With the current economic climate and municipal budgets constantly under attack, municipal officials are endlessly scrutinizing the necessity for and deployment of fire department personnel. As a result, fire company staffing has become a hot topic.
Because of the nature of our work, we can’t safely operate without a certain number of personnel. In other words, to send us to a fire with inadequate staffing would be irresponsible at best; at worst, deadly.
In this article, we’ll highlight three basic facts regarding staffing:
- The job of firefighting requires firefighters. Hoselines won’t deploy themselves, and there’s no firefighting robot we’re currently aware of that can function at or above a human firefighter’s level.
- Time affects life. By reducing the amount of time it takes to perform fireground tasks—specifically, deploying a hoseline—the better the outcome for the victim and the firefighters.
- Time directly correlates to the number of firefighters available. The more firefighters on the fireground, the less time it takes to complete a task
These points should be fairly obvious and familiar, in part because of two documents: NFPA 1710: Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments (2010 ed.), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)’s Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments. We’ll discuss these documents and challenge some of their guidelines as they relate to the deployment of the engine company, staffing levels and our primary mission of deploying hoselines.
Matters of Time
NFPA 1710 was first released in 2001 and contains staffing standards for predominantly career departments (NFPA 1720 addresses volunteer and combination departments) pertaining to the organization and deployment of firefighting operations. In their guidelines, both NFPA 1710 and the NIST study use a typical 2,000-square-foot, two-story, single-family, residential structure as their structural example.
With relation to engine company ops, the NFPA standard discusses turnout time, travel time and arrival time of the initial full assignment; it also details the number of firefighters that should be assigned to each type of apparatus and their expected roles on the fireground.
Turnout time is the time from the receipt of the alarm to the apparatus leaving the firehouse, and it’s one of the main response time factors that we have direct control over. NFPA 1710 recommends a turnout time of less than 80 seconds for fire responses. For our department, less than 60 seconds is the standard, and that’s plenty of time, but we continue to scrutinize our performance, response times and reasons for delays in response times.
To decrease your turnout time, ask yourself, how fast does my crew get out of the house? Is our gear set up by the apparatus, ready to be donned? Have we practiced donning our equipment so we know how long it takes us to complete? It may sound pretty basic, but shaving seconds off of your turnout time is much safer than your driver trying to qualify for NASCAR.
Travel time is the time from the end of turnout time to your arrival on the fireground. Myriad factors play a part in travel time, many of which we can’t directly affect–the distance between the firehouse location and the incident location, the conditions of the roads we must take to get there, traffic, etc. Hopefully, however, your firehouses are at least positioned strategically within your community, so that your travel time is as minimized as possible.
Two ways in which we can affect our travel time is by staying in our first-due district as much as possible and being intimately familiar with it. Of course, you should never have to look up directions to an address in your first-alarm area. It’s your responsibility as a firefighter, apparatus driver or company officer to know your response area. Specifically, you must know the most direct route to the given address, which should take in to account traffic patterns, time of day and water supply (but don’t be surprised to see the truck following you if/when you go slightly out of the way to catch a hydrant).
Tip: When you’re the second-due engine, be sure to discuss routes ahead of time to take into account the water supply. The most direct route may be taken by the first-due engine so they can secure the closest water source. You may need to take an alternate route to find a second water source.
Remember: The key to knowing your area is to study it. Drive the district, and do a street drill on the white board in the evening. Once your company has mastered the streets, add the hydrants.
Of course, there are many reasons beyond our control that can take a company out of district—training, administrative issues, maintenance, etc. But it never fails—the one time you stray out of your district just for a few minutes is when you get dispatched to the opposite end of your response area! Although it may be a challenge at times, unless you’re responding on mutual aid, do yourself a favor and stay in your first-due area.
We can also affect travel time by altering our driving speed. The most important crewmember in the first few minutes of a response is the apparatus driver. If we don’t arrive in one piece, we can’t help anybody. Shave seconds off of your response by reducing your turnout time in the firehouse, not on the road. As we said, this isn’t NASCAR—if it were, we’d only make left turns.
