Summer, such as it is in my neck of the woods, is closer to its close than it's beginning. Vacations, long and short, are being squeezed in during the final heady days, which raises the question: What does your department do during the summer?
Many departments don't require minimum staffing. This means that during the summer the chances of running short staffed are almost guaranteed. Even for those who do run with minimum staffing, chances are good it's with members who aren't used to working together.
For many volunteer agencies, tracking who's in town and who's at the beach doesn't even occur. Suddenly the guys who rarely ride the first-due rig are calling the initial arriving report and creating action plans.
Much of what we do is a team activity; we learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. These seasonal changes can have a dramatic impact on how we carry out some pretty basic functions — functions our communities think are effortless.
Most departments have some form of standard operating procedure or guidelines for emergency operations. Yet, many departments haven't created or modified procedures for their seasonal reality. They simply use cookie-cutter approaches from something found online.
Often these policies or guidelines are based on five experienced firefighters on the rig — that's quite an assumption. This level of staffing is difficult for many and even more so during heavy vacation times, making the staffing, tasks and completion times difficult to achieve.
For departments where a chief officer arrives prior to the first engine or truck, the officer begins, hopefully, to craft an incident action plan based on procedures that everyone understands and has practiced.
Even if all the prep work has been done, when we show up short staffed the ability to execute the plan deteriorates quickly. Anyone who has seen a well-conceived plan fall apart knows it's tough to watch. It's even tougher to participate in, and can be deadly if you're on the interior attack part of the plan.
Recognizing the impact of staffing changes can be difficult and addressing them can be even more difficult. Recent studies on standard fireground and high-rise fires outline some of the time impacts of tasks and staffing levels. The newest UL studies provide us even more insight into impact of time on the fire, building and occupants.
When we put these together we get a greater understanding of the impact of short staffing. We also get the beginnings of a roadmap to changing our incident action plans — if not, in fact, creating modified operation policies and guides.
We change plans all the time for things like weather, community events and disasters. Vacations aren't a surprise and having a change for the summer (along with some sun screen) is a great way to stay safe.
About the author
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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