Fire Department Staffing: A Need, Not a Want


The saying “Do more with less” seems to have been the unofficial motto of the fire service for more than 200 years. The fire service has continued to be a very talented and resourceful group of individuals. No problem is too big or too small for us to solve; if for some reason we get stumped, we use our resources to find the answer. However, one serious dilemma we face regularly is acquiring adequate staffing to do our job safely and protect our community. When the public calls for our help, we run to their aid, but who will run to our aid when we need help?

We can call an additional alarm or rely more on mutual aid, but only if the companies are available. Will they be readily available when we need them? There will come a time when we will be able to do only so much before our resources are depleted. From fires to EMS calls and everything in between, no matter how you look at it, the fire service is the last line of defense when it comes to a community in an emergency situation. So the mentality of doing more with less is not appropriate in our job.

When fewer than four firefighters arrive on a fire scene, the first company is faced with a critical decision. Does it initiate an interior attack without adequate staffing and unnecessarily risk firefighters’ safety, or does it delay the interior fire attack until additional resources arrive, causing further fire damage? Neither response is appropriate.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) two-in/two-out rule (CFR 29 1910.134(g)(4)1-3) is also cited in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health Program, 2007 edition, and in NFPA 1410,Standard on Training for Initial Emergency Scene Operations, 2005 edition.

The 2007 edition of NFPA 1500, page 24, section 8.5.7, states: “In the initial stages of an incident where only one crew is operating in the hazardous area at a working structure fire, a minimum of four individuals shall be required, consisting of two individuals working as a crew in the hazardous area and two individuals present outside this hazardous area available for assistance or rescue at emergency operations where entry into the danger area is required.”

Section 8.5.8 states: “The standby members shall be responsible for maintaining a constant awareness of the number and identity of members operating in the hazardous area, their location and function, and time of entry.”

Section 8.5.9 states: “The standby members shall remain in radio, visual, voice, or signal line communication with the crew.

The NFPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) have reported that fire departments across the nation lack adequate staffing, which has contributed to millions of dollars in time-lost injuries, thousands of on-the-job injuries, and dozens of line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) each year. Unfortunately, several firefighters will pay with their lives before the staffing issue will be brought up again for serious discussion.

In 1990, the Providence (RI) Fire Department conducted a study that showed that the only nationally recognized staffing standard at that time was from the NFPA.1 It recommended a minimum of four firefighters responding on or with each apparatus. The NFPA reported at that time a 71-percent decrease in time lost because of injury using four-person staffing when compared with three-person staffing. Even though the study is more than 18 years old, it shows that the staffing level today throughout the United States is an issue that still has not been resolved.

Labor boards and at least one court have found that a minimum staffing agreement or ordinance is reasonable for ensuring the protection of the public and personnel. However, many fire departments in the past made no provisions in their staffing rosters for covering scheduled absences; fire companies were allowed to run shorthanded, seriously compromising their operating efficiency and firefighter safety.2

My hope is that the information presented in this article will enable fire service members, community members, and government officials to better understand why adequate fire service staffing is a need, not a want.


Residential and business communities continue to grow at a rate that makes it impossible for many departments to serve those additional needs. We cannot continue to do more with less. We need enough firefighters to do the job in a safe and appropriate manner.

NFPA President James Shannon cited in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives that fire departments have insufficient staffing on responding fire apparatus to safely and effectively fight a fire inside a building in accordance with 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, 2004 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, 2004 edition.3 He pointed out also that at least 65 percent of our nation’s cities and towns don’t have enough fire stations to meet the widely recognized Insurance Services Office (ISO) response time guidelines. Shannon told the representatives that that was the reason he supports the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Act of 2003. Information on SAFER is at


Following are minimal staffing levels recommended by standards and fire service and related organizations.

NFPA recommendations are based on data from actual fires and in-depth fire simulations wherein fire company effectiveness was critically and objectively evaluated. These studies indicate significant reductions in performance and safety when crews responded with fewer members than recommended.

  • NFPA 450, Guide for Emergency Medical Services and Systems, 2009 edition, Chapter 5, Section “Most experts agree that four responders [at least two trained in advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) and two trained in basic life support (BLS)] are the minimum required to provide ACLS to cardiac arrest victims.” As a side note, a medical call requires just as many personnel as, if not more than, a fire call, so if we can meet the medical need, why can’t we meet the fire need?
  • NFPA 1710: Four on-duty personnel for fire companies whose primary functions are to pump and deliver water and perform basic firefighting at fires, including search and rescue.

