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How Many Firefighters Does It Take to …

April 29, 2010

Yesterday, the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) — the labor union representing most of the career firefighters in the U.S. and Canada — announced its enthusiasm for the findings of a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The study seeks to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of various initial-attack staffing levels for fire departments.

The union views the results as compelling evidence in support of their stand that four-person staffing of firefighting crews should be mandatory. I think it would be safe to say they believe the study closes the case, but that remains to be seen.

I, for one, will be very surprised if this report changes many if any minds. Aside from the stated limitations of the study methodology, one might reasonably question some of the premises upon which the work was based, starting with the scope and scale of the fires used in the initial attack scenarios.

At the risk of oversimplifying the problem, it strikes me as a serious oversight that the report fails to acknowledge that the bulk of firefighting responses involve arrival at fires that are either a) very much smaller than the ones they used in this study or b) quite a bit larger than the ones they studied. Firefighters rarely have the opportunity to staunch a fire while it involves only a single room.

The public expects that firefighters will arrive in time to save those at risk of death or serious injury when they cannot escape on their own. Firefighters have an expectation that their lives will not be placed at unreasonable risk when they engage in firefighting and rescue operations. Neither expectation seems unreasonable per se until you look at data outside the scope of the present study.

Firefighters neither save nor appear to be in a position to save many if not most of those people killed in residential fires. A great many of these lives are lost before anyone discovers the fire or manages to summon help. On the other side of the equation, the greatest killer of firefighters is cardiovascular disease, which claims nearly half of those who fall in the line of duty. The vast majority of those victims was at known risk of death due to heart disease, often due to factors that cannot be directly linked to their service, yet they remain on the job placing themselves and others at risk.

Modifying firefighting practices or deployment has relatively little effect on either of these statistics. The annual number of firefighter deaths has remained stubbornly persistent for decades now despite consistent advances in personal protective apparel and equipment. In the meantime, the civilian death toll has fallen steadily and at a rate even faster than the overall decline in the number of fires.

Firefighters claim staffing cuts, not their own behavior, are responsible for firefighter mortality and morbidity trends despite abundant evidence that the overwhelming majority of these deaths occur due to actions of commission or omission by firefighters themselves. This shows you can lead horses to water, but you cannot make them drink. (Is it possible that the lack of hydration makes them delirious?) Getting firefighters to properly use the protective gear they have and engage wellness and fitness initiatives often meets stiff resistance despite the obvious benefits firefighters themselves would derive from their participation.

The public, for its part, has not been nearly so stubborn. No one has identified a clear correlation between the number of firefighters and the work they do and the improving fire incidence, fire loss, and fire death trends. But these trends are still going in the right direction. What seems to make the most difference in decreasing civilian fire mortality and morbidity is rising standards of living, and increased commitment to health and wellness that involves changes in the physical and social environment. The results are clear enough: The incidence of smoking and other risky behaviors are at all time lows, and housing standards have never been better.

So what should communities do when their firefighters table this report in support of claims for more staff, more fire stations, and more or better equipment? I think it is reasonable to ask them what they did with all the help they already have and what they are willing to do in exchange for more.

Most of the difference firefighters make comes down not to what they do or how many of them are around to do it. Success from firefighting is a question of how things are done or not done, not who does it, how they are paid, and how quickly they arrive after something bad happens. If firefighters invested more of their energy and effort in preventing harm to themselves and their fellow citizens rather than avoiding responsibility, we could all enjoy better results at lower costs.

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