‘We need more hands!’ The impact of staffing limitations

As we wait on additional funding, fire departments must find ways to be efficient with resources

Last month we looked at the need for more hose when advancing initial handlines for an interior attack. We saw the interior crews making entry and needing more hose to allow them to continue making their interior push. It seems appropriate that this month we look at the topic of needing more than just hose – this time, more hands.

Needing more hands is another way of referencing staffing limitations. Just about every fire department in the country finds themselves needing more hands from time to time, even FDNY. Of course, depending upon the department’s staffing model for responding personnel, the seriousness of situation varies.

With this as our backdrop, let’s consider a news story out of Georgia, where it took 20 minutes for personnel to respond to a residential structure fire. Now this situation is not the fault of the fire chief or the firefighters responding to the fire, but rather a result of funding and staffing limitations.

The news team reported on the fact that volunteer stations are not staffed on the weekends, and that members may be responding from their homes – a situation that plays out in communities across the country all the time. This is no surprise to firefighters; however, it can be a shock to residents who don’t understand fire department staffing models, funding hurdles and other factors that impact firefighters’ ability to respond in a timely fashion. They just want the fire out! While the news story highlights what firefighters already know, we can only hope the residents will pay attention and take action.


Let’s consider how the bigger impact here – and the domino effect.

While firefighters could launch a campaign to try to convince politicians and citizens alike to increase funding or to spend more money for staffing, this campaign will take a long time to fight and ultimately may not see any results that benefit response times.

The domino effect with staffing limitations is the lack of hands to perform critical tasks that are required when arriving on scene, particularly when faced with life/rescue issues. The lack of hands means choosing among interior fire attack, immediate rescues, pulling handlines, etc. Options are extremely limited, if not eliminated.

Fire departments that face staffing limitations must take a step back and reevaluate their operational capabilities, working to identify what can be done to streamline operations. Streamlining operations will make a department more effective and efficient with their actions, like in this case of our example video, the time of arrival on scene.

There are tactics that can be adapted and revised to work in conjunction with the availability of hands arriving on scene or when they arrive on scene. These tactics must be trained on, not just once, but multiple times, as they will be the playbook for officers and firefighters arriving on scene.

Some examples: transitional fire attack, applying water from the outside prior to going interior, the blitz attack, dumping a large volume of water at once on the fire to knock it down considerably before going interior, or vent-enter-isolate-search (VEIS) for a rapid rescue of occupants.

This is not the ideal solution for facing this type of situation, but it will allow the department do something productive when they arrive on scene or once they have more hands arriving on scene.

The public will not understand the problems that we face with respect to staffing limitations, but we still need to serve them in a way that puts their wellbeing at the top of the list, even if it means that we are limited with what we can do!

After watching this video with your company, take these next steps:

  • Determine how many firefighters on average arrive on scene for a structure fire and what time of day the numbers increase or decrease.
  • Determine what equipment is arriving on scene for a structure fire.
  • Based upon the equipment arriving and the number of firefighters arriving, review the tactical playbook for the department to see what tactics can be modified to accommodate limited staffing to still be effective and efficient.
  • Once modified, train on them!

Editor’s note: What methods has your department employed to streamline operations?  

[Read next: Alternative deployment models for the fire service]

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