Military-style staffing in the fire service: How to be combat ready
Implementing a student/firefighter program can help career and volunteer departments end staffing shortages while reducing costs and pension burdens
By Patrick Coughlin, EFO
Fire companies and infantry squads have more in common than chains of command, uniforms and rank structure. Both types of units must be combat-ready in order to be effective. Combat-readiness requires proper training and adequate staffing. Like engine and ladder companies, infantry squads operate as teams. Each squad member has specific tasks that enable the team to be effective. If a unit is understaffed, it limits effectiveness and exposes squad members to even higher than normal risks.
But there is a key difference between infantry squads and fire companies. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps do not send their troops into battle with under-staffed combat units. Fire departments do.
The NFPA periodically surveys U.S. fire departments to determine their needs. The latest survey, titled “Fourth Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service,” confirms what the earlier surveys found. Most fire departments have too few firefighters to be combat-ready. The report notes that less than one-third of fire departments comply with the minimum crew size requirements outlined in NFPA 1710 and NFPA 1720, which apply to career and volunteer departments respectively. Some departments that meet the crew size requirements do not meet the response time requirements.
Career and volunteer fire chiefs attribute their staffing problems to different sources. For career departments, budgeting for enough manpower in an era of fewer structure fires is a challenge. Salaries and pensions account for over 90 percent of fire department budgets. City leaders looking to cut fire department costs demand staff cuts, ignoring the fact that structure fires will occur and overwhelm understaffed fire companies. For volunteer departments, a dwindling pool of candidates has left many of them hard-pressed to handle their call loads, let alone increased call loads as their jurisdictions grow.
My research on these staffing issues has identified a viable solution that applies to all sizes and types of departments. It is similar to how our military keeps its infantry squads combat-ready, and I call it military-style staffing.
Misperceptions about using student firefighters
The army and marines staff their infantry squads with two types of personnel. They assign career personnel to the leadership, technical and specialist slots. They fill the other slots, such as rifleman, machine gunner, etc., with enlistees. According to my research, the biggest incentive to enlist is a free college education. When their enlistments are up, about one-half of recruits opt for military careers and the rest return to civilian life.
By using a similar model, career fire departments can hire full-time firefighters to work for a 4-year period in return for a free college education. College tuitions average around one-half the cost of salaries and pensions for career firefighters. These hires fill the basic firefighter slots on engine, ladder and EMS companies, with career firefighters filling the leadership and technical slots. This staffing method enables departments to reduce personnel costs without reducing personnel.
Volunteer departments can also use the incentive of free or subsidized college education to attract candidates. Free housing at fire stations can cut college costs by nearly one half. The model enables fire departments to increase the number of responders, improve response times and make responses more reliable during periods when volunteers are less available.
When I mention this staffing model to fire chiefs, their reactions reveal two general misperceptions. Career chiefs think that it only applies to volunteer departments that have small call loads. Volunteer chiefs tend to see it as the first step to going career. Neither is the intention. My database contains more than 350 fire departments in the U.S. that already use the model to augment their engine, ladder and EMS crews.
The largest department has 47 stations and serves 900,000 residents in a 500-square-mile area. That is a far cry from the perceived small volunteer department with few calls. Though many volunteer chiefs believe student/firefighters are the first step to going career, I have seen no evidence of that happening. The student/firefighters have the same chain of command and rules as their volunteer peers, thus leaving the volunteers in charge.
College student/firefighter program advantages
Some US fire departments have been augmenting their career and volunteer staffs with student/firefighters for decades. My data show that the number of programs has increased dramatically in the past 20 years. Figure 1 shows the states where the programs exist and the number of programs in each.
The most significant advantage to career departments is lower costs. Career departments can fill an average of two firefighter positions with trained college students for the cost of one career firefighter. The ratio depends upon the cost of incentives. For example, the Auburn, Ala. fire division offers its student/firefighters free housing and full tuition, plus hourly wages and health benefits. Its operating costs are still low enough to fill three firefighter positions for the cost of two career firefighters.
Another advantage is reduced pension burdens. Similar to what happens to army and marine corps enlistees, about one half of college student/firefighters take civilian jobs after they graduate. Lower pension burden means that fire departments can maintain higher pension levels for their career firefighters.
A third advantage is staffing fire companies with lower average ages. Fire suppression is a strenuous activity. Individuals’ aerobic capacity, known as VO2max, declines an average of 3-6 percent per year. Generally, younger firefighters are better able to perform strenuous activity for longer periods and with less heart stress.
One can argue that the lack of experience counters the age advantages, which may be a valid point for companies in regions where fires occur more frequently and are more challenging. But for the vast majority of fire departments, the low frequency of structure fires means no one is gaining much hands-on experience.
Student/firefighter program scope, administration and adaptability
In addition to being scalable to any size fire department, agencies can adapt the programs to their unique needs and resources. For example, one volunteer fire department might require its student/firefighters to serve two day shifts and two night shifts per week, appointing enough of them to staff an engine during hours when volunteer response is low. Another volunteer department that handles EMS calls could assign two student/firefighters to an ambulance during business hours to shorten response times.
Free housing is a popular incentive, but not all of the fire departments that offer it use fire stations for living quarters. Some of them have purchased adjacent homes for that purpose. Access to physical fitness equipment is another popular incentive, but not all departments have enough space for it. They offer free memberships at local health clubs instead.
