Are We Short-Staffed or Just Short-Sighted?

Article and photos by Rick Fritz

I was fortunate to grow up in a fire department (Muscatine, Iowa) that had a lot of people to throw at a fire. Our Engine 1 was staffed with six: Joe F. drove; Ralph B. was the shift assistant chief and rode in the right front seat; either Larry Z. or Larry T. rode in the jump seats near the attack lines (back then, it was booster lines); and Davy S. and I hung on for dear life on the tailboard.
Our ladder truck was staffed with only three, as was Engine 3 (when it was staffed). The south-end engine (Engine 2) was staffed with only two. Short staffing is not a new phenomenon. The difference was that each one of us had a very specific set of tasks we performed at every fire.
Joe drove and pumped. Ralph was the incident commander. Depending on which side of the engine the fire was on, one of the two Larry’s was the nozzleman, backed up by the other Larry and Davy. My job was to get water. Davey S. was not allowed to lay in; he had a bad habit of turning the hydrant stem the wrong way. Ralph would indicate one or two lines by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, and I would put the appropriate amount of 2 ½-inch hoseline in the street—hence, the terms “putting cotton in the street” and “laying duals”). I would gate the hydrant, wait for the signal from Joe (if I could see him), and open the hydrant its full 22 turns. If I couldn’t see Joe, I would count to 30 and give ’em water. The whole operation had to take less than a minute from the time I first snubbed the hydrant.
What does this mean in today’s fire service? It means quit whining about staffing that will NEVER return and that you probably never experienced in the first place. Get out there, and figure out how to do it with the staffing you have. We were given this fire service by some real innovators. They survived the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as the war years of the late ’60s and early ‘70s. These people wrote our textbooks and were speakers at FDIC. Ask them to help. They are used to doing something with nothing. Solicit their help before they retire or die. Read and comprehend National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710: Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments.
Do more than give lip service to “back-to-basics.” Live it.Teach the young guys why we have hose straps, why we now have adjustable hydrant wrenches, and why the contents of the hydrant bag are what they are. If you don’t know, you’ll learn a little history. Do more than complain about three-person engine companies. Figure out how you can do all that needs to be done with two, three, and four-person engines. You might know that now it takes two engines to do the functions one used to do.
Fire service history is more than just knowing why we use the Maltese cross or why we have red fire trucks. It’s about ALLof it, including the tools, techniques, and innovations. Being able to adapt, overcome, and improvise is not easy. Ask any survivor of the Battle of Khe Sanh or the Pusan Perimeter. 

So gather around the kitchen table, and listen more than you blather on. Detail exactly what you want the engine company to do, and be specific about who’s going to do it, when they are going to do it, and how they are going to do it. Skip nothing.Go by each seat; the seats don’t change, but the butt in the seat will. Volunteer or paid, all of us have rigs, and those rigs have seats. Assign the job to the seat, notto an individual. That way, volunteer fire companies can be included. 

When you think you have it down, use some old fires as examples, and walkthrough each scenario with each player doing the assigned tasks. If it doesn’t work, fix it until it does. When it does work, write it down and. practice it until every member of the company can do it, flawlessly. Then move on to the next set of tasks.


Do this for everyseat and every position. The positions you have been pining for were detail/task-oriented, designed by our predecessors. What would you do with them today if you had them? Without a detailed task list, they become just another person to trip over. 

The engine company (and the truck and rescue companies) needs to cover each and every position and what that riding position may encounter.

  1. The officer
  2. The driver
  3. The nozzleman
  4. The backup man
  5. The doorman
  6. The control man

(1) How are you going to get water?

(2) How is the hose to be loaded?

(3) How are attack lines loaded and selected?

This horse is dead, so I will stop beating it and let it rest in peace. But as for you, stop whining and get to work! Designing tasks lists is time consuming. You probably don’t remember when we had five or six-person engines, so write new procedures for the staffing you do have. Don’t throw away those old drill manuals or those old standard operating guidelines; use them as a reference/starting point. Use the models and information left to us by our predecessors. You might be surprised at how efficient you can become. 

Rick Fritz retired as the battalion chief of Special Projects for the High Point (NC) Fire Department. He medically retired in 2008. A member of the fire service since 1973, he has served in a variety of roles in the fire service, both on the volunteer and career side. He is the author of Tools of the Trade: Firefighting Hand Tools and Their Uses book and video series. He was the lead instructor for FDIC HOT basic engine company operations for more than five years.

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