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Published Saturday, July 28, 2012
Dear Nozzlehead: I’m looking for information about the relationship between staffing and firefighters injuries/line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). I’d like to present this information to our politicians so they can understand that our lives are on the line every day, especially when we’re understaffed. As you already know, we are in dire times for the fire service and people are constantly trying to discredit the work we do. I feel we need to arm ourselves with information and expose the public to the dangers and realities of our occupation.
—Nervous in Nor Cal
I have covered this issue extensively over the past decade-plus that I have been writing this column, but it’s always worth revisiting, especially right now.
“Does reducing staffing equate to civilian and firefighter lives lost?” is such a stupid question. Get rid of your fire department—shut it down. Gone. C-ya. Then see how your next fire with people trapped works out. See, I was right. Again. And DO NOT let anyone give you the nonsense that they don’t have fires like they used to. I don’t care. One fire requires the same ability to respond as 100 fires. Either you’re going to have a fire department or you’re not.
Now, before we get to the good stuff, a reminder: If you’re going to address staffing levels with your community, your fire department better be “clean.” What I mean is no taxpayer rip-off scandals, no OT games, no strippers/sex/drugs/booze/illegal weapons in the firehouse. To be “clean,” we need firefighters willing to do EMS, public education, community events and all the other non-emergency tasks we should do to remove any possibility of the “they are lazy” or “they make too much money” argument. And we need to do it with firefighters who aren’t whining about doing it. Delete the mindset that you are only here to go to fires. Remember your audience: taxpayers who may not have many of the same salaries, benefits, etc., that we do and who are generally pissed off. So eliminate their chance to make your department a target.
To me, the proof you’re looking for is fairly obvious. Firefighting is task-driven—and tasks require firefighters. More tasks? More firefighters. To add to this, many of the fires we’re responding to today are reaching high temperatures faster and construction is shoddier. We know these fires are much more dangerous—or we should. But we’re still doing the job.
Most local policymakers don’t truly understand what it takes to do the job—and that’s why we need to educate them. Get specific. Let’s use this example: a 1,000-square-foot, single-family, one-story, wood-frame dwelling in a hydranted area, with a few rooms burning. Fire flow guidelines call for 500 gpm, and we’ll probably be going inside.
Three 1¾" lines each at about 180 gpm gives us the needed flow. Each line requires how many firefighters—one? Two? Three? I say three—the nozzle firefighter, an officer and a third to help move the line/kinks, etc. Want to prove it? Have your elected officials move a charged line with one, two or three people. Three usually wins.
Next, take a look at what other tasks need to be performed in this scenario—and when I say performed, I mean simultaneously, like a band playing music. A good band is one with all the needed instruments represented, that rehearses regularly, and plays under the coordinated leadership of an experienced conductor. A bad band is one where major parts of the sound are missing due to low numbers of musicians, the band rarely practices together, and individual musicians do whatever they like either because the conductor is absent or ineffective.
Now replace the word “band” above with “fire department.” See the difference? It’s all noise—but when each “task” is paired with the right people, it becomes great music. The difference is that in our business, the failure to perform numerous critical tasks in coordination can and has had horrific results.
So we have three handlines with three firefighters on each line. That’s nine firefighters. But we also have to account for:
- Water supply (hydrant and pump)—two firefighters
- Forcible entry/search—two firefighters
- Ventilation—two firefighters
- Rapid intervention team—three firefighters
- Command—two chief officers (one on A/B side and another on C/D side)
Therefore, a minimal response to a small, single-family, wood-frame, one-story dwelling is 20 FIREFIGHTERS ... and that’s minimal. Note: NFPA recommends 15-17 firefighters, but then you have to give up specific roles. My model is simple—look at it and tell me what you don’t want done at a fire, and we'll go ahead and cut those positions. NFPA is minimal—our model is sensible.
I didn’t cover people trapped, heavy fire conditions, accountability, safety, safety officer, EMS, RIT deployment, etc. And if it’s a working fire, these numbers need to double or triple if we want to minimize our chances for failure, provide good customer service for those having the fire and give firefighters a “fighting” chance.
So simply put, the question to ask your local politicians: What tasks don’t you want performed in concert with one another? I could do all of the above myself—but I will eventually run out of house.
And if they don’t want to provide the resources so that 20 firefighters respond on that house fire? The answer is not “do more with less.” This is perhaps the perfect storm for so many fire departments. Doing “more with less” may work for the parks or sanitation departments—fire departments are dependent upon conditions, existing resources, pre-fire preparedness and training. We need to understand that we can only do so much with the resources we have. We all want to crawl down the hall, do the search, knock the fire down, etc., but we have to keep in mind that if we don’t have the political support and/or the public support to give us what is minimally needed—whether it’s funding, training or support for sprinkler systems—there’s only so much we can realistically do. We can only do as much as our resources and physical ability allow us to do. And we’re already going “above and beyond.”
At the same time, the solution is not to go screaming to the media that “firefighters and civilians will die” if more resources are cut. Instead, we need to present simple math—20 firefighters accomplish this, 10 firefighters accomplish that—which do you want for your voters? Speaking of heroics, that’s often when the fire chiefs and commissioners must show the most courage—by taking the risk of upsetting the elected officials and telling them the truth. Respectfully, factually and honestly. There have been too many headlines recently where chiefs have stated that the cut in apparatus staffing or the shutting of that fire station or the brown-outs “will not impact service levels.” Please.
The best way to prove the link between staffing and firefighter/civilian safety is to break down what happens on the fireground and how many firefighters it takes to do those things. Educate them. No emotions—just facts.
Of course, when you’re going from a three- to four-person engine down to a one- or two-person company, or shutting down companies, it’s extremely difficult not to get emotional—our oath is to save lives and save property. Thirty-nine years ago, I took the same oath as everyone else did. But let’s not be stupid and continue to do more with less, because if we are, they will continue to slice and dice our budgets and we’ll continue to bury civilians and firefighters who DID NOT have to die.
And remember: lives and property aren’t equal. No fire officer should be putting a crew inside to save someone’s dress when it’s obvious that the lightweight truss house is ready to collapse—especially when resources may have been cut or have not yet arrived. I understand some may claim to be ready to “lay their lives on the line” for a dress—but that’s why, these days, most fire departments encourage psychological testing prior to hire.
On the other hand, if the wearer of the dress is still inside, and conditions indicate we may have a shot, even a slight shot, to save them, we should and will absolutely take extreme risks.
The answer to your question is yes. Firefighters and civilians have absolutely and unnecessarily died due to low or inappropriate staffing by fire departments. And that’s emotional. But the quicker the citizens get emotional about OUR non-emotional efforts of educating them with the facts, the better chance we have to help them—and us—survive. It’s absolutely measurable, well before the next emotional fire.
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FireRescue's fearlessly opinionated Nozzlehead has been the fire service's go-to advisor since November 2001. His decades of experience in the fire service make him well qualified to offer up 2,000-psi of free-flowing opinion each month on everything from firehouse hazing to freelancing. If you have a fire service question, concern or comment -- and are looking for an answer with attitude -- send a letter to Nozzlehead c/o FireRescue, 525 B St. Ste. 1800, San Diego, CA 92101, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read Full Bio