BY BILL MANNING
For years, the editors of Fire Engineering have long supported—and actively pursued through this vehicle—a four-member minimum company staffing standard and saw the NFPA 1710 deployment standard as a critical juncture in the evolutionary process of fireground safety and effectiveness.
Of course, calling it a standard and making it standard practice are two different things. “Standard” or not, budget-wielding politicians and their ever acquiescent fire executives hold sway, and, in reality, two and even three generations of firefighters throughout America have served under the “standard” of the three-member company, common sense be damned.
The effects of our financially driven, do-more-with-less fire policies are profound. They begin with decimation of the company unit and a reduction of the on-scene supervisory role of the company officer, carry through to lack of fireground tactics, and end with the rise in line-of-duty fireground injury and death rates. It is a vicious cycle that has lasted for more than 20 years.
Men in business suits seized the leadership of the American fire service long ago. They deferred incident command to subordinates, reduced tactical fireground priorities to “luxuries,” and deemphasized the primary fire service mission. It was by every measure a coup against the “dinosaurs,” recreating a fire service in which saving lives and property was acceptable only insofar as it was accomplished within budget and with minimal training, as well as within a framework of artificial, prescriptive systems that took the essence of the job away from the understaffed troops and placed it within the hands of social engineers who fought fires on paper in neat offices.
No excuses were made for brutalizing the firefighter in this fashion, except to say it was being done for his or her “protection.” No one told the public what was going on. Politicians, lawyers, and consultants benefited; in the biggest picture, with some exceptions, firefighters did not.
Like NFPA 1500 before it, NFPA 1710 demands a culture change. But there’s a significant difference: It’s true that there were and still are significant costs associated with implementing 1500—by way of capital expenditures for improved apparatus and equipment and retooling and retraining for fireground safety and accountability systems—but that’s nothing compared with the cost of adding people. And while opponents of 1710 throw up philosophical arguments as cover, it’s all about money and leadership.
It was because of money and lack of leadership that fire chiefs stood behind the recent (failed) attempt by the California League of Cities to scuttle 1710. It’s because of money and lack of leadership that fire chiefs wait for tragedy to strike before finally acquiescing to the fact that four is better than three.
And so the do-more-with-less circle turns, engrained in the consciousness of firefighters throughout the country and perpetuated by institutions of people who believe, though never say, that firefighters are expendable. So we reside in a dreamy world that covers its eyes to the facts that company officers can’t be good risk managers if they’re stretching handlines; that the engineer’s position doesn’t mean being pump operator, backup man, horizontal vent man, and one of the “two out,” all in one; and that our one-company, one-task approach to fireground tactics means that critical tasks just don’t get done. And so 1710, in too many places, is not a standard, and so we lose.
That being said, I call your attention to an article in this issue that addresses an aspect of the issue of understaffed companies. We have long resisted publishing articles that could be used as ammunition by the “do-more-with-less” crowd. Despite the fact that so many companies still operate understaffed and need a forum to address operational issues therein, we enter that forum now with reluctance and with a special caveat:
No matter what we do or say within this vehicle called Fire Engineering, there will remain “leaders” without the practical and moral convictions to carry this fire service ahead in part by creating a safer and more effective platform for “making the fire behave.” Therefore, we ask that you use this as a point of departure such that we can refocus and reenergize the issue of understaffing and help bring greater political pressure to bear.
I ask for your specific input: What are the staffing levels in your department? Is your department taking any steps to address the staffing component of the deployment standard? Should the volunteer standard include minimum company-level staffing requirements? Are four enough? Does your fire department practice one company/one task tactics? Are there creative paths to handling the staffing issue such that we don’t rob from Peter to pay Paul (that is, close companies and shift people around)? Should Fire Engineering continue to publish training articles on how to do more with less? And so on.
I look forward to working with you to find solutions to this challenge. A standard is not a standard when it’s not standardized. Let’s make it happen.