THE STAFFING ISSUE
POINTS OF VIEW
Over the past year, a battle has raged within the fire service concerning the issue of minimum staffing and whether this minimum requirement should be placed in NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. Different organizations have their own positions and have been vocal in attempting to persuade others of their views’ legitimacy. Are we putting the fire service in a box by advocating a set number that may be too low and very difficult to change in the future?
Currently, the controversy revolves around whether to require having a minimum of four firefighters in a company or assembling four firefighters before mounting an interior structural firefighting attack. What affect will this have on those departments that now have five or six firefighters in a company? Will they be forced to reduce company staffing under the guise of economy, since the experts have stated in a national standard that four is a satisfactory number? In some instances, four is not a safe number for a structural attack — for example, in the cases of larger commercial buildings, industrial occupancies, and hazardous-materials incidents. If the nationally accepted standard states four firefighters is the minimum number required to begin interior structural firefighting, what will the lawyers say in a courtroom to the officer on the witness stand who had four firefighters and did not attack the fire?
The decision to make an interior attack is a function of the fire situation and its condition on arrival. The extent of the fire, possible spread, structural conditions, exposures, and rescue requirements are all critical to determining whether an attack w ill be initiated. Simply because there are, or are not, four firefighters assembled should not dictate the incident commander’s action decision. There are situations at both extremes. At one recent incident, a pump operator extinguished a fire with a booster line while the hose team was donning protective equipment and pulling the preconnected line. There are other cases where six or eight firefighters are not sufficient to start a structural fire attack. Most experienced fire officers prefer to evaluate the situation on arrival, review the resources available, and then determine if a safe fire attack can be mounted.
From a practical standpoint, how many firefighters does it take to perform foreground functions? Ideally, an officer, a driver, and teams of two each for hoselines, forcible entry, ventilation, search and rescue, and exposure protection. The officer will have to function as half of a two-firefighter team w ith a company staffing of three. It will take three firefighters to move a 2‘/2-inch handline or a small master stream, thus allowing only one for forcible entry, horizontal ventilation, or a limited primary search (while remaining in voice or radio contact) when there are four in a company.
OSIIA states that personnel in respiratory equipment should work in pairs and have a backup team of two in case any unexpected problems arise. Would it not be even better to have a fifth individual for command and overall site safety? What about the variety of special tasks now becoming accepted as fire department responsibilities (KMS, rescue) and the personnel necessary to perform them? Mow many firefighters are needed for offensive hazardous-materials operations, water rescue, or other special rescue (high-angle, trench, confined-space) situations?
No one can deny that having two or three firefighters on an engine or truck company at a working fire is insufficient. There is stress, a high probability of overtaxing, and consequently an increased risk of injuries. Four firefighters responding on each unit is better. ITiis number allows for rapid intervention for suppression or rescue while the officer and driver theoretically can serve as the backup crew if anything goes wrong.
However, studies conducted over the past 20 years seem to indicate that five on a company yields the highest efficiency and performance. Functionally, six may even be the best, with an officer, an operator, and two teams of two available for a variety of assigned tasks. The staffing levels of five and six have been (and still are ) recommended by the Insurance Services Office, as they were by its predecessors for many, many years. Perhaps the fire service should boldly step forward and recommend five firefighters as the ideal number to have on each piece of apparatus. Next, the national fire service organizations should join forces and develop programs to sell citizens on this number as the best (or better) to ensure their protection and that of their families and property. Well-developed public awareness programs could be delivered to civic groups, community leaders, and municipal government officials. Let’s adopt tactics like those used by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and strive to achieve the same success they have had.
Volunteer departments should recruit and retain members with the idea of responding with five members on a unit. Combination departments should examine staffing options that create a response of five. Career departments should have management and labor working together to sell an on-duty strength of five. It will not come overnight; but with everyone working together toward the same end, much can be accomplished. Operating procedures should be developed based on a five-firefighter staffing standard.
Eventually, with good, continuous public relations, this effort may lead to the 10-firefighter minimum presented in the Ontario Fire Marshal’s “Discussion Paper on On-Site Staffing” for a working fire, or the assembling of 15 as determined by the Phoenix Fire Department in its FI RE DAP Program on staffing using the Fire Department Evaluation System for a structural house fire.
Each local entity eventually will have to determine the level of service it desires. It then will have to accept the risk that comes with a lower level of staffing. We can continue to present a united front, stressing that the best fire protection can be provided by a minimum staffing level of five firefighters.
In addition, when arriving at the scene, firefighters should neither stand by and allow the building to become fully involved nor strive to be heroes by attempting the impossible. They should do what can be done safely by the personnel available. Three firefighters cannot and should not try to do the work of five!
We all should encourage the national organizations to which we belong to come together in a united effort to develop the public relations programs necessary to convey to both our politicians and the public at large the hazards of low company staffing levels. This initiative should produce recommendations tor adequate staffing that will deliver maximum fire protection to our customers. Then it will be up to our customers, the citizens of each community, to decide the degree of protection they desire for themselves, their families, and their property. The mothers of MADD achieved their goal; why can’t the firefighters of North America achieve theirs?