October Roundtable: Minimum Engine Staffing Levels

When I came on the job, we did not have minimum staffing levels. On occasion, engines would run with three, and trucks would occasionally run with two. Back then, Toledo averaged 120 firefighters on duty. When I retired a few years ago, staffing was different. The union had negotiated strict minimum staffing levels--four on an engine and three on trucks. We also had a minimum daily staffing level of 103 firefighters and officers. If staffing fell below 103, a firefighter was brought back on overtime.

 

Nationally, I believe the average is fewer than four firefighters for engines and three for trucks. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, 2010 edition, and NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, 2010 edition, call for four for engines and four for trucks. They also have provisions for minimum response levels within specific time frames. Few departments can measure up to this standard.  Even the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), which meets the minimum number of firefighters on apparatus, cannot meet the response time frames required. Where does your department fit in to the equation?-- JOHN “SKIP” COLEMAN retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering; a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board; and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997), Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

 

Question: What is the minimum staffing on your engine company? Has it remained constant over the past 30 or so years?

 

Rick Lasky, chief,

Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: Staffing for our engine companies for the most part has been three or more personnel for the past 30 years or so. Looking back at the mid-1970s you usually saw three unless it was an ambulance call. Since then, we have run with a minimum of three per engine and quint, and four to five on the tower ladder. Depending on the time of year, most, if not all engine and quint companies run with four personnel.

 

We have been and will continue to fight for the additional personnel to bring all engines and quints up to four personnel minimum. We will have to be patient with the current economy, but our desire is to accomplish this in the future.

 

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,

Fire Department of New York         

Response: There are more than 200 engine companies in FDNY; most ride with an officer and four firefighters. In addition, when the personnel are available, 60 of our high-activity units are assigned one additional firefighter, giving them an officer and five firefighters.

 

These staffing levels have remained basically the same for a number of years.  The personnel have been maintained because of the amount of fire activity, the types and sizes of our buildings, and the need to comply with our firefighting procedures.

 

FDNY policy generally requires the first two engines to stretch and operate the initial hoseline; the second and third engines get the second line in position. Placing a hoseline in operation at the top floor of a large apartment building or stretching off a high-rise standpipe will often necessitate the full complement of eight to 10 firefighters to position the line and provide for relief.

 

It is rare that one of our engines has to work on its own for an extended time. If, however, this does occur, there is a big advantage to riding with five firefighters on the apparatus. Having the extra person allows you to initiate a hose stretch while assigning one or two firefighters to force entry or ladder the building. This might be enough to establish a “holding” operation pending the arrival of more units and additional personnel.

 

Very often fire strategy will be defined and limited by personnel levels even if you are riding with a fully staffed five-person engine.

 

Brian Cudaback, battalion chief,

Arlington (TX) Fire-Rescue

Response: Most of our 16 engine companies are staffed with an officer, an apparatus operator, and one firefighter, for a total of three. Special Operations stations (FS 6, 7, and 8) have this same complement, with the addition of another firefighter, for a total of four. We also have a high-run volume engine (FS 2) that is assigned with four.    

 

Our staffing levels have not changed prior to the past three years. Unfortunately, because we do a very good job with the staffing levels we have, “selling” four-person staffing has been challenging. 9/11 and a more recent comprehensive management study identified the need and provided a plan for additional staffing within the Special Operations Command. We are currently at the end of that three-year commitment from city management and, considering the current economic climate, struggle with how to more forward with a plan that would provide the remaining companies with four-person staffing.    

 

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,

Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: In my department staffing has changed for the better in the past 30 years. Several years ago, minimum staffing was negotiated into our union contract. At present, all fire companies have a minimum of four members in accord with NFPA 1710. The department had recognized for some time that our staffing was unsafe, but it was only through contract negotiation that minimum staffing became a reality.

