By Roger Lunt
Many fire departments cannot be certain of the number, department rank, and skill levels of responding personnel, or the order and time frame in which they will arrive. However, this does not change the fact that every on-scene responder has a right to expect a management structure that holds the firefighter as the highest scene priority, regardless of how many fire departments are represented on the response. The fire service response duties to your firefighters and community are not reduced because you cannot predetermine what firefighters will respond to the scene. Taking care of the responders and doing your best to fulfill the community fire service duties cannot be ignored by placing unknown firefighter resources in high-risk response scene positions. Establishing a Level I Staging area will support your efforts to remove response scene chaos. Of course, any successful effort in the removal of response chaos serves a management structure and contributes to the safety of the responder and success of the response.
I have conducted many training sessions that identify the benefits of on-scene Level I Staging. I lead into those sessions with the following questions. If a group of firefighters at the rear of the structure need a hand tool or ladder, do they have to leave what they are doing and walk around the structure to get it? If a firefighter calls for the emergency aid of others, where is the aid coming from, and how will this response impact the existing scene challenges? Do you really know where everyone is on your fire scene or is it accepted practice to have small wandering, looky-loo groups? How do you know that you have the best team of firefighters available, or even capable, for the risky job that you have just assigned to them? Is the incident commander (IC) distracted with radio traffic from responding firefighters? How do you know that you have enough firefighters on your fire scene? How do you not lose the headway that you have made on the incident and yet take care of your firefighters who are tiring, need something, or need rehab? Of course this list of questions easily grows with input from those attending the training session.
Even though it is not unusual to see less than half of those attending raise their hand when asked if their fire scene always has on-scene staging of personnel, I have never heard opposition to the benefits of staging. However, it is not uncommon to hear reasons why many response scenes do not benefit from Level I Staging. The most common excuse is, “We do not have enough people on the initial response.” Perhaps running a close second on the most common excuse list is, “We get busy and do not think of it.”
I want to share how my departments have supported the early establishment of an on-scene staging area, placed responding firefighters in it, and staffed it with a staging officer who would identify and organize our most valued on scene resource. The answer to all of the questions that I raised in the training session will come from the Level I Staging area via the staging officer. The two most common excuses that I hear for not establishing on-scene staging of personnel do not surface again.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
A common misunderstanding for establishing Level I Staging is the notion that there must be people in it. Of course it should have firefighters as a primary staging resource, but for many fire departments, the initial response will not provide those resources. For example, a department response on a structure fire might be comprised of two engines, four firefighters, and one officer. In my experience, it is very possible that the IC and others on the response are not considering a Level I Staging Area. They are all busy and would most likely say, “We do not have enough people to establish staging.”
This misconception may exist perhaps in part to overthinking the label “Level I Staging Area.” It is merely a location–not people, but a location established to accommodate and organize people. Therefore you can always establish a Level I Staging Area, even if you do not have anyone in it. If the area is established prior to the response, there will then always be a predetermined location for incoming firefighters to go and wait for assignments.
Several years ago, I attended a National Fire Academy class that stressed the value of a response management system. It is a “toolbox” of resources for the IC. Although I understood the broad picture of this statement, it was not until I had gained experience as an IC that I fully understood the specific location of the response management system “toolbox.”
The toolbox is the Level I Staging Area. It is from this location that I found the resources (personnel skills and tools) needed to address the challenges and needs of the response scene. As previously mentioned, fire scene personnel will always get tired, need assistance, and need equipment delivered. I relied upon the tools identified and organized within the Level I Staging Area. It was from the “tool box” that our continued, capable pursuit for the achievement of our response goals and the safety of our firefighters was generated.
Establishing a departmental response policy (note sample policy at end of the article) will let you determine the moment in the response and the location of the personnel staging area with the placement of the attack engine or perhaps the first-arriving unit. This will be the location, unless otherwise assigned by the IC, for all incoming firefighters to report once on the scene or communicate with prior to scene arrival. This short policy, in practice on the scene, will fully address and eliminate the excuses for not establishing on-scene staging, “We do not have enough people on the initial response,” or “we get busy and do not think of it.”
The Level I Staging Area should be on the scene, with immediate availability. For many rural and small career departments, the initial location is the front bumper of the attack engine. This initial location can be relocated as necessary. The staging area should not be located beside the IC, too close to fire scene activities and hazards, or share the rehab area.
