due Engine Company (Non-Emergent Response unless upgraded)- Water Supply, Second Hose Line.


3rd Due Engine Company (Non-Emergency Response unless upgraded)- Rapid Intervention.


1st Due Truck Company (Emergent Response Assist with investigation, Forcible Entry, Truck Company Operations if required)


Why should the truck company respond emergent? They are a specialized unit that provides tactical support to the engine company to ensure incident success. (Forcible Entry, Ventilation, Search and Rescue, Overhaul, Secondary Egress etc…)


The fiscal impact of the above recommendation should not be taken lightly; rather decisions should be made to reduce spending in other non-essential areas so that incident response doesn’t take a direct hit.


The fire service needs to return to worst-case scenario mindset and make decisions that ensure tactical success. Remember, the community is counting on you to fix their problem and save their lives. Be smart with decision-making, ensure tactical success, and do so while ensuring success of the business aspect of the organization as well.


Be safe out there.

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