Minimum Staffing and “Extra” Personnel

As a background for those of you who are not familiar, my Department is staffed 24/7 with a minimum of 29 personnel on 11 pieces of equipment. Thankfully, years ago, a minimum staffing SOP was put into place by the Chief of Department at the time. To this day, this minimum staffing standard stands. The number of personnel on-shift cannot drop below 29. Period. Our department’s day-to-day minimum staffing includes (3) personnel per Engine w/ 8 Engines and 1 Rescue Engine, (1) personnel on the Ladder, and (1) Chief.

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This is something that many departments across the country do not have. Staffing is a problem nationwide, and even in todays economic times…public safety isn’t always protected. As far as career staffed firehouses, they are laying off firefighters, browning out companies, and even closing firehouses all together in some places.

While the most desirable dates for vacation/holiday time is not in early January, it leads to us being staffed above minimum some days during the first and sometimes last months of the year. As the temperatures get warmer, personnel schedule their days off to enjoy the outside activities with their families. This past week has been one of those where we have  had normal staffing on our apparatus (staffing of 4 personnel). I am always sure to refer to anything above minimum as “normal” rather than “extra.” While some sources list the words extra and additional to be synonyms, these terms seem to be deceiving.

extra: an item above what is strictly necessary.

Within my department, a typical residential structure fire response includes (4) Engines, (1) Ladder, and a Chief placing 14 personnel on the fire scene. This is the minimum, and the Shift Commander can request additional units based on dispatch information received. Any “high risk” or commercial fire warrants an Engine added to the assignment.

tranbarger1On Tuesday, our brothers on B-shift caught a structure fire around 11PM. With it being a night where staffing was above minimum, we are able to put more personnel on-scene and work more efficiently due to that. Tuesday night, the response included 5 Engines (3 Engines w/ 3 personnel, 1 Engine w/ 4 personnel, 1 Engine w/ 5 personnel), a Ladder COMPANY w/ 3 personnel, a Rescue truck w/ 1 personnel, and a Chief. If my math serves me correctly, that is 23 personnel on the fire ground.

As crews arrived, they had heavy smoke visible from the structure. Due to the layout, it was believed that the residence may be divided up into two units. Two fire attack crews advanced in the structure with hoselines (different entry points), and they met up inside once they discovered it to be one residence. This was due to several additions that had been added to the residence. As crews operated inside with minimal smoke conditions, the fire vented out of the roof of the structure. Once crews quickly realized the fire was located in the attic, they quickly pulled ceiling to allow them to begin a knockdown of the fire.

While the crews were operating inside the structure, other crews were setting up RIT, throwing ground ladders, and continuously monitoring conditions. The work was being done simultaneously as crews were attacking the fire on the interior. A ventilation crew was able to ladder the roof and make a ventilation hole in the roof.

Firefighters are problem solvers. We work with continuously changing situations on a regular basis. If you give us a problem or a task, we will not stop until it is complete. When staffing levels are at 4 personnel per apparatus, it allows us to work in an organized manner to accomplish our tasks in a timely and effective manner. I have heard of tabletop scenarios taking place where the individuals participating have “unlimited” resources. While this may help with ensuring all the bases are covered, the majority of the fire service members do not have this luxury. There are certain tasks that HAVE to be completed on the fire ground. STAFFING doesn’t necessarily effect whether all of the tasks get completed, but it has more of an effect on how quickly the tasks are completed.

If apparatus would have only responded with 14 personnel that night, would the fire still have been put out? YES! Would the roof still have been ventilated? YES! Would the house have still been searched? YES!

Our department is very blessed to have a minimum staffing SOP requiring a certain number of personnel on each piece of apparatus, and the community benefits as a result of that. I am proud that my department and my city understands the need to place personnel on the scene in a timely manner to mitigate the situation. There are departments out there that are running with one or two guys on a rig on a regular basis. While we can all list a number of departments that have 4 or 5 per unit, we all will do the best with what they give us. If you’ve read this article thinking that I am complaining in the least bit, you are wrong. My intentions are only to draw attention to the difference that additional personnel on the apparatus can make. The citizens are safer, the firefighters are safer, and often times, more property can be saved due to a normal staffing level.

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In closing, Cpt Wines of IronFiremen.com recently published a post titled, Gambling with Firefighter’s Lives. In that post, he writes about his rookie who is currently leaving the city to work for a smaller department closer to his home. Cpt. Wines talks about how this department, as well as many others across the country are gambling with firefighter’s lives. The National Fallen Firefighter Foundation recently released the results from the Tampa 2 conference, and are pushing to minimize our Line of Duty Deaths. They believe that “Under 50” is an obtainable goal, especially since many of the deaths that occur each year are preventable. If you haven’t seen the video below, you need to WATCH it!

Staffing matters.