 

Billy Goldfeder, deputy chief,

Loveland-Symmes (OH) Fire Department

Response: Our staffing has changed significantly not only on our apparatus but also as a part of our first-alarm assignment. Several years ago, we responded with about a dozen firefighters and a chief. If it was serious, we called for additional alarms. Over the years, it didn't take long for us to realize that it simply didn’t work. It worked most of the time because we got lucky. But, from seeing mostly other fire department injuries and deaths, we realized that staffing heavily on the first alarm is a major ingredient in a successful fireground operation. So while we did increase our career fulltime staffing, including a part-time “peak hours” increase, we also participate in a very aggressive automatic first-alarm mutual-aid response with our neighboring departments. We now get 25 to 30 firefighters and several command support chiefs on the first-alarm assignment. Most of those departments now are training together and operating off common standard operating procedures (SOPs) .Why did this all change? A few close calls of our own, a few close calls of others, and several line-of-duty deaths we studied and took time to understand. Additionally, our leadership, specifically our chief of department, took the emotion out of it and worked with our elected officials so they could understand that there was great value in supporting his ideas of change.

 

Robert Metzger, chief,

Golden Gate (FL) Fire District

Response: The question of minimum staffing on apparatus remains a significant issue of discussion. Since our district is a relatively new independent special fire district within the state of Florida (25 years young), our staffing history is an interesting study. The organization started as a volunteer department, and a one-person-per-engine response was not uncommon. Numerous fires were eventually suppressed with a handful of firefighters performing hazardous evolutions with no room for error. As the district grew and its tax base increased, we were able to hire additional personnel to provide a more effective response while enhancing the safety of the committed personnel. We now staff our engines with a minimum of three people. That is all the district can afford to do. We recently passed a referendum to increase our millage cap from 1.0 to 1.5--no small feat in these times, but it barely offsets the serious drop in taxable property values that form the basis for our revenue collections. At this juncture, we are grateful for being able to maintain current staffing levels.

 

Gary Seidel, chief,

Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: Our department has had to make budget cuts for the upcoming fiscal year as a result of our economic times. We are still attempting to keep the level of staffing at four per engine/truck and two on a rescue. However, we have had to modify our daily staffing to reflect the daily vacancy level. This means that we may close a rescue company to keep our engines and trucks at a staffing level of four and also that one of our four engine companies may be reduced to a staffing level of three.

 

We have developed workload indicators that have assisted us in justifying our budget. These workload indicators allow us to obtain accurate quantitative data regarding our service delivery to ensure we are constantly visible to the public and are partnering with the community in providing a quality service. Thus, we have been able to continue to grow, not only as a city but also as a department. 

Our city has doubled in size over the past 10 years, from a population of 44,000 to 90,000 and from 19 to 24 square miles. During the past two years, the increase in industrial/commercial building has tapered off, which has flattened out revenues, even though financially business within the community is relatively constant. During the 10-year growth period, the department increased approximately 44 percent. For the past five years, we have strived to reach a constant staffing level; however these tough economic times have taken us back to where we were prior to five years ago.

 

Jeffrey Schwering, captain,

Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: Minimum staffing can be three or four members, depending on the day and the alarm. My shift has seven members when fully staffed. Three are assigned to each company, and a "jumper" floats between engines. This staffing situation is down to two members per shift, plus we lost our light rescue truck since 1991, when I was hired.

 

With vacations and sick time, many times we are running with a three-member crew. We do our best to offset this shortfall in personnel by having a duty officer respond with the engines on assist calls or any alarms sounding like a working incident. When seven members are on duty, it is the captain's discretion, by the sound of the alarm, whether the fourth person goes. We do have a mandatory policy for the fourth member for certain types of alarms. All captains and lieutenants are encouraged to call additional resources on arrival if the situation dictates, regardless of the nature of the alarm.