The essential rationale is that the IC does not need to wait for the arrival of additional responders to establish an area for the on scene staging. The IC does not have to remember to set up a scene staging area or face the challenge and dangerous distraction presented when overwhelmed by incoming firefighter resources.
ROLE OF THE STAGING OFFICER
The on-scene staging area should always have a manager, who is labeled as staging officer. Until you have enough people on the scene, you may have personnel wear multiple hats. Since the initial staging area is at the front bumper of the attack engine, the operator remaining at the engine wears a second hat of staging officer. Usually this dual duty does not require much more than a few radio communications for incoming personnel and with the IC. Once additional personnel arrive, the pump operator will transfer the staging officer duties.
When it becomes departmental policy and a determined goal of the response to establish a functional staging area, the department must also formally identify the duties of the staging officer. This person is a resource inventory manager. The duties exceed the common misunderstanding of just counting helmets and keeping non-working firefighters from becoming wondering generalities.
It is the duty of your Level I Staging Officer to determine and even identify anticipated assignments of personnel within staging. The Level I Staging Officer is expected to have firefighter resources available and often preassigned within the staging area prior to a request from the IC.
Your response scene firefighters are your most valued resource. You must also recognize that each firefighter may offer a different resource value for the response, for example, depending on an individual’s rank, experience, skills, physical conditioning, department restrictions (if any), etc. The traditional mindset that we all road together from the same fire department does not always dictate that you will all be assigned to the same scene group or division. Again, the goal of the staging officer is to predetermine the best team for the next anticipated request from the IC.
For the exact same reasoning that all of your personnel should be trained at the strategic, tactical, and task level of operations for a response; all personnel should be trained to serve the duties of the Level I Staging Officer.
When training personnel for the Level I Staging Officer duties, it is imperative that the training encompasses the infinite value the position has over a dynamic response group. Training must then address how to assess the firefighter resource relative to the response. Counting helmets and keeping everyone in one area is of minimal assistance to the response if the resources within the group are not identified as meeting the needs of the response.
Perhaps my first exposure to the concept of staging was as a new firefighter assigned the duty of staging all the extrication tools near the location of the foreseen extrication. I removed the equipment from the rig and staged it on the scene near where it would be needed. The firefighters conducting the extrication would then make the determination of the best tool, or combination of tools, for the job. Over the years, I have been an active participant in many mutual aid discussions. Everyone was interested in the respective support limitations and capabilities of department rigs. Eventually, a list was created that identified the difference in engines, tenders, and rescue units. It was crystal clear in these conversations that all the rigs could be painted the same color with similar lighting configurations but offer diverse support capabilities. As personnel retired from my department, an evaluation of existing crew competencies and the assessment of existing crew members was critical in determining placement of the newest firefighters. The department always wanted to maintain the highest response level with all crews. Resource assessment within the fire service is as dynamic and as old as the service. This traditional approach must be applied to our response, using on-scene staging to assess our most valued resource.
The staging officer must be able to assess the needs of the response ideally as quickly as the IC. Therefore, when a resource is needed, the resource has already been identified and is ready to support the response.
The basic training objective for the staging officer is how to identify and sort staged resources. The staging officer must know the questions to ask staged personnel. He or she must know how to effectively organize personnel in staging to support the Incident Commander’s response system. Typical questions from the Level I Staging Officer of personnel in staging on a multi-department response fire scene may include;
- Who can wear an SCBA?
- Who has department approval for an interior work assignment?
- Who has experience and is comfortable with pumping apparatus?
- Who is rapid intervention team (RIT) trained?
- Who has emergency medical training, and to what level?
- Who is not released by their fire department for interior firefighting duties?
- Who has physical restrictions that prevent them from strenuous duty?
- Who has served as a water supply officer on a rural shuttle operation?
- Who is an officer on their department?
- Who understands the fire ground management system used on this scene?
- Who holds the skills for the anticipated job?
It is not until a an inventory that considers these factors is complete that an accurate assessment of the fulfillment of scene staging can be determined. This assessment may conclude that, although there are more than twice the number of firefighters in staging than at work on the burning structure, the staging area cannot provide necessary support for the response. This may be for a number of reasons, which hopefully are discovered with the resource inventory assessment questions used by the staging officer. I experienced this very example on a fire scene.
