VOLUNTEERS CORNER ❘ BY MICHAEL P. CAPOZIELLO
Firefighters hate failure! We do whatever we can to make someone’s bad situation better, to make sure that our actions are timely, professional, and the best for the specific incident. Making mistakes can be emotional and deadly; failure is unacceptable. However, one failure has become accepted practice for many volunteer fire departments. Let’s look at three scenarios to illustrate.
Scenario 1: A rig responding to an alarm gets into an accident, delaying its arrival at the emergency. An investigation will take place; the chauffeur may temporarily lose his driving privileges and be retrained.
Scenario 2: As personnel stretch a line to the fire, a substantial delay charging the line occurs. The hydrant man did a bad job of hitting the hydrant, causing a major delay. Many witnessed this fireground failure and embarrassment. The hydrant man, his ego deflated, will be retrained and learn what he did wrong.
Scenario 3: Your dispatcher somehow enters the wrong address into the dispatch system and a six-minute delay results before the correct address is determined. Luckily, it’s nothing serious, but it is a failure nonetheless. The chiefs will complain, probably write a letter for the dispatcher’s file, and the dispatcher will be retrained.
RELATED FIREFIGHTER TRAINING
Failures happen on the fireground every day. We try to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, find out who was responsible, and try our hardest to prevent another failure. But one failure that occurs every day throughout the volunteer fire service that we have become immune to is alarm response delays. Whatever your agency calls it, there are recalls or second or third alerts before we are able to get a rig or an ambulance out the doors and on scene. Such failures can include the following:
- Waiting too long before requesting mutual aid because the department’s written procedure instructs dispatch to wait 10 minutes before doing so, even though the dispatchers know you have had response troubles for the past two prior alarms. Dispatchers should be able to initiate mutual aid on certain call types when needed.
- A department with a notorious history of not getting out for alarms and that has no automatic dual response mutual-aid policy.
- An ambulance that arrives on scene 30 minutes after the initial call or an engine that arrives on scene 25 minutes after receiving an alarm.
Yet, these failures are tolerated and allowed to happen, sometimes several times in one day in one department.
As a volunteer firefighter, especially as a leader in your department, you certainly should be aware of the problems today’s fire service has in recruiting and retaining new members. If you’re a leader, response time problems are your problem. You will be held accountable for these failures just as you would hold accountable those responsible for the above failures.
Let’s look at some actions department leaders need to consider, discuss, and possibly implement in departments with response problems.
Recognize the Situation
Don’t just say, “These things happen from time to time in the volunteer fire service.” Personnel availability in today’s volunteer fire service is always changing, and hence the department’s availability varies yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, and even hourly. Unless you have a definite number of staff standing by in house, your number of available personnel changes during the course of a day. Examine your alarm data. What are the “trouble hours” during the day, the week, or the year when these situations seem to occur regularly? This can include early morning or late afternoon hours when members may be in transit to and from their 9-5 jobs. The problems may be glaring and obvious, but maybe they are not. Size up your department’s response patterns. Are these temporary or long-term response problems?
Has your reliable day crew changed? Maybe the two retired firefighters, your everyday chauffeurs, are going south for the winter. Or younger members making up the daytime summer crew are going back to school in September or attending college out of state. Your advanced medical technician who made 95 percent of alarms now has a full-time job, and his availability is a fraction of what it once was. Ask your membership what’s going on. You may have to adjust and evaluate your procedures based on this information.
If you don’t have any written alarm response procedures for your dispatch agency, provide them immediately. You must ensure that if a chief or line officer is not in town, the dispatcher has preplanned instructions to follow that ensure your alarms will be covered.
If procedures are in place, reevaluate them. Do you have predetermined re-alert times in your procedures? Is the re-alert time currently in use too long? Based on your analysis of your “trouble hours,” should you reduce the re-alert time or set up an automatic dual response mutual-aid system with a neighboring department or departments? You need to make some very important decisions—you are ultimately responsible for the results.
While analyzing your own department’s response times, analyze those of your mutual-aid partners. Having to re-alert a mutual-aid department two or three times for a response to your department is a failure, too. Twenty-minute response times are unacceptable unless you are in a very rural area. Meet with your regular mutual-aid partners and be honest with each other. How are your partners doing?
Not all volunteer departments have these problems. There is usually a mix of the two examples in every area using a volunteer system. Look to departments with good response times. What are their organizational models? Can you adapt them to your department?
If your department uses the home response model, consider changing to in-house crews during designated times. One problem with a home response is that a member may be home but is involved in other personal matters from which he can’t break away when the alarm comes in. Another problem is a member thinking, “John is off, he can drive,” while John is thinking the same thing about him. The result: No driver shows up. Coordinating available personnel is essential; having members in quarters will eliminate these situations.
