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Who Are We Kidding?

    Who are we kidding?  One or two people in a fire station or on a fire truck is not a "crew."  It is at best, part of a crew.  It is a person, or a couple of people, that under average conditions can handle some of the minor incidents. But, under other conditions (like when anything serious is happening...fires and higher priority ems calls) they may only start doing something while waiting for 'the rest of the crew' to arrive.  The definition of a crew can be argued, but it's reasonable to consider 3 people to be the minimum 'crew' capable of operating safely and efficiently, working together at a call of any consequence (fire or ems). The NFPA recommends no less than 4 personnel on scene (2 in, 2 out rule) for making an initial entry into a hazardous atmosphere (smoke). We know some incidents are handled by one crew (of 3) with the third person sometimes coming from another station.  Other incidents require several crews (of 3-4 each) to handle a call. It used to be that an 'engine crew' meant 5 personnel and a 'ladder crew' was 6 personnel. Technology has improved a little and fewer people can do more in some cases (like setting up an aerial ladder rather than ground ladders), but it still comes down to having enough people to do the job. 

   Unfortunately, the perception by some in the public is that when the lights are on in a firehouse or when a fire truck (or ambulance) shows up at a scene, it is properly staffed and ready to do business.  The public may not understand how many people it takes to perform certain tasks, but they assume that we (the fire department) are appropriately staffed and equipped to do our job.  Staffing a vehicle with 2 people (or less!) is ARTIFICIAL STAFFING.  It has given the public (and town managers, etc...) the impression that two people is all you need to do the job.  When times get tough, as they now have in some towns recently, and one of the two is laid off, the public thinks the fire department has cut some of the 'fat' and saved a few bucks.  The fact is, there was no fat, in fact there was barely any meat on the bone to start with.  Now, the bone itself is all that's left and bones don't do much work without some muscle.  Fire departments must have people, enough people, to do what is expected of them.  If they don't, they can not do their job.  Sneaking by over the years with one or two people on a truck, hoping others will show up to fill in the crew, has come back to bite some departments right where it hurts, and shame on us for not educating our town managers and the citizens better, about what it takes to protect and serve THEM. We need to do better and soon.

   Does a community have an obligation to provide its citizens with fire protection?  Does a community, in 2005, have an obligation to provide its citizens with an ambulance staffed with paramedics?  Does a community have an obligation to have  inspectional officer(s) to conduct fire prevention activities?  Does a community have an obligation to its citizens to protect the 'general good' and safety of the community any more?  Have taxes gotten so out of whack that we can't afford a basic fire and ems department any more?  Have the town leaders forgotten lessons from the past?  Are we headed back to the days of burning down half the town before we realize 'we outta have fire protection?'  Where the heck is all the money going and are the priorities messed up or what?  How did we get into this mess anyway?

    At one time, most towns did not have a fire department.  When a fire would break out, and someone would notice it, they would run to the local church and ring the bells (before the so called 'separation of church and state' apparently) to alert the towns people that something was up.  I guess those people then ran into the street to look for smoke or a glow in the sky.  People would grab their brooms, rakes, shovels, buckets, or whatever, and gather at the fire scene to help their fellow citizen remove what they could (usually the bed and whatever other belongings could be saved) from their home or barn before it burned to the ground.  If the owner was lucky, he might actually get the smaller fires out with a little help from his neighbors if they arrived at the right time. 

    Somewhere along the line, the people of the community made a decision to organize a fire department. Quite honestly (first lesson) the fire department was usually formed AFTER a major fire had already destroyed an important building or half the town first. The decision meant (1) purchasing fire equipment (extinguishers, hooks, ladders, or even a fire engine), (2) establishing a place to keep the equipment (fire house), and last but not least (3) organizing a group of people into a fire department.  In most cases, the establishment of a fire department was a financial commitment, but not a huge burden since the costs were relatively low and the benefit was relatively high. An organized fire department may have consisted of 20-30 people or more for each station, with several pieces of fire and rescue equipment. Typically, first fire departments were volunteer departments, and with no labor costs, you could have plenty of volunteers, and you needed plenty of them. Firefighting is very labor intensive. While it is still labor intensive today, it was much more so in the early days, before the advantages of modern apparatus, equipment, training, and communications.