I was the IC and was told by the staging officer that we needed to request additional mutual aid personnel. From my position, I could see that he had what appeared to me to be enough firefighters in the staging area. Following a brief discussion between myself and the staging officer, plus a closer observation of the staging area, it became obvious that the staging officer’s request for additional mutual aid personnel was warranted. The staging area inventory fell short of established mutual aid agreements, identifying the skill levels and capabilities of firefighters to be satisfied with any response request. Our staging inventory of personnel was a mixture of firefighters with a growth of facial hair, firefighters who had not been released by their chief for interior firefighting, senior and out-of-condition firefighters, and a few firefighters returning from rehab. We definitely appreciated the response and wanted all of these firefighters, and undoubtedly found jobs for them prior to releasing the scene. However, we could not simply use scene attendance as a determining criterion for job assignments. We called for additional mutual aid.
It may be common practice–until sufficient numbers have arrived on scene–that one of the firefighter/EMTs in the staging area who is responsible for on-scene EMS will also respond to the next off-site medical call. The same holds true for the next crew geared up to eventually replace a working crew. This crew may also be wearing the hat of RIT until enough personnel have arrived. The pump operator may initially be wearing Engine 21, water supply, and staging officer hats. It is important to note that wearing multiple hats is not a desired goal. However, until personnel arrive to the point that nobody in staging is wearing multiple hats, it serves to organize and mentally prep those in staging with their possible next assignment.
First and foremost, you must recognize that taking care of our firefighter is always paramount on the response. It will be firefighters who watch the backs of firefighters, and it will be firefighters who immediately go to the aid of a firefighter. It very well may be the Level I Staging Officer’s vigorous attention to the assessment and organization of the knowledge, talent, experience, restrictions, and conditioning of your firefighters that determines the effectiveness of the response. If we do not establish an on-scene staging area very early on every response, a miscalculation regarding responding firefighter resources can occur, and we risk failing to fully address the responsibility to our firefighters and our community. Therefore, there should always be a functioning Level I Staging Area even if there are not enough firefighters to place in staging.
The following is from a fire department command standard operating procedure (SOP). The policy was written for a combination fire department with a roster of 15 career and 30 volunteer personnel. The department had a primary response duty to a municipal and fire protection district jurisdiction. Most structure fires used automatic aid and mutual aid with other volunteer departments.
XII. Level I Staging
A. Unless otherwise announced, the initial Level I Staging Area will be the front bumper of the first-arriving engine.
B. This group is to be established whenever additional (more than the initial response) personnel arrive on the scene. The initial pump operator may also serve [temporary] as a Level I Staging Officer.
C. Group will be managed by the staging officer
D.Unless otherwise assigned, by the IC, all additional personnel arriving on the scene will report to the staging officer.
E.Support of existing scene divisions or groups, and the establishment of new ones will generate out of the Level I Staging at the direction of the IC.
F. Staging officer is to maintain a minimum assessment of the following on staged personnel:
a. Number of personnel.
b. Number of fire officers.
c. Number of our personnel vs mutual aid personnel.
d. Volunteer vs. career status of personnel.
e. Number of EMS personnel.
f. Number of SCBA-approved personnel.
g. Personnel trained for pump operations.
h. Personnel who are RIT trained.
i. Number of fresh vs. rehab personnel.
j. Specific staging resource pool vs. current and anticipated demands of the incident.
G. Staging officer will assign personnel, in Staging, to be ready for the following requests.
a. Request to respond to another incident
b. Personnel expected to be next to replace working personnel
c. On-scene EMS personnel (to address on-scene medical)
d. Establish a RIT
e. Specific to current or anticipated demands of the incident
H. The Level I Staging Officer may request with authorization from the IC additional response.
a. Callback of additional fire department personnel.
b. Respond additional personnel from the station.
c. Page mutual aid request.
Roger Lunt is a retired fire chief who spent 38 years in the fire service. He is the retired deputy director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute and is a field instructor with that organization. He has a bachelors degree in law enforcement administration and an associate degree in fire science technology. He is a founding member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. As a member of FEMA Region V Disaster Mortuary Response Team [DMORT], he deployed to New York within 24 hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, and deployed as a member of the United States Health and Human Services DMORT Weapons of Mass Destruction Team to the after math of Hurricane Katrina. He is the author of the self-published book, “Avoiding Fire Department Induced Chaos.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.