Five or six on-duty members in jurisdictions with tactical hazards, high-hazard occupancies, high-incident frequencies, geographical restrictions, or other pertinent factors as identified by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).

Four on-duty personnel for fire companies whose primary functions are to perform the variety of services associated with truck work, such as forcible entry, ventilation, search and rescue, aerial operations for water delivery and rescue, utility control, illumination, overhaul, and salvage work—ladder or truck companies. Five or six on-duty personnel for these companies in jurisdictions with tactical hazards, high-hazard occupancies, high-incident frequencies, geographical restrictions, or other pertinent factors as identified by the AHJ.

For ALS emergency responses: two members trained at the emergency medical technician-paramedic level and two members trained at the emergency medical technician-basic level arriving on-scene within the established response time.

NFPA 1720(volunteer departments): “The fire department shall identify minimum staffing requirements to ensure that a sufficient number of members are available to operate safely and effectively …. Upon assembling the necessary resources at the emergency scene, the fire department should have the capability to safely commence an initial attack within two minutes 90 percent of the time.”

The complete NFPA 1710 and 1720, 2004 edition, standards are at

NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, 19th edition (2003):

Fire department emergency medical service transports need additional personnel to maintain basic fire company strength. Some smaller communities may have a relevantly high staffing ratio per population protected because of the need for sufficient on-duty personnel for effective initial attack and rescue operations. A fire department in a large city may operate one engine company per 15,000 to 20,000 population and still have a large number of well-distributed fire companies, whereas two engine companies cannot properly protect a city of 30,000.

In general, each engine company should have a minimum of four firefighters on duty, including an officer. It would seem inappropriate to dispatch an engine company to a fire if the crew could not start firefighting and rescue operations because of safety concerns.

An increasing number of fire departments, in recent years, have established minimum staffing levels for each fire company or each duty shift. Many fire departments have established policies that state engine or ladder companies will not operate with fewer than four firefighters, including an officer, on duty. In rare cases, the minimum is five persons on duty per company because of the workload and the population and values protected per company. (2)

NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, 20th edition (2008)4: recommends the following minimum numbers of firefighters/officers to do the job safely. If this sounds like a lot, keep in mind that firefighters will always work in pairs, if not more, to complete the several tasks to get the job done as safely as possible. This includes such tasks as water supply, search and rescue, ventilation, rapid intervention, and so on.

Between 19 and 23 personnel typically constitute the first-alarm assignment to a confirmed single-family dwelling fire, as observed by evaluation teams.

Not fewer than 24 firefighters and two chief officers, one or more safety officers, and a rapid intervention team(s) should respond to high-hazard occupancies (schools, hospitals, nursing homes, explosive plants, refineries, high-rise buildings, and other high-life hazard or occupancies with large fire potential).

Not fewer than 16 firefighters, one chief officer, a safety officer, and a rapid intervention team should respond to medium-hazard occupancies (apartments, offices, mercantile, and industrial occupancies not normally requiring extensive rescue or firefighting forces).

Not fewer than 14 firefighters, one chief officer, a safety officer, and a rapid intervention team should respond to low-hazard occupancies (one-, two-, or three-family dwellings and scattered small businesses and industrial occupancies).

At least 12 firefighters, one chief officer, a safety officer, and a rapid intervention team shall respond to rural alarms (scattered dwellings, small businesses, and a farm building).

U.S. Fire Administration (USFA): recommends that a minimum of four firefighters respond on or with each apparatus.5

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC): advocates a minimum of five persons on engine and ladder companies. Noting that the reduction of members per unit and that the number of units has reached dangerously low levels, the IAFC says it would be “inappropriate” to accept or support further reductions.6

The International City Management Association (ICMA): states in “Managing Fire Services” that at least four and often eight or more firefighters, each under the supervision of an officer, “should respond to fire suppression operations.” Further, it says, “If about 16 trained firefighters are not operating at the scene of a working fire within the critical time period, then dollar loss and injuries are significantly increased, as is fire spread.” It has found five-person companies 100-percent effective, four-person companies 65-percent effective, and three-person companies 38-percent effective.7

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) LODD Reports: almost every NIOSH LODD report recommends to “provide adequate firefighter staffing to ensure safe operating conditions.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF): views inadequate staffing and crew size as contributing factors to LODDs and advocates maintaining adequate staffing as proposed in NFPA 1500, NFPA 1710, and NFPA 1720; the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook, 18th edition (1997), Section 10/Chapter 1 (1-34); and OSHA 29 CFR 1910.134 (two-in/two-out).8


