When it comes to determining staffing levels, how much is enough?
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2013
Successful fireground operations are the result of measures taken long before an incident occurs, and part of that planning process involves evaluating areas within the department’s jurisdiction to determine the required fire resources. The types of structures, water supply, distance from fire stations, fire company staffing, and many other factors are taken into consideration in advance. For example, fewer fire units would be assigned, typically, to an area containing single-family homes compared to an area with large industrial complexes or high-rise buildings. Provisions are also made in advance to dispatch additional personnel when the initial response is unable to control the emergency.
Obviously, it is better to have more resources than needed as opposed to being unable to effectively and safely carry out the incident action plan due to a shortage of on-scene personnel. But how many resources is enough?
Prior to NFPA 1710, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, which arrived in 2001, there was no widely accepted staffing standard. NFPA 1710 specifically addresses staffing at residential fires, requirements that were confirmed by a study published in 2010 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NFPA 1710 establishes a minimum staffing level of 14 or 15 firefighters to safely and effectively combat a working structure fire in a two-story, single-family dwelling with no basement and no threatened exposures. This is minimum staffing and does not provide a tactical reserve or make allowances for endangered exposures, treating injured residents, or other potential response activities.
As the size and complexity of the property increases, the required staffing also increases. But how much is enough? Next month NIST will release a report containing the results of a series of field experiments in a high-rise structure that evaluated crew size, alarm size, and vertical response mode. A major part of the recent NIST staffing studies on residential and high-rise structures involved determining what tasks needed to be completed and how many firefighters were required to safely and effectively carry out these tasks, in an effort to reduce property loss and to minimize injury and death to both firefighters and civilians. The authors of this column were part of the NIST high-rise subject matter expert group for the study, and we will report the results of the experiments in future columns.
This task-oriented process can help determine how much staffing is enough. When calculating staffing requirements on various structures, both low and high risk, it is necessary to determine what tasks would typically be required to safely and effectively bring a working fire under control. Examining probable scenarios during pre-planning for a specific property should provide an answer to the staffing issue.
In evaluating types of occupancies, such as houses, apartment buildings, and small commercial properties, a reasonable approach would be to use the NIST residential staffing study, adding units as required to handle additional anticipated tasks. For example, in a working fire, if there is a high probability that exposures will be involved, additional staffing and apparatus should be added to cover exposures.
These are the kinds of issues that need to be considered as part of any staffing and deployment decision. To see the NIST study, visit nist.gov and search for “residential fire study.”
For more on the Multiphase Study on Firefighter Safety and Deployment of Resources, visit firereporting.org.