Leveraging Your First-Arriving Resources

Chicago firefighters at the scene of an October 2020 fire
Chicago firefighters at the scene of an October 2020 fire. Photo courtesy of Tim Olk.

By David DeStefano

There are few fire departments in North America that can boast of always having the optimal number of firefighters arriving at the incident scene in a timely fashion. The fact is that many fire companies in rural, suburban, and even urban communities roll out the door with fewer personnel than would be desired to complete the tasks required of that unit. Fire companies in career fire departments in all but the largest cities are often staffed with fewer than four firefighters. Many of these departments also have a total on-duty strength significantly below what may be desired to conduct significant firefighting operations. Volunteer and combination fire departments may enjoy robust numbers of personnel during certain hours of the day or times of the year. However, the availability of members to respond may be greatly reduced during daytime hours on workdays or seasonally in some communities.


The Successful Short-Staffed Engine

Are We Short-Staffed or Just Short-Sighted?

How to Achieve Success When Short Staffed

The mission of the fire service is not defined by staffing. However, the capability of a fire department to accomplish the missions of life safety, incident stabilization, and property conservation depends to a large extent on the effectiveness by which available resources are employed. The most dynamic of these resources is often timely arrival and effective deployment of personnel. We have learned that the most crucial time to have a positive incident outcome, especially for civilian casualties, is the first few minutes after arrival. Therefore, leveraging the number of personnel likely to arrive during the first minutes of fire department intervention is key to saving lives. The sooner rescues are made and the fire is located, confined, and extinguished, the quicker our members will be out of harm’s way.

Many fire departments set unrealistically high expectations for the number of tasks a small company or lightly staffed initial alarm assignment can complete safely under the compressed timeline of an active fireground. These expectations are sometimes reinforced by studying the objectives assigned to companies in larger cities that have more abundant staffing and greater initial alarm resources. Conversely, fire departments must be aware that smaller numbers of personnel may still save lives, limit fire spread, and work towards extinguishment in a safe manner by operating aggressively and using all available members and equipment to full advantage.   

The simple fact is that a three-member company can’t achieve the same objectives as efficiently as a five-member company. Incident commanders (ICs) assign tasks based on unrealistic expectations endanger firefighters and jeopardize civilians by prolonging the achievement of critical benchmarks. The reverse scenario with the same negative result develops when a company or chief officer fails to realize the potential of a small number of highly trained and well-equipped firefighters who can accurately read conditions and employ a proper risk/benefit analysis.  To maximize the capabilities of the first-arriving company and the other initial alarm units, there must be a clear understanding of their true potential to achieve results. This can best be achieved by a combination of proactive policies and drilling on likely scenarios using realistic staffing levels.  

Every fire department is well-served by establishing and employing operating policies that direct the action of initial-arriving units at the most likely incident scenarios. However, the smaller the resource pool (i.e., fewer personnel or fewer companies), the more important it is for a policy to rely on direct action and efficient use of each arriving firefighter to achieve the most important fireground benchmarks as quickly as possible. With decisive action especially crucial during the first minutes after initial arrival, company officers must have solid polices to train with and employ for the most commonly encountered incidents. These policies should set the procedures for the entire first-alarm assignment with consideration of the number of personnel that can be expected to arrive on the first-due engine and truck, as well as the balance of other initial units.    

In jurisdictions with very limited personnel, a system of priorities may be established whereby the most urgent needs receive the first resources and tasks that do not immediately work toward satisfying life safety or incident stabilization must await the arrival of more substantial staffing.  The number and complexity of sustainable tasks will vary with the number of firefighters, level of training, and to some extent the type of equipment available. These variables must be predetermined by the jurisdiction to achieve a workable policy and incident action plan. In volunteer or on-call fire departments, a statistical average may be used to determine numbers of personnel, while in career fire departments the on-duty strength should be easily determined. Using these typical staffing levels, a jurisdiction may determine through experience as well as practice evolutions what type of tasks a single engine or ladder company may accomplish expediently under fireground conditions.     

“Traffic Light” Decision Maker

The first-arriving company officer acting as the IC should quickly size up the scene to determine how initial resources may be most efficiently deployed. This may be simplified by using a “traffic light” decision maker. In an offensive attack mode, the “red light” indicates urgent life safety concerns. These situations may include endangered victims at windows, credible reports of people trapped, the need to employ vent-enter-isolate-search tactics, or primary search of a building under heavy fire conditions. Although there are more than enough tactical operations to engage a well-staffed complement during such a firefight, the first-arriving company must select an action that best responds to the most urgent need. Rather than attempting to undertake multiple tactical operations, the understrength unit must engage in a single action that will best preserve life in the safest manner possible. For an engine company, stretching a handline of adequate diameter and length to a position protecting potential trapped occupants or in support of a rapid search effort may be the best use of resources. In most single-family and small multidwellings, this stretch can be made with two firefighters if necessary.     

When arriving at the same scenario with a single engine and truck staffed by a total of four members, the tactical advantage is slightly greater.  The response to a “red light” may include stretching the proper handline, providing outside horizontal ventilation and beginning a primary search closest to the seat of the fire. These initial actions must be fully supported by additional resources if they are to produce a successful outcome. However, placing in motion the most likely tactic to save lives and address the “red light” priorities provide the highest use of limited resources during the most critical period for life safety. 


First-Arriving Decisions

Fast and Effective Water

Putting the First Alarm to Work

Searchable vs. Survivable: Educated Decision Making

With the limited personnel assigned to many companies, the first-arriving resources will seldom get beyond the “red light” level. In some instances, functions that may be “yellow light” priorities can be assigned as critical tasks for other arriving units on the initial alarm. These operations should also be annunciated by policy. They may consist of vertical ventilation, placement of primary ladders for access and egress, and deployment of additional handlines for backup and vertical or lateral extension.     

The third tier, or “green light” priorities are those that are necessary to the overall incident objectives but are not deemed imminent threats to firefighter or civilian life safety. They may include overhaul, scene lighting, or other functions that are normally addressed by initial alarm companies.      

One way for fire departments to become proficient in achieving critical priorities with less abundant staffing is to leverage the capabilities of each member through drilling on the most frequently used tactics with the same staffing levels expected on the fireground. Conducting drill sessions using large numbers of personnel assembled together to complete hose stretches, primary searches, and ventilation tactics offers little value when firefighters arrive at the incident scene one company at a time with two or three members.     

Ladder companies must drill with ladders using the commonly available number of firefighters. Functions like outside ventilation and forcible entry must be practiced and planned for using tools and techniques that one or two firefighters can manage. Engine companies must pack preconnects for deployment using two members for routine stretches. The driver/operator must be able to quickly provide his/her own water supply when close by a hydrant. The apparatus should by designed to quickly put a master stream appliance into operation for a rapid knockdown when met with heavy fire on arrival.     

The success of the first-due company and the balance of the initial alarm assignment often hinges on the first few minutes of fireground operation. With knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the available resources, the first-due company officer can leverage these assets to best advantage by employing a size-up guide. This guide, like the “traffic light” decision maker, must categorize priorities and allow the officer to apply an immediate tactical solution. To be most effective, the tactics should be identified in advance and trained on using realistic staffing. With this approach, fire departments will make the most efficient use of whatever personnel arrive at the incident to begin initial operations.

David DeStefano is a 28-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as captain of Ladder Co. 1. He was previously assigned as a lieutenant in Ladder 1 and Engine 3 and a firefighter in Ladder 1. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in fire science. He is an instructor/coordinator for the Rhode Island Fire Academy and teaches a variety of fire service topics throughout Southern New England.     

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