Most volunteer departments have minimum response/attendance rules regarding alarms and other functions to maintain active membership. You may change your minimum requirements from a percentage of calls per month/year to a minimum number of volunteer hours per week/month/year. You may even get a few new members with this system. Would-be volunteers may find it easier to know in advance when they will be scheduled for a shift at the firehouse. Someone may not guarantee that he will respond to 25 percent of all monthly alarms but will guarantee you 36 scheduled shift hours a month.
This also helps build “esprit de corps”—i.e., morale. Crews can eat meals, drill, or preplan together and especially enjoy the bragging rights to a fast response and being first due.
At-Home Duty Crews
Instead of in-house crews, try to use at-home duty crews in which assigned members will make sure they can respond to the firehouse during their duty hours. This system works well for many volunteer departments during overnights in a home response system, especially on emergency medical services runs. The assigned crew members know they’re responsible for the night’s alarms. If a member can’t do the shift for whatever reason, then that member is responsible to get someone to cover his shift or do a swap. It’s worth the effort to give it a try. With today’s technology, you can create phone groups or download response apps where everyone involved can see each other’s availability to help in staffing duty crews.
Live-In Programs for College Students
Does your district or county have a college or colleges that would be interested in such a program? This program works well in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and other states in helping solve daytime responses. It may require you to retrofit part of your station into a living space or dormitory-style rooms. But, it will be well worth it in the long run, especially when you can justify the expense to the public with improved response times and increased crew numbers.
Other incentives for this arrangement could include free meals; weight room, washer/dryer, and kitchen access; free internet use; and no fundraising duty. Contact department that run such a program for details on how they started it and how it has worked out.
Although this will not fill your personnel needs immediately, it is a good investment. Most fire departments with such a program usually end up with a steady stream of recruits each year. Another benefit is that the people joining your department know what they are getting into from their Explorer/Junior exposure to the fireground and the firehouse. As the chief or officer, you will have gotten to know these individuals, too. You know these candidates’ qualities, strengths, and weaknesses better than those of someone just coming in off the street.
Consolidation and Change
These are the dreaded “C” words of the fire service. If you are a chief of a department that has its problems with no end in sight, if you have tried many of the suggestions above, and if hiring paid staff is not an option, then you should look at the reality of permanent change in the form of consolidation.
Consolidation within your own department may be a first step. Maybe some individual companies will have to merge or disband. Many northeast volunteer departments run several single-company stations that in turn form one responding department. No one likes closing a fire station, but often in this setup, companies will not have a chauffeur for an alarm, and three or four firefighters are just standing around in the firehouse with no truck to ride on. Or maybe five apparatus show up with two firefighters on each.
A better way to manage all available personnel is for members to respond to one or two stations, not five or six. This may require relocating certain apparatus to other stations.
The membership needs to buy into what you are trying to accomplish. You may not need to close a station completely. Many departments have multiple stations that are often just blocks away. But, if you have three engine companies near each other, pick one to which all the firefighters must respond to during designated hours. The designated station can be rotated to ensure all apparatus are used regularly. This may require some cross training between companies and some swallowing of company pride if the three companies each have different procedures but the same long-term goal of a timely, well-staffed response.
The truly feared consolidation is with a neighboring department. Although not an easy step to take, it may be the only solution. As in any merger, you will lose some chief and line officer positions. Procedures and equipment may change. Although it is tough, it may be the only way to save the department.
If things are that bad, the local politicians or government may get involved anyway. it’s better to take this step on your initiative rather than to have it forced on you by politicians who don’t understand the process and who most certainly will botch it up.
Change is brutal at times. Except for some religious organizations, your local fire department may be among the oldest continuously run organizations in your community, often older than the police department, the school district, or the post office. Losing an established, century-old identity is a big deal, but we can’t lose sight of and forget what we are ultimately here for. The people we help don’t care if our organization is five or 125 years old; they want and need help now!
Consolidating does not erase your prior history and how you arrived at the present point in time. If you’re a member of the department that has been dissolved or absorbed, there will still be gear to wear and a fire truck to ride to emergencies. The name may be different, but the mission statement and the reason you are doing this remain the same. Leaders must always keep this in mind and keep their egos inside the bay doors. Embrace the change, or you may have to ride off into the sunset.
The suggestions listed in this article are for reducing your response times instead of hiring paid personnel. They may be the only options for some departments that don’t have the money to hire even part-time firefighters. It all falls on the leadership and the chief’s shoulders.
If you are here for the right reasons, terrible response times should bother you. Don’t ignore this failure. Sometimes you have to make hard, unpopular choices, but you can’t forget why we are here: to respond timely to the public’s emergencies.
MICHAEL P. CAPOZIELLO is a 36-year member and former chief of the Elmont (NY) Fire Department. He is a department training officer, a public information officer, and an historian. He is also a supervising dispatcher at Nassau County (NY) Fire Communications (FIRECOM) and the training officer on the field com unit. He has been a member of the Nassau County fire service critical incident stress management team for the past 19 years.