It’s Not Easy Being “Small” in the Fire Service

Volunteers Corner

Being small is not easy! However, it does not mean you cannot offer your community a quality level of service. The difficult part is admitting you can’t do it all by yourself. For the purpose of this article, “small” is defined as not being able to meet today’s standards and best practices without outside assistance. I will use a range of combat capabilities, including (1) having 20 or fewer interior firefighters in the company and (2) having the ability to put five to 15 interior firefighters or fewer on scene during the daytime, regardless of the number of active members in the department. Some may say, “What’s the big deal?” Others may be saying that they wish they had that many.


Small Departments: Growing Beyond the Single-Line Mentality

Doing the Job with Limited Resources in Small Departments

Special Operations in Small Departments

Overcome Line Staffing Issues with the “Clamp”

A random search of response records from small departments around the country has revealed two distinct issues. First, every department can respond to 10 percent or less of the calls for service. Second, the member response numbers drastically decrease when you reach the mark of 25 percent response of all calls. Although many people blame several issues, staffing is still needed to give the customer the best shot at survival.

My revelation that we did not have enough people to handle a significant incident came in the middle of a departmental health and safety meeting. The chairman had the audacity to suggest our numbers were not what they used to be and should be to safely handle a working building fire. He further suggested that we call for help before we arrive; this was an eye-opening moment for our department. Ultimately, we had to admit we did not have enough help.

Every chief and leadership team must consider the actual situation, which can be extremely painful. Tradition and pride can be severe impediments to this evaluation. However, in the end, it’s all about protecting our people, serving our citizens, and meeting their needs (and not ours).

Risk Assessment

Unfortunately, many departments and communities do not base their operations on a community risk assessment; this is consultant lingo for knowing your district’s population, the building types, the types of routine operations (hazardous, recreational, industrial, or commercial) you perform, the response causes, and the customers and activities that keep you in business. Usually, the past can help predict the future.

Once you have the basic hazard information, assign a risk profile (i.e., how bad can it get, and how quickly?). Obviously, the more hazardous or risky the operation, the more help you will need. Then, it’s all about honest math. Most departments will refer to 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; and NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments. Although this is the simplest solution, it may not fit the small combination or career department. If you are 100 percent volunteer, the NFPA 1720 personnel response numbers are a good starting point. However, I have seen two great examples of how to truly figure this out.

Several years ago, I attended a conference in Phoenix, Arizona, that had just opened up a command simulation center. The dilemma for the simulation creators was determining how long it would take for a task ordered by the incident commander (IC) to be completed. The solution was simple but brilliant. First, a design team considered the typical orders given at various incidents. Those tasks were then recreated at the training academy. Multiple teams from multiple companies then completed the task under defined conditions while being timed. The times were averaged and entered into the simulation’s computer. So, as an example, when the IC ordered the forcing of the front door of a strip mall store, the student playing the ladder officer would acknowledge the order, select the forcible entry “start” button, hear the irons being used, and see a large “X” on his screen over the door. Once the time elapsed, the noise would stop, and the “X” would disappear. At that point, the hoseline stretch officer would start his timer.

While preparing a strategic plan, the Colchester (CT) Fire Department (CFD) created similar data in a much smaller fashion. Again, a committee created a series of tasks for various incidents that needed to be completed. They then rotated crews and repeatedly drilled on the various skills while focusing on speed, efficiency, and firefighter safety. This information became critical to its response assignments, planning, and future requests in its strategic plan. Personally, I prefer the local practical applications and evaluation method; we should all know our “bread-and-butter” incidents and what it takes to handle them successfully. Interestingly enough, the CFD’s on-scene force response numbers were higher than those for NFPA 1710.

The trick here is to apply real-time information to practical evaluations. I mean no disrespect when I say the response results determined on a regular Monday night training after a reminder tone an hour before the session may not be the same as those on a Tuesday at 1000 hours. As you have read numerous times in this magazine, train the way you fight; if that means two to three people on a stretch to the third floor because that’s all the staffing you have for that task, then that’s it. The task is going to take longer and be harder than if the crew was four or five members. Notice I said for that task; I am not suggesting we break Occupational Safety and the Health Administration (OSHA) regulations by not following the rules. In fact, strict safety regulations must be built into your training and response plan. You can’t train with four or five members if they’re not going to arrive at work. At the same time, allowing unsafe freelance activities cannot be tolerated.

We know from many studies that the risk goes up dramatically when the available help goes down. For example, having three or four people on a 35-foot ladder is nice, but in the “small world,” two well-prepared and trained firefighters are enough. Although we train with two members on a 24-foot ladder, for others, they have only one person for the 24 with the roof ladder on top. It’s okay to drag the ladder if you are by yourself!

