Staffing levels in a fire department can determine the successful or unsuccessful outcome of an incident. As per Fire Engineering, “Over the past three decades, fire department response has expanded to include emergency medical services, terrorism response, hazardous materials response and mitigation, natural disaster response, specialized rescue, and responses to other community needs” (Wilson 89-90). In addition, “Minimum staffing has become one of the most controversial subjects in the history of the fire service” (Vatter 1).
To handle all of these different rescues and responses, there are three scenarios for staffing a fire department; the career departments, the totally volunteer departments, and the combination of career and volunteer departments. Career departments have responders available 24/7; however, their funding is controlled by the local, county, or state authority that employs them. Volunteer fire departments depend only on volunteers to staff and respond to fires and are struggling to have enough responders available to adequately dispatch to a fire incident.
The combination system has various forms, but ultimately it involves having some career staff and some volunteer staff to meet the needs and goals of the organization. While each of these scenarios for staffing a fire department provides community emergency services, they each have advantages and disadvantages due to budget cuts, personnel availability, and minimum staffing requirements. To begin, Although career fire departments are the best staffed of the three scenarios, their staffing is dependent on the budget imposed by the political subdivision that governs that specific department.
According to Kevin Wilson, the unofficial motto of the fire service has been, “Do more with less” (85). Paid fire departments are the best staffed scenarios for fire departments; however, because there are standards set forth through NFPA 1500, NFPA 1710 and NFPA 1722 in the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook (Wilson 89), meeting the minimum required staffing is a challenge due to budget restrictions. The community benefits of having a 24/7 staffed fire department at their disposal is a great sense of peace for all members of the community.
They know that if an emergency occurs, someone will be there to help them very quickly. However, as budgets and state laws limit funding, staffing is cut to stay within the budget. Staffing decreases due to budget cuts greatly reduces the number of calls a fire company can respond to and how effective they will be when they arrive. For instance, “The Newburgh (NY) Fire Department has experienced its share of force reductions, dropping from a 21-person shift prior to 1965 to as low as an eight-person shift from the mid-1980s until 1994” (Vatter 1).
This is a career fire department and is funded through New York State law. Originally, in 1964, fire fighters worked a 52 hour work week; however, in 1974, when New York State Law mandated everyone work 40 hours, it did not allow them to hire any more firefighters to pick up the slack. Therefore, they had to go from a shift strength of 21 to a shift strength of 18 (Vatter 1). As a result of these staff cuts, injuries to fire fighters rose substantially.
Then, in the 1980’s, the state budget again mandated a reduction in work force which took their average shift strength down to 12 people to operate one ladder, one engine, the chief and a firefighter dispatcher; some shifts went as low as 8 personnel. Unfortunately, the number of fires Newburgh was called upon to put out did not go down with the staff reductions. Due to the lack of responders on almost every fire call received, a firefighter was injured (Vatter 1).
In 1994, after reviewing how many injuries occurred due to the budget cuts, the city of Newburgh authorized more funds to increase the “minimum shift strength of 10 officers and firefighters and a civilian dispatcher. This provided a response capability of two engine companies and one ladder company, plus a chief officer” (Vatter 2). After the study of Newburgh Fire in 1999, in 2001, NFPA 1710 stated that the minimum staffing that should be sent to structure fire for a career department is 14.
Since the new standards in 2001, Newburgh Fire Department is back up to 60 career staff including 55 uniformed staff and 5 civilian staff members. Therefore, although it is beneficial for a community to have a fully funded fire department, budgets for these departments make staffing them to the desired potential extremely difficult. Similarly, volunteer fire companies rely solely on unpaid personnel face not only budget challenges, but staffing challenges in order to be effective and meet minimum staffing requirements.
Volunteer fire companies must rely on a minimal budget provided by their governing borough or township in order to make ends meet. They also must rely on company fund raising, grants, and private donations in order to purchase much needed gear, equipment, and training for their volunteers. While this scenario is advantageous to taxpayers because it keeps the borough or township taxes down, the biggest challenge for volunteer fire companies is having the staff available to respond to calls.
When there is no career staff in the company, many times having the minimum number of responders available to run the call is not possible. According to NFPA 1500, “a minimum of four individuals shall be required, consisting of two individuals working as a crew in the hazardous area and two individuals present outside this hazardous area available for assistance or rescue at emergency operations where entry into the danger area is required” (Wilson 85). Firefighting is based on the buddy system, therefore, a minimum of 4 responders have to be available to maintain this system.
As residential and business communities continue to grow, it is virtually impossible to keep up with the demands these volunteer companies are facing. In today’s world almost everyone works. A huge problem for volunteer companies is that during the day, the volunteers that are trained to staff the station are working, often quite a distance away from the station, which makes it impossible to get there in a timely manner. Also, even if they did work close by, the majority of employers are extremely unlikely to allow firefighters to take off from a paid job to go on a fire call.
It is not economical for the employer to allow this to happen, no matter how frequent or infrequently it would occur. In order to ensure the safety of the responders, NFPA 1720 for volunteer fire responders states, “The fire department shall identify minimum staffing requirements to ensure that a sufficient number of members are available to operate safely and effectively …. Upon assembling the necessary resources at the emergency scene, the fire department should have the capability to safely commence an initial attack within two minutes 90 percent of the time” (Wilson 86).
