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Budget Cuts Make for Unsafe Departments

Issue 2 and Volume 4.

Dear Nozzlehead: I’m in a career fire department in New England and we’re taking a serious beating. We have no rules and regulations no high-visibility vests few standard operating procedures (SOPs)—and those are mostly about report writing not fireground safety—and no rapid-intervention team (RIT).

Recently a firefighter called a mayday that went unacknowledged by the incident commander (IC) and our combined police and fire dispatch. It was a three-alarmer sir. That firefighter was trapped.

Seven firefighters were injured five of whom did not return to work. And after all of this we still don’t have an RIT policy in place. This is the second time in a month a crewmember has been in trouble while protecting the citizens and property of this city. Are we going to wait until someone doesn’t go home to do something? With so many cities laying off and making cuts it’s a wonder we can survive. We need help. Do you have any ideas for a solution?

Nervous in New England

Dear Nervous
Many fire departments are in trouble these days and it’s no wonder. I mean did you hear about the West Coast assistant fire chief who’s accused of pummeling his neighbor’s puppy? Of course the chief maintains he was attacked by the dog and hit it a few dozen times only to defend himself.

Did you hear about the volunteer firefighters accused of arson? We see this headline nearly every week. This time it was four Western volunteer firefighters who were arrested in connection with at least 15 fires. The suspects allegedly set the fires to make money because their department’s firefighters get paid for each fire they fight. Cha-ching!

Yep between the beatings and the budgets it’s tough out there. And then there are the leadership issues from leading with what you have to just trying to maintain what you have. Some people get it; some don’t. Here’s one who clearly does not: The mayor of one Midwest city says a drop in fire-related deaths—from 14 in 2007 to six in 2008—should assuage critics of recent fire department budget cuts. Defending his move to cut the budget he said “You can see the decisions we’ve made have not had any impact on fire safety whatsoever.”

Like many mayors this one has sought to cut firefighter staffing during each of the past few years but the firefighter’s union (doing their job) pushed back in this battle. Of course the union president credited the reduction to department safety programs and the hard work of the firefighters who are doing more with less. Looks like that mayor is attempting to balance the city budget on the backs of firefighters—and he’s not alone.

Cities across the country are struggling with money issues. And quite frankly I don’t care. Now calm down. Relax. I really do care. Come to Papa Nozzlehead. Feel better now? But what I care about what you care about and what city officials care about may be totally different things.

What I care about is the fact that between the money and the leadership some departments are in deep trouble. Budget cuts are predictably going to cause problems that ultimately cost more than the initial cuts. When a fire department cuts staffing it’s predictable and unemotionally calcuable that there will be more loss. It’s really simple math.

Let’s take a look for example at a small house fire. You want water you want to advance some lines you want to vent you want to search—you know the stuff we have to do together around the same time. If a fire station is closed there can be no arguing about whether a fire near that closed fire station will burn longer. It will! And that’s kind of our goal: to cut the burn time and put the fire out. Cool concept. After all the more it burns the worse it is for the occupants the property itself the firefighters who have to operate in or near a structure that’s been burning longer. This is simple stuff people.

A fire department is only as good as its training its leadership available personnel and their ability to arrive quickly and safely and then operate so the incident gets better. Not much else matters if you’re going to hang a sign that says “fire department” outside the building.

Many fire chiefs get it. They understand what’s needed to do the job and take care of both groups of customers—the citizens and the firefighters. I mean if the firefighters (career or volunteer) aren’t taken care of fairly what kind of service will the tax-paying customers get? Both groups have to be taken care of and if you take care of the fire folks the “dialing 911” folks usually get taken care of too.

By not taking care of the fire folks Mayor Magoo is taking a chance—and yes he was elected to make decisions albeit good ones—but he’s doing it at great risk to both customer groups. Sometimes mayors have no choice but to do that. And sometimes they simply don’t like us. They think “I’ll show those &*%$(^* firefighters who’s boss!” Yes sir mayor. Just make sure you fully understand the potential consequences of your actions. Besides who are you really “showing”? The firefighters?
Smart firefighters and chiefs understand that they simply cannot perform at the same level as they did before cuts were made—and they don’t.

I’m not talking about work slowdowns or anything like that. I’m talking about the fact that we simply CANNOT do the work of 20 firefighters who previously arrived in 5 minutes when we now get 15 firefighters in 8 minutes. The fire won’t wait and eventually the Magoo will eat his words—and his customers will pay the price.

Nervous in New England your department has similar issues. Your leadership appears to not get it at the very core level. No SOPs? The results will be a department where each firefighter lieutenant captain and battalion chief will do things their way. Depending upon who is arriving when in what vehicle and what rank the fireground will become a free for all—a veritable orgy but without the good stuff. A fire department without SOPs is the equivalent of a football team without a playbook. We can take a chance and we may win but the odds are against us.

As far as the vest issue I’m not sure that’s the biggest concern. Yes I know how bad it is on the roadways but if they won’t buy you vests then pull your apparatus across the entire road and stop all traffic until you’re done. Talk to the cops ahead of time to ensure they understand that you’re protecting them your members and the customers. Actually maybe we should just block the roads—vests or no vests—to make it so we simply cannot get hit. Ugh here come the letters ….

Dear Nozzlehead
Section ABC-DEFG of Federal Code 1234 sub section E-I-E-I-O says you CANNOT BLOCK THE ROADWAY the way you described.  —Thank You

Dear Thank You
Until we do that firefighters and cops will continue to be hit. Little else will work when a bright reflective 200-lb. firefighter EMT or police officer is allowed to be struck by an “I didn’t see you” ’69 Buick. —Nozzlehead

Nervous I think the issues you and your members need to be most concerned about are those related to fireground SOPs command control and communications staffing and rapid intervention—and it all kind of goes hand in hand. I covered the need for SOPs (and the need for training on those SOPs so everyone operates in a similar manner) above but one of the biggest concerns I have is this: A firefighter’s call for help went unanswered. That’s a serious problem.

When a chief must commit members to the interior there’s little option but to make sure that if they call for help they get an immediate response both by radio and the subsequent actions we take. Incident command is often understaffed without sufficient assistance outside of the building.

Additionally all too often the dispatchers are not monitoring the fire channels or they’re too busy or distracted to hear that call for help. Quite frankly if your department cannot provide those resources to ensure a mayday call gets answered I would have serious reservations about the interior ability of your department.

Now cue the whining: “WE WANNA GO INSIDE!”

Sure you do; so do I but I would like some assurance that if things turn ugly while I’m in there someone has my back. And if command doesn’t and the dispatch center doesn’t and there isn’t a designated rescue team for RIT then who does? It seems at some point without SOPs and the other issues I’ve addressed your chief may have created an exterior firefighting department—and not even know it. Or worse yet perhaps you have a chief who thinks his department can continue operating the way it does and he doesn’t even realize he has a problem that could rock his world in the most devastating way.