The arrival time is obvious—it’s the time at which you arrive at the scene of the incident, and it should be completed within eight minutes. But who should be arriving? NFPA 1710 states that there should be a minimum of 15 firefighters on the initial assignment to accomplish all fireground tasks; however, in many of the classes we teach, students complete a fireground needs assessment to determine the number and type of apparatus needed for a one-room fire in a four-unit apartment building—and the results exceed 15 firefighters. We understand that we’re comparing a single-family residence with a multi-dwelling, but the immediate question this brings to mind is, do your alarm assignments differentiate between the two?
Engine Company Staffing
NFPA 1710 recommends that each company be staffed with four firefighters, including a company officer, and that the company officer must remain as part of the company; they can’t stay outside the building as command. The standard further outlines that one firefighter will staff the pump, one firefighter will secure the water supply and two firefighters will advance the hoseline.
We too have always maintained that the company officer must remain with the company to properly supervise their personnel and oversee their safety. But remember: This is based on a “typical” two-story, single-family dwelling. The more complex the structure becomes, the more firefighters it will take to deploy the line. The standard does acknowledge this fact, and recommends five to six personnel for high tactical hazards (high-rises, large commercial occupancies, industrial complexes, large multi-dwellings, geographical restrictions, etc.) or increased incident frequency.
The four-firefighter NFPA staffing standard also applies to departments that respond with a quint-type apparatus, but only if the crew is expected to perform engine company operations. If the quint crew is expected to perform both engine and truck work simultaneously, they should be staffed with additional personnel.
The NIST Study
NIST’s Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments also investigated the effects of varying crew size, arrival time, response time, overall task completion and the interior tenability of the structure, and it resulted in proving the effectiveness of four-person staffing as recommended by NFPA 1710.
Again, this study used the same “typical” 2,000-square-foot, two-story, single-family dwelling example used in the NFPA standard. Specifically, NIST constructed a 2,000-square-foot burn building and performed multiple experimental evolutions using engine company staffing levels that ranged from two to five personnel.
With regard to engine company operations, the study involved three engines: The first-arriving engine performed a size-up, wrapped but did not connect to a hydrant close to the structure, and advanced a line to the fire. The second engine completed the hydrant connection by pumping the supply line to the first engine and deploying a back-up line to the base of the interior stairs, which were a few feet inside the front door. The third engine performed RIT operations.
It’s important to note that the water supply for this entire scenario depends on a single source. We’ve repeatedly recommended that each engine provide its own uninterrupted water supply, because if the hydrant fails in this scenario, there’s no back-up other than the apparatus tank. If both engines had to make independent hydrant connections, the time/staffing ratio would be greater.
That said, we also understand that this is a local practice and therefore not necessarily followed in other jurisdictions. But we encourage other departments to consider their local operations and how staffing requirements might differ based on those operations (operations that differ from those applied in this study).
As a requirement of NFPA 1403: Standard on Live-Fire Training Evolutions, all participants had to tour the fire structure and become familiar with the building layout. Although we understand the requirement, allowing participants to tour the structure gives them a huge advantage over firefighters on a real-life fireground.
There would also be a greater disparity between three firefighters and four firefighters in an unknown environment. Further, the fire was on the first floor of the structure. Had the fire been on the second floor, the time disparity between staffing levels would also have been greater.
The bottom line: Although the NIST study provides excellent data, it was created in a best-case scenario environment. Unfortunately, those are not the conditions we often find ourselves in. As a result, there would most likely be a greater disparity between the staffing levels in an unknown, real-world environment and those used in the NIST study; however, the NIST findings greatly underscore the need for sufficient staffing in real-world incidents.
A Final Note
The NFPA recommendations and the NIST study are great first steps toward justifying the need for sufficient personnel on our fire companies, but everything comes down to a major theme of this article: time.
In a fire response, time is our enemy. The faster we can complete our fireground tasks, the faster we can provide a safer environment for ourselves and the community we’ve sworn to protect. The faster the fire goes out, the faster the danger to occupants goes away. The silver bullet to defeating the issue of time: We must sufficiently staff our engines so they can quickly and effectively accomplish their mission.
We challenge the fire service to use NFPA 1710 (and 1720 for volunteer and combination departments) and the NIST report to review their staffing levels and to evaluate the time and staffing requirements in accordance with their standard operating guidelines.