Growing Complexity in Fire Services

(from Maine Townsman, November 2007)
By Bruce Hensler

The fire service stands firmly, one boot in the 19th century and the other in the 20th century. Our firefighting resources – stations, apparatus, and personnel – are mostly deployed in a 19th century pattern. Politics, opinion, opportunity, and personality influence the acquisition and use of resources. History, tradition, and occupational culture still control firefighter behavior.

Despite any perceived negative connotation, the fire service collectively does a commendable job so that Americans widely admire and trust firefighters. Working as a firefighter is generally very rewarding and most feel they are part of something important. All of that notwithstanding, the challenges facing state and local governments in Maine has come to the point where the fire service can no longer feel secure under the cover of public admiration and trust. Pressure for change is steady and it comes with the expectation that we will have to do more with less.

Cause for concern

The digital archive of the Maine Townsman turned up five articles about Maine firefighters over the past ten years. The articles are informative and provide a basis for this article. A 1998 article described the state of Maine’s volunteer fire services as an institution suspended in its own history, glory, and autonomy, but at the same time facing regulation and technology. Identified as major stress points were funding, volunteerism, and regulation. The article also covered the hot topic of the year – respiratory protection. Among volunteers especially, respiratory protection with its 2-in/2-out rule and annual medical evaluation for firefighter raised fears that the rules threatened the system, as well as lives and property. With 2-in/2-out, a fire crew of four is required to initiate an interior attack, unless lives are threatened. While the new rules likely caused some volunteers to fade away, overall, the respiratory protection standard did more to push Maine’s fire services toward a safety ethic than did the original firefighter safety law of 1987. Ten years may not be long enough to judge if it signaled the end, but it certainly influenced change in the way we do things around here.

Firefighting is labor intensive, even with new technology. Municipal governments employing fulltime firefighters struggle to maintain apparatus staffing and the ranks of volunteers is thinning. Studies of apparatus staffing indicate less effectiveness in fire control and rescue activities with fewer firefighters. Fewer firefighters on the fireground (i.e., the scene of a fire) mean more work for each firefighter present. Maine is not alone in this problem. Fireground staffing concerns across the country forces neighboring towns to help each other on a regular basis.  

A series of fire service articles appeared in 2002. The first examined the way Maine provides government services. It mentioned former governor Angus King’s story of two adjacent towns that both buy expensive new fire equipment without thinking of trying to share or work together. The article had examples of regional fire efforts but pointed out the obstacles of past practice and the strong tradition of local control. Sharing of fire resources among Gorham, Scarborough, Standish, and Windham is regionalism at an early stage, but it is difficult to characterize the existing arrangement as real regionalization. It is more of an experiment in collaborative deployment of resources. We have discussed fire service regionalization for many years now with not much to show for results. Efforts to promote regionalism by working together, joint purchasing, sharing resources, and specialization should have been the norm, not a mandate from elected officials and taxpayers. Fire service tradition, turf wars, and pride may yet meet its match against the over-taxed citizenry of an economically sluggish rural state. In time, even jointly owned fire trucks, with one-half painted red and the one-half painted yellow, will not be enough to satisfy fuming taxpayers.

The second article in 2002 provided four examples of cost-effective regional fire protection. One model is similar to regional school districts, as in Maine. The second model involves contractual services provided by a central city that is attempting to improve its own efficiency, often to counter nearby suburban growth. The third is the fire district model where the entity has the power to levy fees or taxes in return for providing a service. Fourth are private companies that will fight the fires of their subscribing members. The article points out that there are few truly regional fire services in the United States. The third article of 2002 was a response to the two previous articles. It portrayed firefighting as labor-intensive and stated that despite all the modern technology, “all the fire trucks on earth” are useless without personnel to operate them and perform necessary tasks. It pointed to governmental regulations as the cause of problems, making recruiting, training, and retaining of volunteers more difficult.