 

William Brooks Jr., firefighter,

East Wallingford (CT) VFD

Response: Minimum staffing for our engine companies is three on the apparatus-- a driver\pump operator, a firefighter, and an officer. This minimum staffing level has been in effect for at least the 19 years that I have been an active firefighter. The apparatus are staffed with additional firefighters on occasion, as shift staffing (on the career side) or volunteer response allows. If the career engines are below minimum staffing after a medical\trauma call, they will go back in service on “EMS only” status until staffing returns to the minimum. On the volunteer side, the engines will roll only if they have minimum staffing or the shift commander (having been apprised of the staffing level) gives approval to roll (i.e., to facilitate water supply or EMS operations). Only a career deputy chief or the chief of department, through SOP changes, can allow specific exceptions to the staffing requirement.  

 

Barry B. McGoey, firefighter,   
Yonkers (NY) Fire Department

Response: Our department staffs each apparatus, engine, truck, tower ladder, or rescue company with three firefighters and one officer (a captain or a lieutenant).  We had voluntarily maintained these minimum staffing levels for decades; but about 10 years ago, IAFF Local 628 solidified these minimum staffing levels by negotiating them into our collective bargaining agreement with the city. We will continue to strive to enhance these staffing levels in the future. 

 

Clint Fey, division chief,

West Metro (CO) Fire Rescue

Response: Our organization strives to meet the NFPA 1710 standard that calls for four-person minimum staffing on all engines, but it lacks the budget to do so. To provide the best deployment of personnel with limited resources, we have created a hybrid model for personnel deployment on engine companies. Our goal is to provide at least four personnel on-scene with the initial arriving company to enable two-in/two-out. To accomplish this, we maintain a minimum engine staffing of four personnel at all single apparatus fire stations. At stations housing an engine and an ambulance (staffed with two firefighter-paramedics) ,we set a minimum engine staffing of three personnel, giving us five personnel within the initial arriving company. We use a similar approach in stations with a truck company, setting a minimum of three personnel on the engine and four personnel on the truck. 

 

Our organization realizes the value of four-person engine companies and understands that this system is less than perfect. The organization and our union, IAFF Local 1309, have done an admirable job of reaching a short-term compromise while minimizing the impact to our citizens and our firefighters.

 

Frank Garrison, captain,

Chico (CA) Fire Department   

Response: We have had minimum three-person staffing (captain, engineer, and firefighter) for more than 30 years. For a long time, we had only one truck staffed with one and then two trucks staffed with one. We were able to get the increase to two; but because of budget cuts, we went to one truck with three-person staffing. It is questionable if we’ll be able to keep that staffing with further budget cuts. The state’s financial troubles may cause it to rob the local governments again. This staffing is not in our contract, so it is tenuous.

 

Christopher Olsen, lieutenant,

Crystal Lake (IL) Fire Rescue

Response: Our usual staffing of an engine company is three personnel. When our overall staffing drops, our minimum engine-company staffing could fall to two personnel. This depends on our staffing matrix, which takes into account the overall staffing, stations, and vehicles. This is much better than when I was first hired 17 years ago. It was not uncommon for our engine to roll with only the driver. Far from safe! So essentially, you could say that we more than doubled our engine staffing.  

 

Mike Gurr, lieutenant,  
Pompano Beach (FL) Fire Department

Response: All of our engines ride with a minimum of three people. Our squad rides with two. Engine and ladder staffing have stayed the same (three), but we lost the officer and driver position on the squad about 15 years ago. We run a three-person minimum on all of our rescue trucks [advanced life support transport units (ALS)]. Rescue staffing increased several years ago because of high-call volume. The third person on the rescue allows the engine to stay in service and be available for the next call. If staffing on the rescue goes down to two, the engines roll out for paramedic support on EMS runs. We are pushing for NFPA 1710 staffing levels but have not been successful yet.

