I often get asked how I began teaching on the topic of understaffed company operations, or why I feel addressing short staffed operations is so important. The answer is very simple, because our lives depend on it. Most foundation level training programs are based on students working in teams of five or six, even in my own state. Realistically, that is just not practical for many firefighters across the country. Our focus is to take the skills and material taught in most training programs from how to operate with five or six firefighters and provide the same concepts but with ways for firefighters to accomplish the skills with only one to three firefighters. As we say in many of our classes, "we're not re-inventing the wheel, just putting a little air in it".
For example, I have witnessed academy after academy in many different areas, in both career and volunteer departments, teaching students how to stretch hoselines using three or four firefighters. However, in the same departments when the recruits graduate they will be riding alone in the back of an engine and will need to stretch the hoseline by themselves. Obviously, stretching and advancing a hoseline by yourself is much, much different than with three other firefighters.
Short staffed operations absolutely change the way we operate on the fireground. Keep in mind that our priorities and strategies do not change, but the tactics being used to accomplish them do change. Take a short staffed ladder company riding with a driver, officer, and one firefighter. They simply cannot perform the same tasks as a ladder company with five firefighters. Everyone from the rookie to the Chief needs to be aware of this. Most importantly, the firefighters need to know how to take what they've been taught for a company of five and learn how to perform the same tasks alone or with just one other firefighter. In the case of the ladder company alot has to change. The firefighter will need to be familiar with forcing entry alone, and will need to be prepared and carry not only the irons but a wedge also. In many short staffed ladder companies the firefighter will carry a halligan with an aluminum wedge and the officer carries the axe to assist with forcing entry. In my own department, a large urban fire department that rides with only crews of three, the position of "can man" is eliminated from the ladder company. The engine company will either carry the can or deploy a hoseline. The ladder company rider will carry the irons or the halligan with a wedge and a hook with the officer taking the axe. There simply isn't enough people to carry out all the traditional ladder roles. The role of the traditional driver operator, whether on the engine or ladder company, also needs to change and expand. The ladder driver's role will now include performing tasks typically carried out by the outside vent position (OV) such as controlling utilities, horizontal ventilation, making the roof, putting up secondary means of egress, and vent enter search (VEIS). This position now becomes very critical that a senior, experienced firefighter is filling the role. The same goes for the engine company driver pump operator who may find themselves fulling many of the roles taken on by a hydrant or control firefighter. Many times they will have to lay in from the hydrant initially or risk having to hand jack the supply line alone and leaving the pump panel unattended. The engine company rider will need to be familiar with techniques for advancing hoselines alone and the officer will need to get more hands on with moving hoseline.
Short staffed RIT operations affect both volunteer and career departments across the country as more and more departments are facing staffing cuts and shortages. A volunteer fire department may find that they have every seat full for a structure fire response on Saturday afternoon but only have three firefighters responding to a structure fire that comes in Monday morning. This may actually be a better then a career department where companies are always short staffed. Although the companies know they will be short staffed and can train and prepare for understaffed operations, it doesn’t change the fact that they will always have fewer firefighters than they need on the fireground. Regardless of the type of fire department, every firefighter needs to know how to operate, and most important, how to be successful when operating on any company that is short staffed.