The ratio of student/firefighters to the other firefighters is limited by their level of training. They receive the same training as career entry-level firefighters. As such, their roles are limited to basic engine, ladder, EMS company operations. They do not serve on units that require hazmat or technical rescue technicians because those tasks require advanced training and experience.
Larger departments often have officers who are certified to conduct firefighter and EMS training. The Auburn fire division has its own training officers. They train candidates each summer to replace those who graduate. Departments without training officers often rely on area community colleges to do the training. In some cases, those schools administer the entire program, including placement with participating fire departments.
A new training option is also emerging. I am hearing of more fire departments that participate with their school systems on firefighter/EMT curricula for high school students. The objective is to have job candidates certified for Hazmat Awareness, Firefighter I and II, and EMT by the time they graduate high school.
Scheduling time off for student/firefighters to attend class may seem like a burden. However, it is no different from other planned absences like vacations and out-of-town training that fire departments already have administrative procedures in place for. Departments with student/firefighter programs require them to submit requests for absence each month or before a semester begins.
In reality, student/firefighters will not be absent from duty that often. Like their career peers, they work an average of 8-9 days per month, so the number of weekdays where a class might conflict with duty days are few. And, departments can reduce the need for absences further by requiring student/firefighters to take online classes when available. Department administrators can fill the empty positions with trades from other student/fighters. The Auburn fire division requires its student/firefighters to take a semester off each year and work 40-hour weeks during that time. The division assigns them to fill in for absent student/firefighters.
When career firefighters are using their standby time to study for advancement, the student/firefighters work on college homework.
Program startup questions
Launching a college student/firefighter program may seem daunting, but the hundreds of existing programs show that it can be done. Also, fire departments with programs in place are willing to share their experiences and policies, and answer questions. As shown in Figure 1, programs now exist in 39 states. The vast majority of those departments have web sites with contact information for inquiries about their student/firefighter programs.
A lot of information about student/firefighters is available online. For example, if you want to know how many potential candidates are within commuting distance, www.city-data.com has the information. Enter your city or town’s name and scroll down to the list of area colleges. It shows each college in the region, the number of students and distance from each campus to your jurisdiction.
Another initial step is to determine what type of incentives will attract candidates. If you plan to offer free housing, the departments with such programs can share their experience with living quarters (e.g., private rooms versus semi-private or bunk rooms). Sample guidelines and rules from ongoing program websites can help you prepare your own policies.
5 concerns about implementing student/firefighter programs
The following concerns regularly come up when implementing a student/firefighter program is broached:
- Will fire departments be overrun with student/firefighters? No. There is a limit to the number of company positions that student/firefighters can occupy. Their role is to do the grunt work at fire scenes. Career firefighters will continue to fill leadership positions and those that require advanced training and experience, like apparatus operator, hazmat technician and technical rescue.
- Are student/firefighter programs a disguised attempt at union busting? They are not. When a union has exclusive bargaining rights, the student/firefighters will be union members. Fire chiefs wanting to implement student/firefighters programs need to make that very clear at the onset. The experience of the Auburn, Ala. fire division in introducing their program serves as a great example of the firefighter concerns to expect and how its fire division leaders addressed them. 
- Will fire stations become college dorms or frat houses filled with rowdy, immature people? That is simply not the case for several reasons. First, fire departments use the same selection criteria as they do for career personnel. The selection process identifies individuals who can follow rules and work in military-like environments. Student/firefighters work under the same rules as the other firefighters, with the addition of rules regarding their living quarters, class loads and grade point averages. They have no additional privileges, such as absence from duty during semester breaks. They accrue vacations days but are at the bottom of the seniority ladder when it comes to selecting time off.
- What if college student/firefighters are not as qualified? I have reviewed every department in my database, and found that they require the same training, certification and physical ability levels in their student firefighters as in their other firefighters. A few volunteer departments take student/firefighters on before they are trained, however, they do not allow them to respond until they meet the training requirements.
- How will student/firefighters increase training needs? Most departments go several years before holding a fire academy. Biannual or annual academies for student/firefighter candidates do add to the workload, but there is a tradeoff. About half of student/firefighters want to become career firefighters with the same department. Thus departments will have a steady supply of trained and experienced firefighters to choose from to fill vacant career positions.
The goodwill advantage to student firefighters
The cost advantages of college student/firefighter programs are clear. They enable career/combination departments to maintain combat readiness while significantly reducing costs. For volunteer departments, they are a less expensive way to handle higher call volumes and provide more reliable responses while staying volunteer.
Those cost savings are measurable, but fire service leaders should not overlook two intangible benefits. Augmenting career firefighters with student/firefighters reduces the tax burden. At the same time, it creates more college opportunities for residents. When it comes to budget or fundraising time, such a value-added service can make tax payers and contributors more willing to support their departments’ needs.
1. Fourth Needs Assessment of the U. S. Fire Service, November 23016, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA.
2. Innovative Governments: Creative Approaches to Local Problems, Douglas J Watson, Editor, 1997, Praeger Publishers, 88 Post Road West, Westport, CT, 06881, ISBN 0-275-95515-X.
About the author
Pat is a retired fire chief who has served on career and volunteer fire departments. After retiring, he was the executive director of the Residential Fire Safety Institute, and a regional manager for the International Code Council. He is an international speaker on residential fire sprinklers and managing community fire risk. Pat has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Purdue University and a master’s degree in sociology/public administration from the University of Minnesota. He is also a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Pat operates the blog site Excellence in Fire Protection. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.