3 keys to operational readiness

Skills, fitness, and the right number of people allow for quick intervention necessary to interrupt a bad situation

One of the most important responsibilities of a fire-rescue department is to be prepared for a response of any type at any time. Some performance statistics indicate that the simple function of being ready for response takes up about a third of the firefighters' workday. 

When the call for help comes, the members, the apparatus and all associated equipment need to be ready to roll without delay.

For a growing number of urban and suburban fire departments, the days of waiting for a crew to response to the firehouse and grab the engine are fading away. These departments are staffed on a 24-hour basis and can go without delay for early intervention in the emergency.

The idea is to interrupt the problem as early as possible to minimize the negative impact the event will have.

However, a significant percentage of the volunteer departments, in suburban and rural areas are still responding the old fashion way — from remote locations to the firehouse or to the scene. In using either organizational staffing structure, the need to be properly prepared from every aspect is mission critical from the customer perspective.

It looks like we (the fire service) are getting closer to agreeing to a minimum number of members assigned to engines, trucks and heavy rescue squads. Most communities are striving to respond with a minimum crew of four members. 

Some fire chiefs want five or six members as the minimum per company, however budgetary constraints require a staffing level below the desired level. Overall, it seems like four members is becoming a accepted staffing level for the nation, with many exceptions to be found mostly at lower and a few at higher staffing numbers. 

Simple physics demand that the fire department respond to emergencies immediately to be effective. Let's do a quick review of those basic laws of physics.

Physics class
Amazingly enough, both supporting human life (referred to as homeostasis, or the state of equilibrium of the body) and the requirements for fire to burn are very similar processes. 

Once a person's heart stops, the profusion blood to the brain ceases; biologically, death will occur in a window of four minutes and continue until the brain is effective destroyed only minutes later.

Or perhaps the person that you are responding to is severely bleeding from a significant wound. In that case, you may have even less time to intervene, if you are to preserve human life. 

We could go further into emergency medical conditions, however, it is sufficed to say that in any acute medical-distress situation, rapid response time and proper immediate treatment are critical survival factors.

Flaming combustion requires heat, fuel and oxygen (the fire triangle). And once these three elements are united, an incipient, molecular chain reaction occurs — the process transitions into the fire tetrahedron. 

Once a fire starts and there is plenty of fuel (reducing agents) and an oxygen level at 16 percent or more (or other oxidizers), the fire will continue to rapidly and exponentially grow until one of the four elements of the fire tetrahedron is removed. 

These factors require rapid intervention if the goal is to extinguish the fire before the fuel source is destroyed. Having the correct number of qualified folks at the proper location is the first critical factor of operational preparedness.  

Physical fitness
The next component of being operational ready is the skills, knowledge and abilities of our troops and our leaders. All of the firefighting force must be physically and mentally fit and able for duty.

The best bet is to use NFPA 1582 Comprehensive Occupational Medical Programs for Fire Departments to determine one's medical fitness. This standard includes medical requirements for incumbent and candidate firefighters in all types (includes volunteers) of organizations. 

Next, the IAFF/IAFC Candidate Physical Ability Test has been at the tip of the spear for physical ability readiness for about 15 years. CPAT should be administered to all new candidates to verify their physical ability to perform firefighting duties. 

Physical fitness testing for incumbent members is under development and should be out eventually as another IAFF/IAFC Labor Management Initiative.

People first
It's a conundrum that we take impeccable care of our ambulances and fire engines, but not our people.

I have seen fire departments wax the underside of fender wells. I have helped wash the tires and rims after a run in the pouring rain, knowing full well that we would be out again with a few minutes.

Let's face it; we do have an obsession with keeping Old Red looking good (Hopefully everyone has red apparatus. If not, leave it parked in the sun long enough for it to ripen into a brilliant fire-engine red.). 

Making sure the apparatus is reliable and functional at all time is an important part of what we do. But we get obsessed with maintaining the steel and glass — forgetting to maintain the flesh and blood. As much as I love all fire trucks, we have to remember the old military adage: "First the man, then the horses, finally the officers."

Trained and certified
All members need to be properly trained and certified to the level of services that the community expects them to deliver. A tragic case study comes out of a northern California fire department.

They were recently criticized for failing to make a water rescue in which a fatality occurred. However, a day or two later, it was clearly pointed out that the governing body revoked the funding for training and equipment for water rescue operations. 

The chief was very specific describing the impact that the program cuts would have on the department's capability. The worse-case situation happened and the rest is history. 

The epilogue to this story is that the same governing body has restored the funding for the department to get back into water rescue operations. And, that department has since made water rescues.

Once again, it is NFPA standards along with NREMT to the rescue. One of the best and most comprehensive training and education models is the NFPA Standards for Firefighter; Fire Instructor & Fire Officer. Couple the NFPA learning objectives with National Registry Emergency Medical Technician & Paramedic courses, and you are getting close to reaching the pinnacle of combat training.

Stay relevant
Training has to be relevant, meaningful and effective. It must start before the member can be turned loose to deliver service.

Generally, we all start out in recruit school. I was a reject and did two recruit program — not many departments accepted outside certifications. Then, we drilled just about every day for a few hours or more in the station. 

Many departments have formal in-service requirements that are mandatory to attend and complete at a training center facility. And, at the same time, many of us are working towards the various officer- and instructor-level certifications on our own. 

In most jobs, after brief orientation training, a worker is out in the chosen field doing the work and making the company a profit. Perhaps they might train every so often on a new piece of equipment or updated technique that might rarely come along. 

For three years, I worked as a part time roofing laborer. Had I said to the roofing company owner, "I need to go to a training school for six months to learn this craft at the company's expense," I am sure that I would have been escorted off the job site.

But the private sector has a very different relationship with our customers. Companies like the roofing outfit I worked for, provide a specific service for a set price.

Although the cost is shared by everyone, many of our residents think of the fire service in "cash for services rendered" terms. And to provide that level of service, we must be prepared for all possibilities.

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