A 2005 article suggested that residential sprinklers should be included in the discussion. Scottsdale, Arizona, provided an example where more than half the single-family homes have fire sprinklers. That city found that the average fire loss was $3,534 in sprinkled homes and $45,019 in non-sprinkled homes in the span of a 15-year study. For those whose fear of water damage outweighs their fear of fire, the study revealed that the average amount of water released from home sprinklers during fires was 209 gallons versus 3,290 gallons for the non-sprinkled homes on fire.

This article also interviewed experts who described the Maine fire service as stretched thin and to the limit, especially where volunteers are concerned. It also discussed fire department response time. (The Boston Globe had recently run a feature on this subject.) The Globe’s series claimed that nationwide, the on-time performance of fire departments is bad and getting worse, especially for volunteer departments. A 2006 U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) report offered a different view. The USFA study measured response time from dispatch to arrival on scene and did acknowledge some uncertainty in the national response (NFIRS) data. Using NFIRS, the USFA reported 16% of structure fires had a response time in the 4-minute range; the percent of structure fires with response times of 3 and 5 minutes were not far behind at 15% and 14%, respectively; and overall, 61% of structure fires in 2001 and 2002 had a response time of less than 6 minutes.

What the USFA reports fails to mention is the level of concentration of firefighters and pumpers on scene in 6 minutes. Adequate staffing is a critical element to controlling a fire quickly and safely. Prompt control keeps property damages low. If occupants have not escaped the fire, the likelihood of their survival rapidly diminishes with prolonged exposure to heat and smoke. The six-minute figure used in the Globe study is a benchmark for fire and EMS response. A room fire may flashover quickly, perhaps in 5-8 minutes, so that intervention by firefighters before the 6-minute mark can improve the odds of controlling the fire. A patient with a medical emergency affecting the supply of blood and oxygen to the brain needs medical intervention no later than about 6 minutes into the event.

These facts are the basis for quickness in a response. By breaking down the response time continuum into separate events, you are able to save seconds or minutes by tweaking the system. Ways to tweak the system include installing detection, monitoring, and notification systems; GIS/CAD 911; pagers for responders; traffic signal preemption; on-duty responders; dispatching the closest station; and providing good station coverage. Response time can have a direct impact on the spread of flames. The USFA study found that roughly half of the reported structure fires confined to the room of origin and confined to the floor of origin had a response time of less than 5 minutes. More than half of the reported fires confined to the building of origin and nearly half of fires beyond the building of origin had a response time of less than 6 minutes.

The average response time was lowest for fires confined to the room of origin (less than 7 minutes) while fires that spread beyond the building of origin have the highest average response time (less than 9 minutes). This data reinforces the advantage of controlling flame spread through adoption and enforcement of fire and building codes regulating building materials and requiring automatic fire sprinklers. The data also reinforces the value of staffed fire stations, strategically located for area coverage. 

The 2005 Townsman article highlighted the issue of decline in Maine’s volunteer departments. Volunteers then were thought to account for 90 percent of the 9,800 firefighters in Maine. The volunteers represent an estimated savings to Maine of $50 million a year according to the Maine Fire Protection Services Commission. In the 1970s, changing social and economic factors began to affect the ability of people to volunteer as emergency responders.

The end of the good old days

Emergencies grow more complex and require responders with more skills, knowledge, training, and experience. Declining participation in volunteer and call departments forces communities to rethink service delivery options. Unable to reorganize or redeploy in order to become more cost-effective (because of political or economic reasons) we resort to calling mutual aid or automatic aid agreements to fill the gap. There is no question that automatic aid is a constructive approach to address staffing of responses.

At a time when structure fires appear to be on the decline and many veteran firefighters are retiring, there is genuine concern for fulfilling the need for fire personnel to gain real-world experience. Automatic aid increases the opportunity for firefighters to gain more experience through attending fires. However, it is a legitimate question to ask whether we risk system failure down the road. Responder enthusiasm for attending actual fires is always high, but if automatic aid for structure fires turns into responding to smoke calls and false alarms how long before attendance declines? No matter how you wish to look at automatic aid, it is really a band-aid on the bleeding ranks of the volunteer service. For some regions, automatic aid may flourish and meet needs for decades to come. In others, caution is necessary to ensure that we do not rob Peter to pay Paul; we can avoid that by addressing volunteer recruitment and retention issues now.      

