Out of My Mind: Justifying Adequate Staffing

Photo by Tony Greco

By Richard Marinucci

In order to mitigate any emergency, there needs to be a response of the right number of people, with the right equipment in the moments that matter (right response time). I recently have seen this in practice where a community with inadequate staffing had a station closed. This station was closest to a call to a shed fire. The next closest station was approximately 6 minutes further away (on a good day). The result was that the shed caught two nearby homes on fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but one family was forced to relocate, and the other home will require repair. Had the station been open, most likely there would have been a shed fire with no exposure damage. What is the value to the community to keep this from happening? Would providing the proper funding, and therefore staffing, be worth the investment? This is a question that needs to be asked and brought to the forefront when situations like this occur. When there are times when this is raised, it is usually by the labor organization in the community. It may also be raised by the neighborhood residents, who are worried by the response time. But, rarely do you hear it from the leadership of the fire department and almost never from the elected bodies (policy makers). It seems they always have a reason to not invest in the fire department. Maybe it is because they don’t clearly understand the value to the quality of life that a well-staffed fire department can have.

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When I first started in this business, there were no email and no social media platforms. Communication was verbal or through a letter. I received some really good advice back then. Essentially it was that if I ever drafted a letter while angry or on any issue that could be considered controversial that I should wait at least 24 hours before sending. I would reread the next day and decide whether or not the letter was appropriate. Most likely I would tear up the letter or greatly revise it. I think that advice is still valid today but more challenging in that there are more means to communicate. It seems there are examples of people every day who should take the advice given to me long ago and sit on communications that could be considered controversial or off base. It is amazing to me what some people will post on social media or send via email. I doubt they would do it if it was a written letter. I also think it happens because people have access to communications 24/7. Most people would not consider saying what they say after hours while at work. Yet, they have no problem doing the same thing through social media. One might also say that there are cases where alcohol played a part. Regardless, true professionals should not post anything they don’t want turned into a headline and probably should not have access to their accounts if they are drinking!!!

According to a recent report released by Don Abbott regarding maydays, there has been a 35 percent increase in the past 13 weeks. Abbott concluded that tired firefighters and understaffing were the reasons. This would seem to be intuitive but by looking at the data, Abbott provides documentation that should assist departments in explaining the need for adequate staffing and limiting overtime to provide appropriate rest for firefighters. The service collectively needs to work to find a solution to these increasing issues. Perhaps there needs to be a change in philosophy. If there is inadequate staffing, there should be a corresponding change in expectations as to what a department is capable of doing. For example, if you could only muster 6 football players, it wouldn’t be good to play a team that has every position filled. We need to stop trying to compete when the right resources are not available.

One thing not mentioned in the brief report I read about the mayday study is that many departments have had their training curtailed during the Corona virus pandemic. What is the effect of less training on maydays and capabilities? This would include the in-house training and outside training. Especially of concern would be lack of hands-on opportunities. One aspect that must be addressed is the return to necessary training in order to minimize risks.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering Editorial Advisory Board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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