By Tom LaBelle
The results of the recent NIST study on the impact of staffing (the number of people on a given piece of apparatus) and stagger (the length of time between the arrival of responding units) makes for incredibly interesting reading in my opinion.
Establishing a "Standard of Cover" or what kind, quantity and quality of coverage a community has comes down to elected officials, often with little understanding on their part of what their decisions mean.
When I was 18 years old, I remember being in a pizza joint in upstate New York with my best friends, Geoff, Scott and Dave. We talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I knew that I wanted to be involved in government and the fire service. I told them I was going to be a lobbyist for a statewide fire service organization. I began that work at the age of 22.
I learned quickly that numbers matter to elected officials. If it was an easy decision, then the numbers of happy voters mattered. If it was a difficult decision, then the math had to persuade them that it was worth unhappy voters.
I remember having the chief counsel to one of our state governors come in and tell me that he didn't want to hear about dead children or injured firefighters; he wanted numbers. That's when I learned that a passionate argument was good, but a winning argument (we got the law passed) based on cold numbers was better.
The results of the NIST study provide not only some excellent, scientific-method based analysis of two critical factors, but it does so at a national level. The ability to quantify the impact of two, three, four and five member crews as well as the impact on the spacing between arrivals is exactly the sort of information many mayors and city councils have been looking for. Often they don't really want the answer — they know we don't have it. They only ask so it puts us on the defensive.
I was recently at a meeting where a chief asked a great question. His community was implementing rolling brownouts of stations on a day-by-day basis. He said that when the press asked him if the citizens of his city were safe, he of course knew the answer was no.
But he also knew the follow-up question would be, 'If less safe, how much, what quantity, what number can be placed on it?' That number now exists to a large extent.
Part of solution
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that this is the panacea, the answer to all our ills. I am suggesting that it's part of the solution. This is the first time a study has looked at crew size and arrival times and their impact on firefighter safety, task completion and survivability for those trapped inside a building.
These answers are applicable to volunteer and career departments alike. Instead of people being able to point at us and say that we're just making up tales of death and doom, we can coolly look at them and discuss the facts of the study.
Throughout this country, there will be small volunteer departments trying to convince commissioners that they need to move from a two-man cab to a six or more man vehicle. Combination departments will be trying to figure out how to prove that a new station is a must for their growing community. Career departments will try to explain the impact of losing a member from the engine or truck company.
Instead of saying simply that it's a matter of firefighter and civilian safety, we can now point to a national study and discuss the impact like the professionals we all strive to be.
To me, that's pretty exciting stuff.