I have witnessed drills conducted by the Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department where one member dragged a ground ladder with an accompanying roof ladder, a trash rake, and a saw up to a building and put it all in service. If you’re uncomfortable with this type of evolution, figure out a way to have more people there to do the task when it’s needed. If someone is at the window—civilian or member—you’ve got to go.

This brings up another important issue: Can your personnel do all the physically extreme tasks you are planning? For example, one member throwing and raising a 24-foot ladder by himself can stress an average member. Globally speaking, some of our members are stressed just putting on their turnout gear. In fact, it takes some folks longer to put on turnout gear than it does others to don their gear and an air pack.

Again, are you prepared to produce the effort and complete the tasks you have determined are needed by yourselves? Can you change how you do things when you have limited personnel? For example, do you have a mechanical advantage to complete the same task? Can you use the bucket or stick on the ladder to get to the roof rather than ground ladders? Some of the information we have today regarding slowing down the fire from the exterior can buy us time. Can we deploy a smaller preconnected master steam to protect an exposure or use it as a tactical weapon?

Many devices have been invented to make our job easier. However, in the end, it’s still interior operations that need people to complete the task. For example, searching while stretching a line is a fundamental practice. It takes on a new meaning when there in no one else searching. Finding a victim during the stretch is a significant “hiccup” relative to putting water on the fire. If no one is behind you or near you to whom you can pass off the victim, the stretch stops to remove the victim until we regain our numbers. To be clear (and to also further complicate matters), if you have only two people on the hoseline, both are leaving after an urgent message to the IC; one is dragging the victim and the other is protecting their escape until you can get a team back in the game. The days of a one-person line are gone, so if the victim is large and needs two members of the three-member team to remove him, everyone must leave the structure. Being a small department is hard enough without being foolish. If you find this upsetting, build a system to provide the adequate number of resources. Remember, the circus can’t open its tent unless you allow it to open.

Response Design and Mutual and Automatic Aid

Most departments across the country have some form of mutual-aid system to handle “the big one.” Unfortunately, many civilians die in fires before they become the big one. From a community risk reduction (CRR) perspective, emergency response is the final option. You have numerous CRR options before you dial 911. You can use education, engineering, enforcement, and economic incentives to reduce or eliminate fatal fires. Unfortunately, as a country, we don’t get very far past education, engineering, and (maybe) enforcement. In fact, we’re having problems getting the rest of the community on board with the engineering concept of residential sprinklers. For example, if you have a 10-minute response time for a rural residential location on the outskirts of your town, how great would it be to have water on the fire, holding it in check, until you arrive? Someday, we’ll figure it out; until then, you must prepare for the worst.

In small departments, staffing often arrives separately. Members may come in personal vehicles or on multiple department apparatus. As a result, several “company” prearrival options are removed. For example, the officer’s ability to communicate with everyone independently from the response channel en route does not exist. The ability to arrive with the team’s accountability system live and in place will not happen but instead often takes a few minutes to gather or create it if it gets done. The simple, calming demeanor of the “senior man” is not visible when you are not all together.

Many departments have created standard operating procedures to promote specific jobs according to riding position. This system often works, provided the seat is occupied or filled early and is part of a greater plan. Other departments program a series of priority actions to handle on-scene priorities. For example, stretching the primary attack line often stops the problem from getting worse. Whatever your plans, build the response support system to make them happen.

In many areas of our country, everything is done just to get the needed staff or tools on scene. If you need to do this in your community, what are the odds your neighbor has the same issue? By working together, you can design a plan to bring adequate people and equipment to the scene. All systems need a series of “trigger points,” which create some action.

For example, in the late 1970s and 1980s, New York City had emergency reporting system (ERS) boxes throughout the city. Although this was a good idea, the boxes turned into a favorite “play toy” for many children. As a result, the response to ERS boxes with no contact was reduced to one engine and one truck. This was adequate for most of the false alarms or minor calls. The departments still had fires that were first reported over ERS boxes. To plan for these incidents, a “Second Source” modification was added. A second source was defined as meeting the following conditions:

  1. Another call was received reporting the same incident.
  2. The police department arrived and confirmed a fire.
  3. The caller called back and reported that conditions were worsening.
  4. The initial unit arrived and confirmed a fire
  5. An automatic fire alarm or street box was received after the initial call.

The trigger point here was if the communication centers received a second source, additional units were added. This adjustment enhanced the safety of civilians and firefighters.

