Study Shows Firefighting Crew Sizes Affect Safety

A study by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) shows firefighting crew sizes have a substantial effect on the fire service’s ability to protect lives and property in residential fires.

The study found that four-person firefighting crews were able to complete 22 essential firefighting and rescue tasks in a typical residential structure 30 percent faster than two-person crews and 25 percent faster than three-person crews.

Four-Person Crews

The report is the first to quantify the effects of crew sizes and arrival times on the fire service’s lifesaving and firefighting operations for residential fires.

“The results from this rigorous scientific study on the most common and deadly fires in the country – those in single-family residences – provide quantitative data to fire chiefs and public officials responsible for determining safe staffing levels, station locations and appropriate funding,” said NIST’s Jason Averill, one of the study’s principal investigators.

Four-person crews were able to deliver water 15 percent faster than two-person crews and 6 percent faster than three-person crews, steps that help to reduce property damage and lower the danger to firefighters.


“Fire risks grow exponentially. Each minute of delay is critical to the safety of the occupants and firefighters and is directly related to property damage,” said Averill, who leads NIST’s Engineered Fire Safety Group within its Building and Fire Research Laboratory.

“Our experiments directly address two primary objectives of the fire service: extinguishing the fire and rescuing occupants,” said Lori Moore-Merrell of the International Association of Fire 

Fighters (IAFF) and a principal investigator on the study.

Four-person crews were able to complete search and rescue 30 percent faster than two-person crews and 5 percent faster than three-person crews, according to Moore-Merrell, and five-person crews were faster than four-person crews in several key tasks.

Low-Hazard Structure

The benefits of five-person crews have been documented by other researchers for fires in medium-hazard and high-hazard structures, such as high-rise buildings, commercial properties, factories and warehouses.

The NIST researchers built a “low-hazard” structure as described in the National Fire Protection Association’s 1710 standard, which provides guidance on the deployment of career firefighters. 

They conducted more than 60 controlled fire experiments to determine the relative effects of crew size, the arrival time of the first fire crews and the “stagger,” or spacing, between the arrivals of successive waves of firefighting apparatus.

The United States Fire Administration reported that 403,000 residential structure fires killed close to 3,000 people in 2008 – accounting for about 84 percent of all fire deaths – and injured about 13,500. Direct costs from these fires were about $8.5 billion. Annually, firefighter deaths have remained steady at around 100, while tens of thousands are injured.

The next step for the research team is to develop a training package for firefighters and public officials.

The report was funded by the federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and can be downloaded from the NIST Web site.

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