 

Joseph Madzelan, deputy chief,

Manchester Township (PA) Department of Fire Services

Response: Our current minimum engine staffing is two. However, our minimum station staffing is six, covering an engine, a truck or a rescue, and an ambulance. When available, the ambulance crew supplements staffing on the engine and truck, bringing the total crew to three. Depending on the needs of the incident, the personnel assigned to each apparatus may not fulfill its intended function--i.e., the truck crew may perform engine company functions with all station personnel acting together as one company. We use extensive automatic aid to fulfill our staffing requirements. Our department started with paid drivers more than 40 years ago. This is a combination department; but as is the case with most fire departments with volunteer personnel, the volunteer ranks have dwindled dramatically. We no longer count on volunteer personnel to support our paid personnel. Until last year, we were not guaranteed to have a second firefighter on the engine or truck. In April 2008, we received a SAFER grant that enabled us to raise our minimum staffing from four to six, allowing our current two-firefighter-minimum crew.

 

Richard Wilson, lieutenant

Bartlett (IL) Fire District

Response: The minimum staffing on our frontline apparatus (two engines, one tower) is three. If we are lucky enough to have 16 (full shift counting a battalion chief) on a shift, the policy is that both medic units, as well as the suppression apparatus, run with three. Just a few years back, we were running with two firefighters on a frontline engine and three firefighters on a frontline truck. The chief officers have made the commitment of safety to their firefighters to run three on all frontline fire apparatus. This aids our department in complying with the two in/two-out mandate and protecting the safety of our firefighters and residents. Our department is combination, career, and paid-on-call.

 

The working relationship among our members is awesome; the paid-on-call are used in many positions as qualifications dictate. Many of our career firefighters previously had been paid-on-call. That working base was an easy transition into a career position for those members. Our training for the department does not separate anyone because of pay grade/status; everyone moves as a unit. With this cohesion, it was easy for management to have the station officers assign members into positions from medic units to jump-seat firefighters. With the economy the way it is, as of this writing, our paid-on-call members are a very important link in making our department successful with staffing issues. Hire-backs can last only for a certain amount of time.

 

Hassan Abu Khamis, chief,

HSE Dept., Doha, Qatar

Response: We have eight firefighters and two fire engines on each shift. Minimum staffing for each is three firefighters; two others are alarm room operators (they stay at the station); the other one is a station commander. We dispatch one engine for unconfirmed alarms and both engines for confirmed alarms. This is an industrial fire department; we have a mutual-aid agreement with neighboring companies. We can get support from external fire departments in less than 10 minutes.

 

Of course, I am not very happy with my current staffing, but there is very little I can do to convince my upper management to increase it because of the cost impact. What is really killing me is not the emergency response scope coverage but the fact that 90 percent of my staff personnel hours are spent on inspection testing and maintenance of fixed fire protection systems (fixed and portable), Also, a tremendous number of these hours are given to our expansion projects (four construction sites) with a total population of 40 to 42 thousands workers in an area less than 2 km by 2 km. The point I am trying to make here is that the level of stress on my firefighters has been gradually increasing and morale is becoming very difficult to maintain. Of course, all this affects the quality of the outcome as well as their interest in the job.  

 

Joel Holbrook, captain,

Washington Township (OH) Fire Department

Response: My department has adopted the minimum staffing requirements per our local mutual-aid agreement, which is three on an engine, a ladder; and a rescue; two on a medic, a tanker, and a hazmat and brush unit; and one on the air wagon. This system has been in place since the mid-’90s. This is not to say we won’t staff with more if personnel allow; if staffing falls below the minimum, the unit is taken out of service until personnel are available to place it back in service.  

 

Patrick Kelly, chief,

Tucson (AZ) Fire Department

Response: The minimum staffing on all our suppression apparatus is four persons at all times. This staffing helps us strive to meet our NFPA 1710 initiative and is written in the union contract between Local 479 and the City of Tucson. Staffing has been this way for many years. I fully intend to keep it at these levels for the foreseeable future for the safety of our responders and citizens.

 

Reed Menz, instructor,

Oceanside (NY) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: About three years ago, our department initiated a policy of having a minimum of three interior firefighters, one of whom is the officer or acting officer, and a chauffeur/motor pump operator (MPO) (who does not have to be an interior firefighter). This is the bare minimum necessary to get the first line into operation at a typical residential fire. The officer and one firefighter would stretch the initial line starting with tank water, while the MPO and the third firefighter would obtain the water supply. We usually use the hydrant-to-fire lay. The MPO acts as the control man on the first line, making sure it has enough line and is fully out of the bed, and then charges the line with tank water. The MPO then connects the feeder line to the pump suction connection. The hydrant man secures the hydrant, feeds the pumper on command, and then becomes the door man on the initial line.