Community needs for fire service differs, so that what works here may not work there. A benefit versus cost-analysis to compare the cost between staffing options is a useful tool. An analysis may indicate a tipping point where the cost of call or volunteer personnel exceeds that of fulltime positions, based on the assumption that you staff three volunteers for one paid position. The cost analysis should include all associated costs taking into account recruitment, training, personal protective gear, retention, stipends, administration, and supervision. The combination department provides staffing options and flexibility. By utilizing any combination of full-time, part-time, per diem, paid-call, and volunteer you can find the right mix for your budget. It is the best solution for staffing departments in transition.

Some fire history

Fire historians usually credit Ben Franklin with bringing the idea of volunteer firefighters to Philadelphia. Always practical, Franklin most likely borrowed the idea of “community-based” fire protection from England; however, he added an interesting twist. In English villages, fire protection was mostly unorganized and inefficient where as Franklin’s model featured integrity through membership of the social and economic elite. Long before Franklin introduced these fire societies, Boston employed paid-call firefighters. The Boston and Philadelphia models formed the basis for the development of early fire protection in America. Fire protection would be a local matter and built on the regional model with nearby departments following the model.

In the towns of Massachusetts (and later Maine) paid-call departments were the rule while in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland volunteer companies flourished. This pattern exists today and is one of the reasons why the concept of regional fire services has not gained much headway in the northeastern states. In the south, mid-west, and far west fire protection took different forms. Because of the way in which these areas settled and developed county fire departments or regional fire districts offered a practical option. In addition, options for alternative staffing were easier to introduce. If Maine taxpayers want to realize any cost-savings in fire protection, we need to study the problem, identify what we can fix, and create a strategic plan. To reduce duplication of effort and saving money will inevitably require closing existing stations and building new ones to meet deployment and force concentration needs. A potential roadblock in such an effort is the ISO Fire Suppression Rating Schedule. The classification of a particular community under the schedule has an impact on fire insurance rates. A few rural states have addressed aspects of the ISO guidelines making changes to meet their needs.       

Living below sea level was a real incentive for inventors in Holland to design small portable pumps and flexible hoses in the 1600s. The application of these devices for firefighting was quickly recognized. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, the fire insurance companies in London formed private brigades to protect insured property using hand fire pumps. English villages that could afford to began to keep hand fire pumps. In time, the fallacy of private fire protection became evident. Allowing uninsured buildings to burn created certain hazards detrimental to nearby insured buildings. This realization would guide fire insurance, building code development, and firefighting over the next two centuries leading to the public fire protection system we have today.  

The concept of firefighters entering burning buildings with hose-lines appears to have originated in Scotland. In 1830, James Braidwood the chief of the fire brigade in Edinburgh, Scotland wrote the first known firefighting manual. It covered all the important subjects from fire apparatus to fire stations to the training of firefighters. The 1830 manual contains what are probably the first instructions for properly rolling fire hose (we still do it as he described).

He describes a technique for fire attack where firefighters enter burning buildings with hose-lines by crawling under the smoke. His book cautions firefighters not to spray the smoke, but to attempt to locate the “seat of the fire” and discharge the water directly on the “seat” or base of the fire. He even suggests that firefighters exercise to maintain their fitness for duty. The London Fire Engine Establishment (a subsidiary of the fire insurance companies) subsequently hired Chief Braidwood to lead London’s fire brigades. The chief died in the line of duty, killed under a collapsing wall in 1866 at the infamous Tooley Street warehouse fire.

Shortly thereafter, London’s new metropolitan regional government assumed firefighting responsibility from the fire insurance companies. The new chief was E. Massey Shaw. Chief Shaw carried on from Braidwood and introduced scientific principles to firefighting. As a former army captain, he also instilled discipline in the London brigade. The brigade’s membership would draw heavily from the ranks of the British Navy. Shaw travelled extensively in America to observe fire departments in action. He pointed out the lack of education among American fire chiefs of the 19th century and their phobia regarding the application of scientific principles to firefighting. An American fire chief remarked to Shaw that education is unimportant for firefighters and that esprit de corps was all that fire fighters needed to subdue conflagrations.