Also, it states that the minimum manning of fire fighters dispatched to a structure fire is 10 due to the buddy system that is set forth in NFPA 1720. Often, in order to be able to have enough responders to initiate the attack on the fire, multiple companies, sometimes as many as 6 companies, are needed to respond to each call. For instance, Swarthmore Fire Company and Morton Rutledge fire companies almost always respond simultaneously to fire calls because neither company generally has the resources available to safely commence an initial attack.
The consequences of this lack of staffing cause combined delays and lost functions of the crew which affects the overall outcome of a fire. Firefighters may have to use smaller hose stream lines until more staffing arrives which may have an adverse result regarding containment. Also, the responding personnel may try to do more than they are capable of during a fire causing injuries or fatalities as well as creating more property damage.
In addition, “Understaffing increases physiological stress on firefighters, as they try to compensate” (Wilson 88). Although volunteer fire companies work on a very small budget compared to career departments, they continue to struggle with both budget challenges and staffing challenges in order to be effective. Finally, the third option that fire departments are turning to in order to alleviate the staffing challenge is a combination system that has some career staff and some volunteer staff to meet the needs and goals of the organization.
The goal of this system is to protect and save more property and lives. In this scenario, there is a combination of career firefighters and volunteer firefighters. More and more municipalities are turning to this scenario due to the challenges of staffing. The municipalities using this option gain the advantage of guaranteed shift staffing during key, low volunteer response, hours, and still maintain a relatively small budget to provide the necessary emergency services.
Some variations include a full time combination with a 24 hour Fire and EMS arrangement, there is a full time, cross staffed version that is 24 hour Fire/EMS trained person, there is a day time only Fire/EMS type, and finally a driver only combination. With these versions, there is a pre-determined number of personnel assigned to separately staff apparatus and ambulances 24 hours a day (Karlunas). However, some of the disadvantages of having only a couple of career firefighters is that if they are in the house, they will be deployed first no matter what the call is.
For instance, if an EMS trained firefighter is on duty and a call comes in for a structure fire, he will be dispatched to that because he is there; however, if a call comes in a few minutes later requiring EMS services, it may have to be dispatched to a different fire company because the one on call for the covering area is already out on a fire call. This causes lost time and possible fatalities as a result of the lack of responders. Bottom line, anyone that is cross trained can only handle one emergency at a time.
If these 2 of 4 cross-staffed personnel are called out on a call, the other set is forced out of service due to not enough personnel to respond to the call. Another disadvantage of combination fire stations is that in some cases, career personnel and volunteer personnel are treated differently. According to Minnesota Fire Chief magazine, some of the reason there is tension with a combination fire company is because, ”Their training requirements are different and the tasks they get to perform at emergency scenes are different” (“Firin’ Advice” 10). Also, some stations have one apparatus for the career staff and one for the volunteer staff.
If a fire company can get over the initial tensions between what the volunteers may perceive as encroachment on their territory, having the personnel available during the day time when volunteers are at work would provide more coverage and better service for all members of the community. Also, in a combination fire department, some volunteers may leave as a result of the career staff. Many volunteers are dedicated to the function of fighting fires and are offended by the addition of paid personnel taking their spot whether they can be there during the daytime hours or not.
It is up to the chiefs of these departments that are struggling with retention of volunteers because, “one of the biggest reasons that volunteers leave after departments become combination is they don’t feel appreciated or needed any more” (“Firin’ Advice” 11). Although some very tradition volunteer firefighters do not like the combination model, it is becoming a necessary way of handling fire calls. The volunteers simply can not make the calls, especially during the day time working hours, and the usage of 911 has exponentially increased the number of emergency calls.
Therefore, although there are several disadvantages for utilizing some form of combination fire staffing, in today’s world, the advantages gained by using this scenario are making its usage necessary in order to protect the safety of not only the firefighters, but the people they are trying to protect. According to insurance companies, fire departments around the country are having difficulty meeting the funding, personnel availability, and minimum staffing requirements in all types of fire departments: career, volunteer, and combination (Cobb 34).
One way fire departments can utilize to combat budget cuts and obtain money for staffing, equipment, and training is to apply for grants. In 2005, the federal government created the, “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Program, to help fund additional career firefighters for local fire departments and to support volunteer fire departments with their recruitment and retention efforts” (Cobb 34). As a result of this program, “local fire department capabilities and firefighter safety by supporting staffing, apparatus, equipment, training, and firefighter safety and fitness” (Cobb 34).
In addition to SAFER grants, there are Community Development Block Grants, Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, and PA Volunteer Grant Program available to help fund these various types of fire departments. Unfortunately, some of these grants come with specific requirements such as: mandating that all personnel must be NSFA certified and carry other specialized credentials, companies may have to employ a better accounting system for their department to turn into the granting facility, and/or the funds may be matching funds (Karlunas).
However, funding directly affects how all fire departments are run. It doesn’t matter if it is a career station, a solely volunteer station, or a combination station, money is needed to train, maintain, and service the public they are dedicated to protect. While applying for grants is time consuming, it is an excellent opportunity for departments and local fire companies to receive the funds required in order to continue providing emergency services.