As previously mentioned, our department needed to adjust our response patterns, which came down to two issues: (1) The then-new “two-in/two-out” OSHA regulations and (2) the general need to increase our on-scene capabilities. Eventually, we designed our system to support a modified or multidepartment NFPA 1710 response. To make this happen, we also designed a multilevel response system. On-duty crews and volunteer members handled the initial calls. Our trigger point was similar to that of New York City’s: If the dispatch center received a second source, a backup team of (a minimum) two personnel from an industrial mutual-aid partner responded to the scene. Its purpose was purely to back up the initial attack line and provide the two-in/two-out backup. In addition, a firefighter assist and search team (FAST) (rapid intervention team) was dispatched to the scene.

Although the Second Source program helped with the two-in/two-out responsibilities and provided a FAST up front, we continued to have response issues. With the advent of NFPA 1710, we undertook a needed review of run cards. Our interest in enhancing our initial response capability and safety moved us to expand the dispatch procedure, and we initiated a “Plus Assignment,” which expanded the backup concept and added whatever additional resources we deemed necessary for the target hazard. At the very least, it had the backup team, the FAST, an engine, an ambulance, and a paramedic. At the same time, we dramatically reduced the number of the versions of response profiles. This made it easier for everyone involved to know who or what was coming and when. The reduction in profiles led to a more aggressive use of the alarm response system. In other words, we were able to call for help faster and more aggressively.

A first alarm is transmitted for all working building fires. This added another engine, ladder, and heavy rescue. Also included in the first alarm was a career firefighter callback, the building official who assisted with command until the fire was out, and the utility company. As a group, the local fire officers committed to respond anytime their people went out and supported the command system. They decided to use a system where command priorities were assigned on arrival.

The chiefs became familiar with the tasks they most often did because of travel distance times. This meant they were not standing around with their forces keeping an eye on things; they had subordinates for that. Instead, they were helping the host chief—as a chief—successfully defeat the fire. As a small department, you are usually surrounded by similarly sized departments. As a result, when in need, your options are limited. The good news is that, often, everyone is struggling to solve the same issues when they need help as well.

The creation of response plans can be uncomfortable and complicated if they are not handled correctly. When traveling, I have witnessed a couple of common concepts, the most common of which was placing the “strong” companies where they were needed and then supporting them with “weak” companies. The concept is that no one gets insulted; and, if the weak company doesn’t make it, nothing is lost. This is fine until the strong company is committed and the weak company is now a “clutch player.” This is the least painful, but it has potential critical failures.

Another concept that may be more painful but that can also be more dependable is having an honest, private conversation where expectations are created and agreed on. There are jobs for everyone in this business, and companies have various ways they can contribute. The goal here is to find and agree on those skill sets and capitalize on them. Your neighbors are not stupid. They know their weaknesses; in fact, they probably know your weaknesses. I’ve always preached how individual conversations lead to more open and honest assessments. I am not inferring anyone would lie, but we all have the pride of being in one of the most important and critical jobs there is. Some of our departments are hundreds of years old. Saying that you are not comfortable filling a needed role in front of a group is very difficult. Privately, you might be able to find the best and safest role for your people.

Mutual Aid vs. Response Abuse

In today’s world, where funding levels are being challenged constantly, communities are paying much more attention to what they are investing in. The funding streams for small departments range from ham and bean suppers to designated line items in the annual budget. Many small departments function entirely on what they raise themselves. In one department with which I am familiar, a small, committed membership gave more than 2,000 hours a year doing nonresponse activities. Communities need to keep in mind that this amount of funding takes away from the traditional emergency response preparation. Time at the station, for whatever reason, is still time away from home.

The second big issue creating friction between departments and their elected officials is that many departments are independent and do not fall under the community’s chain of command. In fact, they may not be formally responsible to any outside entity other than state or federal agencies. When departments receive some form of funding, elected officials are required, under many charters, to review and evaluate the budgets. As is the case with all types of businesses, elected officials, under pressure from various citizen groups, focus on all public services.

Relative to mutual-aid responses, there is a delicate financial balance between helping a neighbor and taking care of his business for him. Obviously, if the assistance is even close to being equal, then there usually aren’t any complaints. If concerns are raised, a simple numerical evaluation and slide presentation can resolve them. The problem occurs when one department is in trouble and can’t really handle its workload. While traveling around the country, I have repeatedly seen departments with fewer than four to six members trying to handle the workload. This goes back to the community risk assessment. If the community’s responses are primarily driven by EMS responses, the department is a first responder basic life support unit, and there’s a couple of retired folks available, the department could be effective 65 to 70 percent of the time. In fact, in this real-life example, the two most active members on the ambulance were 75 and 72 years old, respectively. These spry individuals carried most of the workload until one of them suffered a medical emergency and the other needed to take care of him. (Obviously, a structural fire would be a major problem here.)

