Estimating Staffing Requirements
The number of people needing assistance may be unknown
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2007
By Ben Klaene & Russ Sanders
Determining the number of firefighters required to conclude an operation is vital when confronted with a working fire in a building occupied by many people. The initial incident commander (IC), usually a company officer, must evaluate critical factors and develop an initial incident action plan. When developing this plan, the IC must complete an initial size-up, making civilian and firefighter safety the priorities.
Often the number and condition of occupants endangered by the fire is unknown. As more information becomes available, the IC reevaluates the size-up information and refines the incident action plan. However, at most structure fires, the exact number of people requiring rescue assistance is unknown until a primary search is completed.
To develop a proper size-up, pre-plan information and incident conditions must be analyzed and compared to available resources. An ongoing, effective size-up constantly anticipates additional resource needs, and the experienced IC orders those resources dispatched to the scene before the need is evident to an inexperienced officer. While waiting for more units to arrive, on-scene units should attempt extinguishment, ventilation, and primary search and rescue when staffing and conditions permit.
An early morning fire in an apartment complex, for example, is a situation requiring many firefighters. In this scenario, an unknown number of occupants escaped before the fire department arrived. These self-evacuees may be in need of medical assistance, but they do not present a search-and-rescue problem. Some residents are asleep and unaware of the fire. These occupants are potentially at high risk and must be alerted, evacuated from the building, or possibly rescued. Other occupants are aware of the fire but unable to escape due to fire or structural conditions. These occupants will definitely need assistance, possibly ladder rescues. Victims remaining inside the building and incapacitated by the fire present a significant staffing challenge, as these occupants must be located by a search team, physically removed from the building, and provided with medical care. A fully staffed fire company plus an EMS unit may be needed to assist an incapacitated victim.
The offensive/defensive decision is based on a risk-versus-benefit analysis. In many cases, an offensive fire attack is the most important life-safety tactic. When occupants are endangered, the higher level of risk associated with an offensive attack may be acceptable. Therefore, determining the evacuation status of the building is vital.
The building’s occupancy type provides a clue regarding the occupied status of a building. Nursing homes and jails are occupied at all times. Schools and business occupancies are in use during working hours. Other occupancies, such as residential properties, are likely to be occupied at night. Remember that any building, including vacant structures, could be occupied at any time. Evacuation status is determined using pre-incident plans, visual observations, occupant information, and reconnaissance.
Pre-incident plan information and incident-specific information are evaluated as they relate to the operational priorities of life safety, extinguishment, and property conservation, with life safety being the highest. Any building that poses an unusually high risk to firefighters or occupants should be pre-planned.
Never assume a building is vacant simply because people reporting the fire or those at the fire scene, even if they are occupants of the building, tell you it is. Conversely, people reporting the fire and those at the scene may report that victims are trapped when no one is in the building. Reports from occupants and observers at the scene should be only one piece of information to consider in the IC’s ongoing risk-versus-benefit analysis.
Fire companies operating inside and outside the structure should provide vital reconnaissance to the IC. If the first-due units extinguish the fire while conducting a primary search, the life-safety objective can normally be completed by on-scene resources. However, if the fire is not controlled by first-due units, or on-scene units are unable to complete the primary search, additional resources will be needed. In these instances, an experienced IC will anticipate the additional needs and call for help well in advance, including the establishment of a strategic reserve.
The number of firefighters needed for rescue depends on the number of occupants inside the building. Other factors include:
Consider a fire in a multi-level nursing home that has extended beyond the room of origin and is filling the building with smoke. The fire occurs late at night during freezing weather. An entire fire company may be needed to rescue each person still in the immediate fire area. If a place of safe refuge cannot be found inside the building, occupants will need to be carried to grade level outside then transported to a medical facility or nearby shelter. Most occupants will require emergency medical care and transportation by an EMS vehicle. Ladder rescues probably would not be needed due to multiple exit paths, but when ladder rescues are needed, they can require considerable staffing.
One person at a window requires firefighters to raise a ladder, assist the victim onto the ladder, and assist the person while they descend or possibly carry them down the ladder. Once rescued, occupants will probably need medical treatment and transportation. As with rescuing an incapacitated person, this single rescue could require an entire company to perform the rescue plus EMS personnel to treat the victims after they are removed from the building. When occupants requiring ladder rescues are at several windows, the incident would immediately become a multiple alarm fire and in many departments would require mutual aide.
Victims visible at windows, on balconies, and at other locations may need assistance, but are not always the first rescue priority. There is a tendency to assist visible victims at the expense of addressing more critical tasks, such as attacking the fire or finding incapacitated occupants trapped inside the structure.
Many other rescue scenarios require large numbers of firefighters and equipment. It is a good idea to develop scenario-based training as an extension to the pre-incident planning process. The IC at a working structure fire must have sufficient staffing to extinguish or at least contain the fire, ventilate the building, conduct search-and-rescue operations, remove victims to a place of safe refuge, treat and transport the injured, control utilities, and provide for initial property conservation.
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Estimating staff requirements