Is it time to change our response model to include a ‘Life Safety Division’?

Other challenges to the future of the fire service include shift schedule adjustments and rethinking our apparatus


Since 1736, when Benjamin Franklin organized the first fire department in Philadelphia, the American fire service has provided an unprecedent service to our local communities. Over the last 50 years, however, the fire service has been challenged to broaden our scope of duties by providing EMS, hazmat response, technical rescue, public education, community risk reduction, inspections and myriad other services. For many organizations, the expanded service – which some call “mission creep” – is placing a huge burden on our current fire service delivery model.

Stats drive critical questions

According to the NFPA, in 1980, the American fire service responded to 10.8 million calls for service compared to 2020 where we responded to 36.4 million calls. After digging into those numbers, one statistic that is shocking to me was the number of fires. In 1980, we ran nearly 3 million fire calls compared to nearly 1.4 million in 2020. Our primary mission has decreased but our expanded mission now accounts for most of our service. We have tripled the number of calls for service but run half as many fires.

In this image provided by the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, emergency personnel work on rescuing a man from an underground storm water pipe in Antioch, Calif., Sunday, March 20, 2022.
In this image provided by the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, emergency personnel work on rescuing a man from an underground storm water pipe in Antioch, Calif., Sunday, March 20, 2022. (Photo/Contra Costa County Fire Protection District)

These statistics drive critical questions:

  • Does our current system that we use to provide service to our communities still make sense?
  • What is the cost of the increased calls for service?
  • How can the fire service continue to be relevant with the evolving needs and the continued reduction in fires?
  • With a significant increase in PTSD, suicide, cancer and burnout in the fire service, is it possible to continue on our current trajectory?

When we look at our current service model, it’s clear we need to adjust our approach to staffing, response plans, shift work and apparatus.

Proposing a “Life Safety Division”

From a 30,000-foot view, it’s easy to see how our current fire service delivery system is simply unsustainable. So, we can reduce call volume by limiting calls for service or to take a holistic look at revamping all aspects of our delivery model.

Is it reasonable to cut call volume by reducing call types? My initial thought on reducing call volume was that it made sense to reduce the number of non-emergent calls. This would lessen the burden on the system, which would reduce the fatigue on our staff. However, as I thought deeper on this approach, I realize that we could be making a huge mistake in limiting our interaction with the public.

Think about a business that sells widgets. Widgets become a huge success and the business struggles to build enough widget. The business doesn’t stop selling widget but increases production to become more efficient and effective. This is the key to the future of the fire service. We must develop a plan to become more efficient and effective with our service model.

So, instead of reducing calls, we should be developing plans to embrace more calls through a new model. It is not realistic to send firefighters in engines and ladder trucks to 80% of our calls. However, it does make sense to send staff from the “Life Safety Division” of the fire department to those calls. By creating another division in the fire service, we can stabilize our priority mission, fire, and create a more sustainable response plan.

My vision of a life safety division consists of mental health workers, social workers, public educators, and EMS personnel, including PAs, nurses, EMTs and paramedics. The life safety division would fall under the supervision of the fire service but not necessarily be firefighters. This division would respond in smaller vehicles and be available for prevention and emergency response. By creating this new division, the fire service can address the needs of both our firefighters and our community.

Shift schedules

The next area we should be addressing is our schedule. The firefighter schedule is becoming an increasingly important contributor to member stress and fatigue. Schedules are a very controversial and passionate topic for the fire service. It is hard to ignore the data that our lack of sleep and stress is contributing to PTSD, suicides and other health issues. In addition, as the Project Mayday report identifies, we are more apt to have a mayday event, injury or accident as the length of the work shift extends. For the health of our firefighters and the service to our community, we need to address the staffing shift model in the future. The addition of the life safety division potentially could assist in the scheduling challenge.

[Read next: Is the firefighter 48/96 shift a health hazard?]

The perfect apparatus

Fire apparatus is the next consideration with regards to how it fits in our current and future service delivery models. What would the perfect fire truck look like if you didn’t have a preconceived vision of what a fire truck looks like? Can we see the future without being blinded by our current likes or perceptions?

As fuel prices reach $5 per gallon, I again question if it isn’t time that we take a more serious look at our response model. Is it reasonable to respond to medical calls and lift assists in a $750,000 fire truck? Should we be seeking alternative response vehicles with alternative staffing? In addition, our communities are seeking to reduce our carbon footprint. As such, we will be asked to do more with different apparatus, ranging from electric or hybrid vehicles to smaller vehicles.

It's time to evolve

The future of the fire service is bright. There is certainly no shortage of calls or needs for the fire service in our communities. Our current challenge is to engage in the discussions involving critical questions: What does your community need? And how do we adjust our current system to meet the needs of the future?

To do this, we as fire service leaders, need to build relationships with our community. In addition, we must provide data to support the need for increased variety of staffing and response plans. If we do not engage in this discussion with our political bodies, they will decide our future, and we might not like what they decide.

[Read next: The acceptance of conflict: 30,000 different ways of running our fire departments]

My challenge for all of us is to step out of our comfort zone and explore what the fire service could be if we tear down the boundaries or limitations that we have placed on ourselves. I know that many of you will think, “That won’t work in my community” or “We don’t have the money.” I get it, but we cannot grow if we are not developing and planning for the future. If we build complete plans that are reasonable, efficient and effective, then we can grow the system. The solution is to evolve holding onto our values but expanding how we serve our community.

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