So, is it fair for an elected official to ask why his fire department is responding to a neighboring community and repeatedly putting out the other’s fires? Yes, it is.

Although it’s in our culture and DNA to help our brother and sister departments while taking a couple of extra jobs, that’s not what our taxpayers are paying for. Most communities and officials like the idea of receiving and giving mutual aid to reduce costs; it’s the concept of handling another community’s business that causes aggravation. There are trigger points that will inevitably cause taxpayers or elected officials to question mutual-aid policies. They would include (1) responding a specialized unit (i.e., an ambulance, a heavy rescue, a tanker, or a ladder) to a mutual-aid district more often than to your own, (2) sending more units to someone else’s call than they can get out, and (3) being on scene a significantly long time before the receiving department arrives.

The trigger point here is how these problems are being repeated. Having mutual aid beat you to a scene when you’re tied up happens occasionally; communities get upset when it happens all the time. The fire service is built on responding to people calling for help. However, the funding comes from our citizens, and they deserve a reasonable expectation that their units are available. The creation of fair and appropriate mutual-aid response plans can support effective operations for all parties.

An Example Response

In the summer of 2017, a severe thunderstorm popped up unexpectedly. In the middle of the storm, the on-duty career staff of four witnessed and heard a significant lightning strike that lit up the sky. Shortly after the strike, the 911 center received two calls reporting a lightning strike at a condominium project a half-mile from the fire station. Given the second source and the excitement in the caller’s voice, a plus assignment was dispatched for a possible structure fire from the lightning strike.

As the shift commander turned onto a street approximately a quarter-mile away, he saw a large black header going straight up against the rain. He transmitted a first alarm based on the report and the visual indicator of a working fire. At this point, I was responding back to the district and heard the plus units responding. As the shift commander approached the condo’s intersection, he saw all he expected and more. The corner unit of a “V”-shaped complex had heavy fire pushing from what used to be the second floor and attic, and the adjoining corner of the V-shaped building was smoking and getting ready to go. At that point, he transmitted a second alarm.

The shift commander, driving the first-due engine, arrived on scene, positioned his apparatus, and assumed command. When you’re a small department, you must be flexible and on your toes. As the remainder of the city units arrived, they were met by the backup and plus units. I arrived three minutes later. On my arrival, which was in about eight minutes, the first line was in operation, the second line was being stretched, and the second-due truck was setting up to go to the roof. Unfortunately, repeated lightning strikes near the scene prevented me from allowing them to get in the air for safety reasons.

A couple of tactical notes: Our first-due truck was set up for future defensive operations, if needed; in fact, the hydraulics were already engaged for the next operator. The operator of the tower is part of the attack team. He gains access and assists with the stretch and search. The truck was positioned and ready for where it may be needed within a half-hour. Given the fact that the fire unit was in the corner involving the second floor and attic and would stress our traditional line evolutions, the pump operator went with two high-rise packs and then stretched a three-inch handline 300 feet by himself. When you’re a small department, be ready for the unusual.

An additional note about this complex: We routinely are at this complex conducting EMS. Those visits create muscle memory as to the location of obstacles as well as our resources. Shortly after my arrival, the second-alarm units arrived and were given attack line relief and checked for extension. A third alarm was transmitted for relief and district coverage.

Ultimately, the shift commander used the alarm card aggressively to call for resources. They easily met the numbers needed for NFPA 1710 while arriving on different apparatus. That evening, three of the 10 units were uninhabitable. The fire unit, second floor, and attic as well as two other units that sustained minor smoke and exposure investigation damage were isolated. The building official, working with the repair contractor, made it possible for seven residents to sleep in their homes that night.

Our ultimate job is to create a system capable of taking care of our communities as well as others’. Only through a community risk assessment can you discover the true needs of the jurisdiction. Combining an evaluation of your department with your mutual-aid partners can build a great system. When all is said and done, however, it is the ultimate right of an IC to ask a mutual-aid leader if his team is up for the selected mission. A true leader who cares about his people will give you a legit answer. Inversely, it’s every leader’s responsibility to decline assignments he doesn’t believe his folks can do.

NICHOLAS DeLIA is a 40-plus-year fire service veteran and the chief (ret.) and fire marshal of the Groton (CT) Fire Department. He is certified as a Connecticut State fire officer IV, fire instructor II, safety officer, and hazardous materials technician. DeLia has also served in leadership roles in state and regional hazardous materials response and urban search and rescue and incident management teams. He is a senior fire service consultant for JLN Associates and a contract instructor for community risk reduction programs at the National Fire Academy. DeLia has a BS in fire service administration from Empire State College.

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