By Chris Hubbard
Many departments are faced with managing an increased call load with a shrinking budget and are forced to evaluate the potential of cross-staffing apparatus with minimal personnel. Oftentimes, sharing limited responders among several apparatus is neither favorable nor desirable. Responders would certainly prefer additional funding or successful recruitment so all key apparatus could be staffed. However, we are often challenged with no choice but to provide more service with fewer resources.
Cross-staffing can be defined as using existing personal from a fully staffed X to staff a Y. Some departments are cross-staffing engines with tankers or tenders, trucks with rescues, or any combination with specialty equipment. The most popular blend we see is engines cross-staffed with ambulances. This probably was initiated when the fire service began responding to emergency medical service (EMS) incidents. All volunteer departments, for the most part, cross-staff. They have minimum staffing and take the apparatus most appropriate for the current incident. Cross-staffing apparatus has become the norm for many departments that used the concept for many years. What does this mean for the future? Where will cross-staffing lead us? Some say transport pumpers will become more popular or that perhaps public safety officers will be cross-trained. Regardless, the fire service has to ensure the expectations of the public are met without compromising the safety of responders and civilians.
A variety of stakeholders are involved with providing service through cross-staffing; all must be well-informed and be on board with the goals and objectives. The most involved participant is the department providing the service. Administrators, whether of local government, military, or private agencies, are vital stakeholders in cross-staffing models. They and the elected officials need to be in agreement with and support the goals of the organization.
Often, the complexities associated with delivering service to the community distract us, or we might get sidetracked by the politics, which is always present. However, at the end of the day, we are public servants and are here to provide a valuable service to the community we serve. What does the community want from us? What expectations do they have? How can we provide superb customer service?
In 1996, Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini wrote in Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service that the public simply wants us to get there quickly, fix the problem, and be nice. Although the stakeholders of fire and EMS often complicate things, it’s truly that simple. Therefore, in regard to serving the community, it is imperative that departments develop a plan to reduce response times and solve the customers’ concerns with adequate resources.
Pros and Cons
Advantages and disadvantages for providing service through cross-staffing will vary depending on variables such as the department, service area, resources, and call load. Many organizations that have implemented a successful model of cross-training have reduced their response times and improved patient outcomes. Public relations have been enhanced, and a productive work environment was created for members. Some agencies have even reported an increase in morale.
Some of the drawbacks include the difficulty in managing a dynamic system where many units are cross-staffed, which can be hampered by dispatch software. Additionally, increased call volume and long transport times for ambulances can create obstacles.
The Hanover (VA) Fire EMS Department serves a population of 100,000 throughout nearly 500 square miles of suburban and rural communities. Hanover has successfully used a hybrid cross-staffing model in four of its 16 stations. These stations have a minimum of three personnel staffing an ambulance and an engine. It uses specific unit dispatch software that has units available in the computer-aided design (CAD) only if they are staffed. The software used by the communications center recognizes cross-staffed units and will dispatch only the appropriate unit while making the other units unavailable simultaneously. This hybrid approach of only cross-staffing in a few stations ensures that all the eggs are not in the same basket and meets the performance goals set by the administration.
Tricks of the Trade
The first secret to a successful model is established performance goals that all stakeholders created, agree upon, and maintain. These measures should include response times and perhaps improving patient outcome for EMS call types. Fire incidents can also monitor response times, the number of responders on the scene, and even water flow in rural settings. If all stakeholders agree to the goals, then resources should be directed to ensure the goals are met.
Second, several dispatch software packages offer a feature that aids in selecting and dispatching the appropriate unit. In these cases, the CAD can reflect that both the engine and the ambulance are available, but it knows that only one can be selected. For example, if the ambulance is recommended, it will be dispatched and the CAD will update to show the engine will not be available until the ambulance returns.
Policies should address how cross-staffed stations would conduct training, perform incident pre-plans, or simply go the store. Written procedures can also help direct dispatch centers in how to send the appropriate unit.
Fire and EMS departments across the country have different needs and operate in a variety of cultures. For some agencies, cross-staffing could be successful by reducing response times and enhancing customer expectations. In other communities, cross-staffing may not be the answer. If your department is interested in cross-staffing, first consider your customer service objectives and performance goals to determine if sharing resources would work for your community. In addition, consider reviewing research conducted by both successful and ineffective models.
Chris Hubbard serves the Hanover (VA) Fire and EMS Department as a battalion chief in the Operations Division. He is an alternate for the National Fire Protection Association Technical Committee on Fire Service Training. He is a member of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and enjoys delivering its Live Fire Instructor Credential program in addition to the Principles of Modern Fire Attack course. He is a paramedic and has a master’s degree from Virginia Tech in public administration.