Five Tips on Short Staffing in Rural Departments

The rural fire environment is a challenging but rewarding one in which to work. Doing so has allowed me to participate in several types of fireground tasks such as hazmat and advanced rescue operations that I otherwise would not have experienced on a “normal” response. Working in a rural fire district presents a challenge that most fire departments don’t have to contend with: staffing. In this environment, we do not have the luxury of 20-person minimum daily staffing or being able to throw four engines, two trucks, and 24 members at a working fire.

“Short staffing” can vary from region to region. For example, the first department for which I worked featured two-person daily staffing that covered one fire station in a 560-square-mile response area. Chances are, many firefighters reading this will either identify with this exact environment or something similar to it. Following are five tips to help improve the effectiveness and efficiency of your rural department’s short-staffed operations.

#1: Keep It Simple

The current state of our economy is forcing many rural fire districts to do a lot more with a lot less. Call volume and demand for service continue to go up as budgets and finances stay stagnant. Rural fire districts will be tight on funds and most likely be short staffed. It is imperative to successful operations that we keep things simple. Overcomplicating operations in an environment of low funds and short staffing will increase the likelihood that small details will get missed when you receive that “working fire” dispatch. Missing the small details can have a major effect on the outcome of your operation.

#2: Train Short Staffed

We’ve all heard the old saying “Practice like you play.” When you organize training in a rural district, develop your training with this saying in mind. If you conduct training evolutions with six, seven, or eight firefighters, you are doing your members a disservice and setting them up to struggle and possibly fail when that working fire dispatch goes out. Commonly, my department used a version of the two-person rule to conduct evolutions.

Photo by author.

Photo by author.

We conducted our training evolutions in the apparatus bay or some other location with the two members on shift at that time; each shift performed the evolution until all members had performed the drill. Keep in mind that what we did worked well for us based on our circumstances; we are now proficient with two-member crews. Later, when our staffing increased, we adjusted this concept to include more members. I recommend taking a concept similar to ours and incorporating it into your department’s operations.

#3: Be Proficient in the Basics

We all went through basic firefighter school and learned basic firefighting skills. As we progress through our careers, some firefighters let the basic skills they learned in academy slip because of several reasons, one being complacency. The last thing members of a short-staffed rural fire district should do is forget this foundational training. Members must be so proficient with those basic skills that they could perform them blindfolded.

Why is it so crucial to be proficient in the basic firefighting skills? The late Fire Department of New York Lieutenant Andy Fredericks put it best when he said, “The number of lives you save on the fireground is directly related to the speed and efficiency with which the initial attack handline is deployed.” When you arrive at a working fire with just two members and you stretch a line, force entry, and accomplish other critical fireground tasks, you don’t want one guy trying to clean up a “spaghetti pile.” Drilling on the basics will constantly ensure proficiency when the time comes to perform and “do the job” while you wait for backup.

#4: Search the Internet

For 30 years, it was difficult for rural firefighters to find training material; they would usually need to go to major conferences and bring back material to their departments. Today, you can access just about any training material you desire with just a quick Internet search. Although using social media is not an ideal solution to provide training material to your members, it is an option that you should explore, especially when your budget dictates it.

I have used social media and other Internet resources throughout my career. If you can dream it, chances are good that you will find a video on the subject somewhere on the Internet, usually at no cost to your department’s training budget. In seeking to be a master of your craft in an environment where you don’t have a lot of money, the Internet can be your best friend. Reach out and ask other firefighters all over the country to help you improve your department; the Internet and social media make that possible.

#5: Design Equipment for You

Equipment design can make or break your operations when you are short on members. Too many times, I’ve seen volunteer and combination departments design apparatus for maximum efficiency for operations that are out of their “wheel house.” When you design a new piece of apparatus, keep the following three points in mind:

• If you need a ladder to reach your hosebed, the hosebed is too high off the tailboard. Your members should be able to walk up to the tailboard, reach up, and pull hose without having to make much of a climb.

• Be mindful of your water supply. My previous department had a 3,000-gallon pumper/tender that I called the “rolling hydrant” (photo 1). It was our first-due piece of apparatus on all working fires, and it carried a foam system so we could take advantage of enhanced water streams to make fire attack easier.

• Maximize the layout of the equipment on your apparatus. Take advantage of every inch of space on the truck and make sure that everything is easily within reach. When the Kentland (MD) Volunteer Fire Department designed and built a new rescue engine—with every compartment and every inch of space accounted for on the apparatus—it left no unused space. You can also incorporate many things into your apparatus design such as all-wheel drive or bumper-mounted turrets for pump-and-roll operations.


You must find what works for your department and go with it, keeping in mind the three tips outlined above.

Short-staffed operations are challenging, but they can also be fun to operate in. You get the opportunity to complete all kinds of fireground tasks because you don’t have a lot of people on which to rely. Some firefighters may be used to working while short-staffed, but you should never have the excuse of being short on equipment. Take advantage of every opportunity to provide the best service to your community, even when you are short-staffed.


Rural Connections: Water Supply

Rural Connections: The Importance of Training

Short-Staff Success


GEORGE McNEIL, BS, MS, NRP, ISO, has a decade of experience working in rural fire/emergency medical services, serving in roles from paramedic/firefighter to emergency manager and flight paramedic. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and a master’s degree in leadership from Grand Canyon University.

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