Short Staffing: It’s Time for Another Congressional Funding Drill

It is an embarrassing fact that for the past 30 years the staffing of fire apparatus has continued to decline. Staffing is like our crazy aunt in the basement-no one wants to talk about it. The countrywide practice of sending two or even, shamefully, one firefighter on an apparatus continues to this day.

To address this issue, which is the most significant problem facing America’s firefighters, it is useful to remember an old axiom attributed to the former Speaker of the House, the late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill: “All politics is local.” We have to focus our political energies locally.

You can assemble as many fire trucks as they do on the floor of FDIC, but without the personnel to engage an incident tactically, rigs are just nice to look at. For highly effective firefighting to be orchestrated, the right combination of properly placed apparatus staffed by well-drilled healthy firefighters led by experienced and responsible officers must be assembled. These firefighters need to be assembled quickly with a preconceived, standard tactically organized plan.

Without a sufficient number of firefighters, you cannot adequately address stress levels, task allocation, tactical integration, RIT, or anything else that might be needed to prevail over our common enemy, fire. The real issue in fireground safety begins with staffing, not technology.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards 1710 and 1720, the organization and deployment standards for career and volunteer fire departments, respectively, represent the only acceptable staffing levels for structural firefighting. I fully understand that in many places it is not now possible to meet these standards. This unfortunate reality sometimes is based on rural community lifestyles, but often it simply is a reflection of the acceptance of substandard fire safety by elected officials. However, the standards are not law unless your community chooses to adopt them as such.

The important thing to remember here is the NFPA standard staffing number was not based on a commercial fire; it was based on a 2,000-square-foot residential structure. This simple structure represents the most common fireground in America.

NFPA 1710 and 1720 were as controversial when they were presented as NFPA 1500 (Standard on Fire Department Health and Wellness) was before them. Unfortunately, mayors, city councils, and city managers knew when 1710 and 1720 were passed that they would ignore them. This indifference is based on a faulty presumption that they will never be faced with a significant fire. They will support hose testing, pump testing, and anything else that is definable and has short-term dollar amounts, but staffing or health and wellness are whole other issues.

We must increase our local pressure on these policy makers. We can show them task by task how labor intensive the fireground is and then prove to them that at least seven of these tasks need to be happening simultaneously to make a real impact on citizen and firefighter safety and survivability.

The staffing crisis was escalated federally when the Bush administration proposed zero funding for the SAFER Act in 2008. SAFER, which was enacted in 2005 to provide funding for the hiring of 75,000 new firefighters nationwide, is a kind of personnel buy-down plan. SAFER was designed to help departments hire firefighters by supporting a portion of their salary over five years. This gives the department the firefighters they need and time to develop the budget to support them. Although the financial burden for fire protection is a local issue, this plan makes it possible to ease the resistance to securing standard staffing.

The current federal budget proposal reflects on the national level the viewpoint on firefighter staffing we find so intolerable on the local level. Aside from complete elimination of SAFER, the 2008 allocation for the FIRE Act is almost $400 million less than 2005; the Rural Fire Assistance program is gone completely; and the Hometown Heroes Act, which was passed in 2003, has yet to pay a single dime in benefits. Hometown Heroes is a very important recruiting tool for our volunteer firefighters-it is all about achieving safe staffing.

So how do we turn this situation around? We pressure our congressional representatives to get our funding restored. To do this, they have to hear from us. We need to use every tool available to explain why every member on every piece of equipment is critical to the tasks a company performs. There is a plausible argument to be made that many cardiac cases are directly related to overexertion on the fireground because of substandard staffing. The ability to ladder, ventilate, search, extinguish a fire, and provide EMS services when needed is hamstrung by substandard staffing. Every single life-saving, time-critical activity we can identify is adversely affected by substandard staffing.

We also must do a better job of explaining the critical coordination aspect of our tactical activities. Our public officials think linearly-1,2,3, in sequence-so you have to show that on the totally integrated fireground, 1,2, and 3 are all happening at the same time. The gold standard is getting your local officials to participate in an IAFF Fire Ops 101 Day, where they physically get to run through some firefighting drills.

Maybe when their chests are pounding and they are too tired to lift their heads, these elected public servants will “get it.”

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