Safety in Numbers


Last month, we introduced a very simple risk management model that connected the typical hazards we encounter on the fireground with the pieces and parts of the basic safety system we use to protect firefighters from those hazards. Along with the model, we also discussed how in a battle between two opposing forces the most powerful force would win. This “law of opposing superiority” really describes in very practical terms how we attempt to use more forceful firefighting operations (water/support) to control/remove the dangerous, damaging force created by deadly (products of combustion) fire conditions.

The two sides of the safety/hazard model are located on either end of a balance bar above the incident commander (IC). The IC must maintain a continual situational awareness of what is and what will be going on in each box. The items listed in each box have their own special set of capabilities and limitations—as an example, the fire can tolerate the application of only so much water before it goes out; the firefighters can tolerate only so much thermal and toxic insult before they “go out.” Therefore, the status of the capabilities and limitations of the two boxes becomes the basis of the initial and ongoing size-up that must continually go on within the task/tactical/strategic levels of the command and operational team.

The IC uses this very dynamic “teeter-totter” approach as the basic foundation for developing and revising the overall incident strategy. Simply, whichever side has the most force wins. If the safety system is heavier than the hazards, the firefighters are adequately protected, so the strategy can be offensive. If the hazards outperform the safety system, the strategy is defensive. If the bar is level (when conditions are active and dynamic, this stage can be very dangerous), the IC must either quickly add more force to the safety side or must order the troops out of the hazard zone.

Let’s look at what is on the safety side of the teeter-totter. We start describing the safety list with the first item: an adequate number of capable firefighters. This is the most critical part of both our operational and our safety systems because we solve or don’t solve the incident problems to a major extent unless we can produce enough workers (i.e., concentration of force) to physically do the manual labor that is delivered within an effective operational period “window of opportunity.”

Our organizational capability and strength are really very special and straightforward. We are uniquely structured and managed to deliver teams of firefighters, located in decentralized fire stations, throughout the community. These firefighters are equipped, trained, and highly persuaded to quickly go into a hazard zone and do highly skilled, very coordinated task-level labor. This labor is directed toward converting conditions that are out of control to conditions that are under control (order out of chaos).

These teams are connected to the customer by three pushes on their phone and are connected to each other by a well-practiced, very refined command, control, and communications system. It’s pretty tough to imagine highly integrated teams of plumbers or washing machine repairmen coming down the street with lights blinking and sirens blaring, arriving within a four- to five-minute response time because your washer just became your gusher. No other public/private organization can do the amount of highly skillful and very coordinated work we do as quickly as we do it.

Virtually everything we do on the fireground is done “by hand.” The only thing automated is the transmissions in the fire trucks. Our staffing level becomes the most important part of how we play our part in the gallons-per-minute (gpm) vs. British-thermal-units (Btus) battle of opposing superiority. Our basic overpowering operational approach to that law is to do “mob firefighting.” This involves our ganging up on the red devil by automatically assembling an adequate number of teams of firefighters who are faster, more powerful, and better placed than the force of the fire. The very savvy Battalion Chief John Salka of the Fire Department of New York says it best: “Everything gets better when the fire goes out.” Overwhelming force is the best way to achieve the substance of his comment.

Sending teams of firefighters into the hazard zone to save Mrs. Smith and her stuff is our greatest community capability, but it also creates the critical need for us to effectively protect those firefighters. If we really study that safety focus (the items in the safety box), we must realize that we do the most important part of our job by going into a hazard zone where the hazards intend to kill us. These deadly conditions are listed within the hazard side of the model, operating up close to those conditions is not a game of tiddleywinks.

The playing field for the opposing force game is a fire area where the score is very unforgiving—either we win or the fire wins. We must get away from anyplace where the fire is or is about to win (more thermal force than water force), or the fire will murder us. Having the IC and the operational team continually doing the offensive/defensive math in the opposing force model becomes a major part of the initial and ongoing size-up process.

A major part of the IC’s situation evaluation function is to continually evaluate and balance the connection between the workers and the work. We can do only what we can do, and the “dynamics of doing” are directly connected to the number and response time of the workers (fire companies). The IC will typically have more tactical needs than workers in the front end of the incident, so initial assignments must be prioritized in their order of importance (rescue/fire control/ property conservation).

Being able to safely and realistically connect the work to the workers requires a great deal of organizational discipline. Staffing is the most expensive and critical operational component, and in the current nutty economic times, our staffing levels sadly are being reduced in many places. These reductions impact the most important place: where and when we must perform tactically on the fireground.

These current staff reductions are causing some incident “coaches” (ICs) to now “play baseball” with seven players. This unfortunate reality requires bosses operating with reduced resources to develop a different set of plays, moves, and formations that actually match the number and response times of the available players. This is very difficult to do, because when we get used to a traditional operational level, anything less is very disruptive to us.

In 1958, I was assigned to Engine 1 in downtown Phoenix (E-1’s restored rig is on the April 2009 Fire Engineering cover). We had a crew of six beefy firefighters who all barely fit on the tailboard. That experience cemented in my brain what normal fire company staffing should be (to me). I have spent the next 52 years trying to somehow make sense of whatever current/crazy adjustment is going on, compared to my very obsolete initial six-person (!) company socialization.

I have been involved in a minor way with the development of a national career deployment standard, National Fire Protection Association 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, since its inception. A major objective of the standard is to assist local government bosses in making smart/safe decisions regarding local fire company staffing levels. The development and implementation of this standard (because staffing is so expensive) has been a very painful and controversial process to say the least. NFPA 1710 states for the first time in a national standard that four-person staffing is the minimum level for every fire company.

We have pretty much agreed inside our service with the four-person fire company level as the national standard. The current recession is making maintaining four firefighters per company very difficult in many places. Most fire administrators would rather “brownout” companies on a rotating basis than go below four.

These personnel reductions require us to adjust our fireground work routines. We must require our ICs to evaluate the manual labor capability of the firefighters who are on the scene and not overmatch those humans to do a level of work that is unsafe.

I will ask you now to take a deep breath before digesting the next sentence: In some cases where there is not an adequate staffing level present to accomplish former levels of performance, the IC must write off burning property and move on to protecting uninvolved property that is presently savable. As has already been said, the IC must balance the work with the workers. Engaging in the nostalgic memories of your boyhood fire company “manning” level (antique reference) may be fun, but it is currently a waste of time. We must operate today with today’s level of resources that is less than what we had in the past.

Although we have made huge improvements in hardware, training, and technology, we still deliver gpm to combat Btus with real live firefighters, and that is the reason they are our most valuable asset and the first item in the safety box.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site

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