The Power of Four
Why fire service staffing levels have a direct impact on firefighter and occupant safety
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2013
We served as subject matter experts on the landmark study, “Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments,” conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and published in 2010, which examined the correlations between firefighter staffing at working structure fires and the safety of both firefighters and occupants. As the report pointed out, it is virtually impossible to conduct safe and effective operations at structure fires when remote stations are staffed with fewer than four firefighters. When an understaffed company located at a remote station encounters a working structure fire, it is forced to make difficult decisions regarding its personal safety versus its commitment to saving lives and property.
Consider an example. A house fire is reported a few blocks away from a single-engine company fire station (Engine 1), staffed by two firefighters. The second-due engine company (Engine 2) is seven miles (11.3 km) from Engine 1. The average travel time between stations is 10 minutes. Engine 1 arrives at the scene within two minutes and has several options, none of which are both safe and effective. One firefighter could advance a hose line inside the building while the other operates the pumps—unsafe and ineffective. The pump operator could set up the pumper and both firefighters could make entry — unsafe. Both firefighters could lay a supply line to the pumper, then lay a 1¾” (44 mm) line to the front door, but would not make entry until the second company arrives — ineffective.
There are other possible tactical options, but none would be safe and effective. With only two firefighters at the scene, one or both of them could make entry with no Initial Rapid Intervention Crew (IRIC) on the scene, which presents great risks to the firefighters; or extinguishment could be delayed as they waited for the second engine, resulting in the total loss of the building and civilian fatalities if occupants are unable to self evacuate. A three-person crew would be better, but even that would still result in either an unsafe and/or ineffective operation. Although NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, permits crews to make entry without an IRIC when there is the potential to save lives, failing to staff an IRIC always compromises safety.
The typical four-person staffing on a fire company consists of an officer, driver, and two firefighters. This minimum safe staffing also requires some compromises in terms of safety and effectiveness when responding from a remote station. Using the example above, but with four firefighters on the first arriving engine, the IRIC team will by necessity be involved in accomplishing other necessary tasks. In most cases, the pump operator is assigned as one member of the IRIC. In the event of a “mayday,” rescuing the interior firefighters will require the pump operator to abandon the pump panel at the apparatus. In many cases, the firefighter assigned to connect to a fire hydrant is assigned as the second member of the IRIC. This firefighter could be located a considerable distance from the fire building or may not be able to complete the water supply assignment.
We advocate structural fire tactics and strategies that are both safe and effective, but sometimes staffing levels can make that dual goal difficult to achieve. Initiating offensive operations with fewer than four firefighters places firefighters at a high level of risk, while delaying operations until additional staffing arrives places occupants in greater danger and can increase property damage.
To read the NIST report, visit nist.gov/el/fire_research/residential-fire-report_042810.cfm.
For more on the Multiphase Study on Firefighter Safety and Deployment of Resources, visit firereporting.org.