How Many Is Enough?
Using science and experience to justify fire service staffing levels
NFPA Journal, March/April 2011
During these difficult economic times, many communities around the country are finding it necessary to reduce expenditures. Safety services such as fire and police often represent a major part of a community’s operating budget, and therefore become likely targets for cost reductions. In jurisdictions protected by career fire departments, where the vast majority of the available funding goes toward paying firefighter salaries, the question becomes, "How do you defend adequate staffing levels when challenged to cut the budget?"
NFPA 1710, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, answers that question by itemizing the minimum staffing needed to effectively conduct an offensive operation in a typical two-story, 2,000-square-foot (186-square-meter), single-family residential structure that does not have a basement. Larger and more complex buildings, or instances in which exposures are threatened, require additional staffing.
Unfortunately, many city administrators challenge NFPA 1710, arguing that it is merely an opinion. However, the Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments, released last year by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and available at nist.gov, provides the scientific evidence needed to validate the requirements enumerated in NFPA 1710.
The overall objective at a structure fire is to fully use available resources to conduct a safe and effective fireground operation. Inadequate staffing has a negative effect on safety and effectiveness, and may force the incident commander to conduct a defensive operation when a more effective offensive operation could save lives and property. The required tasks outlined in NFPA 1710 call for 14 firefighters (15 if an aerial ladder is at the scene) to conduct a safe and effective offensive operation.
NFPA 1710 divides a department’s response to a fire into two major elements: initial response and full response. Once dispatched, the initial response of at least four firefighters should arrive at the scene with a pump apparatus within five minutes and 20 seconds, and they should be able to meet this mark 90 percent of the time. The full response of at least 14 firefighters should be on scene within nine minutes and 20 seconds. Does your department meet or exceed this benchmark? How would a reduction in force affect your response times and staffing levels?
The longer a fire burns, the greater the threat it presents to firefighters and occupants, and the greater the damage it will likely cause to the property involved and the surrounding environment. The temperature in the fire area rises as the fire progresses toward flashover, which becomes a critical variable. Occupant survival is highly unlikely in a flashover, and firefighters are in grave danger inside a flashover compartment.
A building’s structural components will also be attacked as the temperature rises. Certain types of truss construction exposed to fire will fail early, whereas fire-resistive construction will probably survive flashover and even burnout in many cases. In most types of construction, a fire confined to one compartment will break out and travel into concealed spaces and other rooms as it gains in intensity. Understanding how various construction methods react to fire is crucial to a good safety size-up, as is knowing the type of construction in larger buildings in your jurisdiction through pre-incident planning.
Response time is a key element when evaluating fire defenses and necessary staffing levels. The longer a fire burns out of control, the more likely it is to injure or kill occupants and firefighters, and the less likely firefighters will be able to conduct efficient offensive operations.
This column is adapted from the author's book StructuralFireFighting, available online or (800) 344-3555.