Chief Concerns: When Is Too Much Too Much?

One of the biggest challenges many fire departments face is the addition of responsibilities to the public’s emergency response expectations.
Richard Marinucci

This is very evident in the variety of jobs expected of engine companies. Except for most major cities, engine companies are asked to do much more than deliver water, which was their original intent.

Today, departments task the companies with additional fireground duties along with emergency medical service (EMS), technical rescue, and hazmat response. At some point, organizations will not be able to maintain the quality required to provide excellent service and run the risk of becoming “just good enough.”

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Look at it another way. Let’s say you are tasked to coach a travel basketball team. You obtain a vehicle to transport your players and their equipment. You focus your practices on improving basketball skills. Your players have athletic ability and do well. At this point, someone suggests that you also coach the squad in baseball. You add the baseball equipment to the van and split your practices so you don’t spend as much time with either sport. Of course, you don’t get more players or help. Your basketball team is okay but not doing as well as it did before including baseball in the mix. And, your van is really getting full carrying the extra equipment. Now, someone decides you should take on football! No new players can fit in your van. You have additional equipment. You have to request “mutual aid” to have enough players. But, you have not practiced together because there is not enough time. Even though you have talented players, they no longer are competitive in any of the sports though they keep trying their best. No one can say “no,” so you keep going, wondering what else will be added to your responsibilities without additional resources.


In many ways, this has happened to engine companies. Originally designed to deliver water, they were asked to take on truck functions as true truck companies were not available. This was often done with no added staffing. Departments just put more equipment on the engines and expanded companies’ training. Then, departments needed to provide some level of EMS—more work, equipment, and training. Soon thereafter, special rescue was needed. Same outcome. The point here is not to disparage anything fire departments are doing. One of the admirable qualities of firefighters and the fire service is the willingness to take on new challenges and work. The question that needs to be asked is, “When is too much too much?” At some point, there are not enough resources to complete the basics of the job to the expected level. This needs to be evaluated and a plan developed to meet the needs of the community and still maintain professional quality.

The services provided by the fire service are essential to the public safety of the community and the quality of life expected. Fire departments are involved with EMS because they are in a position to deliver quality service in a timely fashion. They also add special response because the public has come to expect that response. So, the issue is not about the service; it is about having the resources to do it correctly and with the appropriate quality that is expected. As organizations add responsibilities, they need to press for the resources, which include personnel, apparatus, equipment, and the time for training, response, and other job responsibilities. Departments need to be realistic in their capabilities and communicate honestly, tactfully, and diplomatically when it becomes apparent they are being overextended. So, an engine company with inadequate staffing and insufficient time to train properly must let the powers that be know that they will not be able to deliver the highest level of service.


Once the decision is made to go ahead, there are some things to consider. Perhaps the best that can be done is to establish specialists for specific hazards and responses. Then the rest of the organization can be trained as generalists who have the basic core skills that can be used in most situations to begin the process of addressing the emergency. There are things that can be done to start providing service that sets the stage for the specialists. In addition to maintenance of core skills, additional training and education need to be provided on problem solving, critical thinking, and recognition primed decision making. With this, firefighters will develop good instincts to make better decisions regardless of the type of emergency.

Being really good at the basics is essential. If a firefighter is extremely competent at the core skills, he then has the ability to provide those skills in a variety of situations. Look at another comparable example. If a musician has a good grasp of the scales and can read music, he then has the ability to look at a sheet of notes and be able to deliver a recognizable song. He may not be good enough to get to an elite spot but certainly won’t embarrass himself by not delivering. The same approach can be made for engine company personnel. Core skills training that leads to unconscious competence will allow individuals and teams to adapt to the situation and the challenges presented. You probably can’t think of every possible emergency situation, but if you have confidence in your abilities, you will be able to think and perform your way through the situation.


As much of a challenge as personnel and training are, getting and storing the necessary equipment on an engine can be a near impossibility. At some point there needs to be an honest evaluation of what is really needed. This way, firefighters can practice with the essential tools so that they can focus on the problem at hand. Too many tools can also overcrowd the vehicle and possibly add enough to exceed the rated gross vehicle weight rating of the apparatus. Too many tools can cause delays in getting to the right tool in the compartment, and there is also the added stress of making sure they will all function as intended when needed. This requires maintenance in accordance with the manufacturer’s requirements—another challenge to time management. On the positive side, companies are offering lighter, less bulky, and smaller tools that have the necessary strength to work. It may be time for you to look at your inventory and see what can be replaced.

Staffing levels may have the greatest impact on service delivery. It is the equivalent of trying to play a football game with fewer than 11 players. You will do your best, but you are at a distinct disadvantage. In many organizations, engine companies are asked to go to many EMS calls during a day. As it is added to all the other things expected including other emergency responses, training, maintenance and time to recover, there comes a point where the expectations are unrealistic. The suggestion is to think before you add and do an honest evaluation of what you can capably do. There also has to be good communications with the policymakers so they know the level of performance to expect. Being a good engine company is not about taking on more jobs but is about being good at what you do.

Engine companies have become the jack of all trades in most departments. They are asked to perform more and more from this vehicle. It is getting to the point where a reasonable question is whether or not there are enough resources—people, equipment, and time—to deliver great, not just good, service. Being outstanding in fewer areas of the job may be preferential even though the pressures are to do more and more with the same amount of everything.

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 Equipmentand 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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