Fireground effectiveness may be compromised when staffing falls below four firefighters per company. Tests conducted with the Houston (TX) Fire Department indicated that staffing below a crew size of four can overtax the operating force and lead to higher losses. Jurisdictions with minimum staffing levels may have to take units out of service if they do not have the funds to support the additional personnel overtime. (2)

The District Chiefs’ Technical Advisory Committee (DCTAC) conducted a study of the Houston Fire Department, which determined that fire apparatus staffing is an even greater citizen safety issue than a firefighter safety matter.9 The report termed the understaffing situation a “crisis situation that demands immediate intervention.” Decreasing the number of firefighters without eliminating any of the tasks fire departments are to accomplish causes the department to delay some of the required tasks or to try to perform all tasks unsafely with inadequate staff, according to the study.

The study also noted the following:

  • “Firefighters working in understaffed environments are too often expected to perform beyond their capabilities.”
  • Inadequate staffing creates “a cumulative effect” caused by combined delays and lost functions of crews, resulting “in an even greater loss of overall effectiveness.”
  • Understaffing increases physiological stress on firefighters, as they try to compensate.

Another effect of understaffing is that “fire companies with serious staff reduction generally are limited to using small hose streams until additional help arrives, which may adversely affect containment of even a small fire and conducting effective rescue operations.” (4)

Over the past three decades, fire department response has expanded to include emergency medical services, terrorism response, hazardous materials response and mitigation, natural disaster response, specialized rescue, and responses to other community needs. Fire departments need adequate firefighting resources to be able to design an acceptable level of resource deployment based on risks and service commitment and to continually evaluate emergency response systems, which are crucial to enhancing firefighter operational safety and occupational health and reducing civilian fire fatalities.10

In 2000, Detroit, Michigan, fire officials reorganized the city’s fire department and sought to resolve problems, including a shortage of firefighters. At least 21 people had died during the preceding four years when fire trucks sent to their rescue didn’t work or the closest stations were temporarily closed. Their daily staffing average was well below the number needed to meet the minimum national standard of four firefighters on each truck. Staffing levels were a key element in two 1998 fires in which three children died; the fire companies nearest to those fires had been closed because of firefighter shortfalls.

The fire department was forced to close fire companies on 61 days that year because of low staffing.”11 As of May 2009, the Detroit News reported that nearly 300 layoffs would occur in the city government and that nearly 500 positions that were then open would not be filled. The article explained: “This is not the final step in the budget process, but a very significant step toward final approval. It will be interesting to see how many positions in the fire department will be lost or not filled. The Detroit Fire Department has been extremely busy with arson fires and abandoned building fires over the past several months.”

Almost nine years later, staffing issues are still unchanged. These stories are those we would like to see changed for the better, not the worse. At this rate, the trend will dig even lower when rock bottom is reached.


  • When responding with an engine with only three persons on duty and on ladder trucks with only two persons, promptly back up such low levels of staffing with off-shift or call personnel or by multiple-alarm response to ensure adequate coverage. (2)
  • Apply for a SAFER grant and other grants that can be used to fund additional staffing.
  • Continually inform the community (citizens, fire chief, city council, and so on) of your concerns for civilian and firefighter safety that you are sworn to protect, so when a levy or bond is up for vote, you have a better chance of its passing. Provide them with the facts.
  • Use new technology. Staffing software and hardware can help with staffing problems. The Vista (CA) Fire Department stated in its 2006 annual report that it had entered into an agreement with a software development corporation for hardware, software, and support for a system that automates daily workforce staffing solutions to improve productivity, reduce the number of personnel needed to manage scheduling activities, and improve management’s ability to make and report on scheduling decisions.12
  • Use automatic and mutual aid. Work with your neighboring fire departments.
  • Search online. Search various search engines with key phrases such as “fire department staffing solutions” and “staffing solution within the fire service.”
  • Read articles/books. The “Advanced Fire Administration” student handbook, a joint project of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the USFA, and the National Fire Academy, offers suggestions for using creativity in establishing staffing plans, including ”flattening the organization power base with a strong executive team and strong field-level staffing” by eliminating mid-level management positions in favor of direct delivery of services.13
  • Research magazine articles. A roundtable on budget cuts, for example, relates how other fire departments have responded to staffing issues.14 Another article describes how the first-arriving engine company fulfils the primary tasks of the initial attack. Even though this does not directly relate to resolving staffing issues, it may help you to be more prepared and resourceful.15 Still another article explains how to manage a fire scene with limited staffing; lessons learned are included.16
  • Look to the standards. NFPA 1500, 2002 edition, A.8.4.11, presented the following examples of how a fire department could deploy a team of four members initially at the scene of a structure fire, regardless of how the team members are assembled:
    1. The team leader and one firefighter could advance a firefighting hoseline into the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere, and one firefighter and the pump operator become the standby members.
    2. The team leader could designate the pump operator to be incident commander. The team leader and one firefighter enter the IDLH atmosphere, and one firefighter and the pump operator remain outside as the standby members.
    3. Two firefighters could advance the hoseline in the IDLH atmosphere, and the team leader and pump operator remain outside as standby members.
  • Train. Attend Strategy and Tactics for Initial Company Officers (STICO) classes locally or at the National Fire Academy. Have your department do hands-on training evolutions to determine what works and what does not work. You won’t know if a drill will go according to plan until after it has taken place. Never give up; keep trying.