    Volunteer fire departments were followed by 'call' fire departments.  The difference being, members were paid nominal sums of money when they responded to calls.  It wasn't a lot of money, perhaps a dollar or two an hour, but it did provide a little incentive and compensation for people who had to leave their job or family to serve the community.  This increased the operating expenses of the fire department, but was still a real good value, even when you paid 20-30 people $2.00 or so an hour to put out a fire or respond to a rescue a few times a week.

    As the volume of calls increased in communities (particularly with the addition of the ambulance) , it became increasingly difficult to get people to respond to calls, particularly during weekdays.  People were either unable to leave their jobs or worked out of town.  To address this problem, some departments began hiring 'fulltime' firemen to cover calls, especially during weekdays.  A couple men working Monday through Friday did the trick.  These people were supplemented by available call personnel during the day and everyone worked together at night. That system worked pretty well for a while.

    As communities continued to grow, and call volumes increased during the 1970s-1980s, and the expected (required) levels of training increased (ie: Firefighter I, II, EMT, Paramedic, etc..), it became more difficult to handle some of the calls with just a few fulltime people supplemented by call personnel.  Some call people, finding it economically difficult to leave their paid jobs to go on calls that did not pay anywhere near the same money, either became less available or quit departments all together. With the increasing numbers of calls, several a day (600-1000 calls), it became more necessary to hire more fulltime personnel, at fulltime firefighter wages, to make up the difference. Coverage was extended to 7 days a week and eventually to 24 hours a day with a core crew or fulltime firefighters (perhaps only 2-3), still supplemented by off duty and call personnel.

    It wasn't long before fire departments were doing 2-3 times as many ems calls as fire calls. Additional firefighter/emts and firefighter/paramedics were added to handle the increasing numbers of calls.  During the 1990s, a major shift occurred in many towns, where economically it became more difficult for call personnel to devote the required time and effort needed to meet increasing training requirements and other expectations, that in many cases exceeded their ability to give back in calls. Many call people either got hired fulltime or quit the fire service all together.  Recruitment of replacements was ineffective in many cases, with a lot of effort and little return.  Unable to recruit and maintain call personnel, departments were forced to hire additional (and more expensive) fulltime firefighters. While there were fewer of them, overall costs were significantly higher.  

    So as some fire departments transitioned from all call fire departments with 20-30 personnel per station, to combination fulltime / call departments with perhaps 2-3 fulltime firefighters on duty and 10-20 people backing them up, doing double the volume of calls, the departments became stretched thinner and thinner.  As personnel were committed to calls (transporting to hospitals, etc) off duty and/or call personnel would come in to fill the empty fire stations until they got back.  Sometimes, no one was available to come back and no one would be in the stations, or worse, no one would respond to the calls to backup the few on duty people. Eventually some departments had to put on additional personnel to be able to handle 2 or 3 calls at once, with perhaps one crew in each of 2 or 3 fire stations in town.  When the number of call personnel became too small to count on (less than 8 or so) and less cost effective to maintain,  some departments moved to completely fulltime departments. 

    So, today the situation is like this.  Many departments no longer have call departments, or the call departments are quite small.  Some are 100% fulltime departments.  Staffing may be 2-3 personnel per fire station.  When there is a call, the 'crew' of 2-3 will take either the fire engine or the ambulance to the call.  The period of time that the crew is committed on the call may be an hour or more.  Some departments call people back in to cover the empty station (to maintain service and limit delays in response time), while other departments may simply leave the station un-staffed until the 'un duty' crew returns.  Typically, there are a large number of multiple calls (simultaneous calls).  This creates a challenge to many departments that are already stretched thin on staffing or have limited personnel to call back off duty.  Mutual aid helps, but it takes longer to reach scenes and it isn't always available. Many fulltime firefighters have other obligations (jobs, family, etc...) that reduce their availability when off duty.

    So what is the answer?   How many on duty personnel are needed in a community?  How can towns fund the appropriate level of staffing?  Are there ways to make things work better?  Is ARTIFICIAL STAFFING a problem or not?   Who are we kidding?  It is a real challenge of our time and we need to come up with some honest answers, educate our taxpayers and town officials, and do what it takes to make sure we are able to do our jobs efficiently, safely, and cost effectively for our citizens.  THINK ABOUT IT!  Stay safe.