 

The policy also considers the two in/two-out rule. The MPO and third firefighter on the line could be considered as the two-“out” men in conjunction with the arriving chief officers. The second-due engine’s primary job is to assist the first-due company in getting the first line into operation.   

 

Mike Froelich, lieutenant,

Sylvania Township (OH) Fire Department

Response: Our unit staffing has actually improved overall; on-duty staffing remains at a minimum of 14 a day per contract language. That has increased from the noncontract minimum of nine on duty 21 years ago. Population has increased more than 11 percent. Call volume has also increased. Department line employees have decreased from 60 to 52. We now staff three people on three engines and one truck and two on an ALS life squad. Over the past 21 years, we have gone from a mixed staffing level, playing “musical trucks” by cross-staffing different apparatus depending on what type of call was received, to level staffing and dedicated single units at each station.

 

Musical trucks will be returning soon though. With the delivery of a second ladder next year, two of the stations will be switching between an engine and a truck, depending on the type of call and where the call is dispatched. At least staffing will remain level, depending on current contract negotiations.

 

Ken Kurz, deputy chief,

Dryden Fire Service, Ontario

Response: Our response for structural calls is as follows: District 1 (urban):  Pumper 21 with six members, Rescue 25 with five, Quint 24 with six, and Command 26 with one. District 2 (rural): Pumper 31 with two, Tanker 32 with two, Equip 33 with two, Water Supply 34 with two, Pumper 21 with six, Rescue 25 with five, and  Command 26  with one.

 

David DeStefano, lieutenant,

North Providence (RI) Fire Department

Response: Our department has staffed engine companies with a minimum of an officer and two firefighters for the past 20 years. This level of staffing has led to officers working as firefighters instead of supervising firefighter safety and maintaining a vigilant watch on operating conditions.

 

Operating three-person engine companies also requires combining two companies to stretch and operate 2½-inch lines. In addition, completing long or complex stretches with 1¾-hose is a real challenge. 

 

Companies regularly display extraordinary teamwork to accomplish tasks on the fireground, but without the personnel to function efficiently, members often overextend themselves. When operating first due, with the chauffer on the pump, these understaffed companies have only one firefighter and the officer to stretch and operate the first line on the fire. 

 

Unfortunately, things will probably not get better anytime soon. Facing a large deficit, the current administration is pushing to reduce minimum staffing requirements.     

 

Vance L. Duncan III, deputy chief,

Erie (PA) Bureau of Fire

Response: Currently, engine companies have assigned staffing of five personnel and are required a minimum staffing of “four out the door.” This minimum staffing was an IAFF union contract award in 1986.

 

Our minimum staffing per engine company has remained the same, although we have a reduced number of engine companies compared to more than 20 years ago. At one point, there were 13 engine companies and three ladder companies serving our citizens.

 

We have four full-time engine companies (these fire stations are on the four outer corners of the city) and two fire stations (centrally located, one north and one south) that are each assigned five personnel (minimum staff of four personnel “out the door”). The personnel at the two centrally located fire stations staff the engine company or the tower ladder company. The location of the emergency and the run table assignment will determine if the crews respond with an engine company or a tower ladder company. Our run table assignment calls for the closest engine company and then the closest tower ladder company to respond to the incident.  The remainder of the run-table assignment is filled out using the remaining in-service engine companies.

 

Minimum staffing per shift is now 26 personnel (six apparatus, platoon deputy chief, and deputy chief aide). Prior to October 2005, minimum staffing was 34 personnel (eight apparatus, platoon deputy chief, and deputy chief aide).

 

 

 

 

Subjects: Staffing, engine company operations;

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