I was taught early in my military career that if there is a problem, I should help to find the solution. The above information is presented to help resolve some of the staffing problems but not all of them. No one has all the answers. It may not be easy, but we have the resources, grants, and facts to aid us in this journey. It may take a little work and creative thinking, but I am confident that the solutions are there. We cannot continue to ask our fire departments to protect our communities with inadequate resources. We will continue to see the number of injuries and fatalities of firefighters and civilians increase in future years until we get the staffing we need, not just want.


1. Varone, J, Curtis, “Providence [RI] Fire Department Staffing Study Revisited. An applied research project submitted to the National Fire Academy as part of the Executive Fire Officer Program,” August 1995,

2. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Fire Protection Handbook, 2003, 19th Edition (1:7), Quincy, Mass.

3. Shannon, James, “NFPA president testifies in support of SAFER Act,” June 2003,

4. NFPA, Fire Protection Handbook, 2008, 20th Edition, (2:12), Quincy, Mass.

5. USFA, FEMA, “Historical Overview,” June 2008,

6. International Association of Fire Chiefs, “IAFC 2005 Issues Assessment Survey,” December 2005,

7. Compton, Dennis and John Granito, eds., “Managing Fire and Rescue Services,” 2nd Edition, International City Management Association, Municipal Management Series, 2002.

8. Moore-Merrell, Lori; Sue McDonald, Ainong Zhou, et al, “Contributing Factors to Firefighter Line-of-Duty Deaths in the United States,” September 2006, International Association of Fire Fighters,

9. Houston (TX) Fire Department, The District Tactical Advisory Committee, “Staffing Report Averting a Crisis,” October 2001,

10. USFA, FEMA, “Study of Risk Management Program Development for the Fire Service,” December 2006,

11. Hurt, Charles and Melvin Claxton “Wilson pledges to fix staffing problems,” The Detroit News, Michigan, November 2000, “Detroit council to restore 19 EMS jobs,” Detroit News, May 2009,

12. Vista (CA) Fire Department 2006 Annual Report.

13. FEMA, USFA, National Fire Academy, “Advanced Fire Administration,” August 2002.

14. Fire Engineering, Roundtable, ”Budget Cuts,” April 2005.

15. Roden, Eric and Ray McCormack, “The single-handed engine company,” Fire Engineering, April 2005. See also Bryan, Peter and Pamela Pane, “Evaluating Fire Service Delivery,” Fire Engineering, April 2008.

16. Bonelli, Jim, “Doing the most with the least,” Fire Engineering, March 2006.

Additional References

Insurance Services Office, “Effective Fire Protection a National Concern,” 2004,

Insurance Services Office, “Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS),”

Insurance Service Office, “Public Protection Classification (PPC) Service,”

Varone, J. Curtis, United States Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Improving Fire Apparatus Life Span Projections in the Norfolk Department of Fire and Paramedical Services,” December 2006,,

KEVIN “WILLY” WILSON is a firefighter/paramedic with Camas (WA) Fire & Rescue. His 14-plus years of firefighting experience include having served as a volunteer firefighter in Gladstone, Oregon, and with the Independent Hose Company in Frederick, Maryland; as a U.S. Navy shipboard firefighter (Damage Controlman) in Norfolk, Virginia, from 1993-1997; and as a U.S. Navy fire marshal/paramedic, Naval Support Facility Fire Department, in Maryland. He has been doing extensive firefighter safety research since 2002 and is a firefighter safety survival instructor for Clark County, Washington. He is a hazmat technician and ICC fire inspector I and II and is completing requirements for a B.S. in fire service administration through Western Oregon University.

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