Firefighting’s occupational culture

By simple definition, a professional firefighter is one receiving sufficient pay to earn a living. By that definition, America saw firefighting professionalized in the 19th Century. The first fully paid departments maintained many of the less desirable characteristics of the volunteers. However, society would come to expect more from firefighters and that they possess certain knowledge, skills, and abilities. In time, as this process moved forward the paid firefighters developed their own culture. Within the context of their professional culture, an ethic for saving lives developed which was not present in the old volunteer system. Today, except for monetary compensation, there is little difference between the two systems in terms of equipment or objectives. 

Fire chiefs attending a conference in Atlanta this year heard a presentation by a Swedish firefighter with a PhD in research engineering. He told attendees that Sweden had but a single firefighter death in the last seven years compared to the United State’s 84 line-of-duty death so far this year. He characterized a hero culture among some American firefighters where being a hero outweighs common sense implying that it is heroic to die saving someone. He linked this to fireground staffing saying that with too few firefighters already, why commit a team of two to standby only to rescue downed firefighters. He asked whether American firefighters would be better served by focusing on staying out of trouble in the first place.

This past year, fire service journals have featured numerous articles on the issue of firefighter safety and the need for a change in culture. One article even suggests that some firefighters take their responsibility to save lives so strongly as to believe they actually have a duty to die. Calls for culture change are overall too simplistic and will not produce desired results for several reasons. One problem is that they fail to define what changes are needed other than a general change of attitude. Another is their failure to make a clear distinction between a fire department’s organizational culture and the occupational culture of firefighting. There is a difference–occupational culture is formed in training programs, especially at the introductory level while organizational culture is unique to each department. Which culture are they trying to change?

We train firefighters to temper their actions by only taking a great risk when the reward is greatest: risk a lot to save a lot, risk little to save little, risk nothing to save nothing. Presumably, the phrase means it is acceptable to risk your life, to a certain degree, to save another, but it does not imply a duty to die in the process. The problem here is that it fails to offer the firefighter a clear “go, no go” situational framework for assessing the risk. Basic and advanced firefighter training programs cover the subject of rescue for trapped occupants. The alert student will draw from this the conclusion of implied expectation to assume great risk if rescue is necessary. From that juncture, risk a lot to save a lot becomes problematic as the basis for behavior.

It is problematic because considerable experience, judgment, and maturity on the part of a firefighter is required to interpret the intended meaning of risk a lot, to save a lot, to say nothing of the rationalization necessary to muster the required courage. In the fast-paced environment of fire combat levelheaded thinking is needed, not a mission statement. A more suitable model for risk management in fire attack comes from the International Association of Fire Chiefs. This model follows the same premise as the simpler model, but enhances it with a framework for making the decision within an incident command system. What is clear from this is the critical role played by good communication, qualified leadership, and incident information in successful fire attack.  

How much training?

A recurring question among Maine firefighters is what does the state require for firefighter training and how many hours is the program? In a 2003 newsletter, the Maine DOL wrote that based on Maine statute: it is the responsibility of the fire chief to ensure that each firefighter has completed required training and that a training record is kept for each firefighter; before performing an interior structural fire attack, each firefighter must have training that meets the state firefighter standard and must have completed a controlled-fire training burn; each fire department shall provide training that meets local needs and is commensurate with duties; that training is in accordance with National Fire Protection Standards; and firefighters must attend training at the chief’s direction.

A DOL document titled “Interior Structural Firefighter Minimum Training Requirements NFPA 2002” provides limited guidance and few specifics. As no NFPA 2002 document exists, we have to assume what the Maine DOL intended to say is that their document is based on the 2002 edition of NFPA-1001, a document detailing job performance requirements for firefighters. The DOL document is actually a subject outline of 18 of the first 21 chapters of the Jones & Bartlett Fundamentals of Firefighter Skills, a 250-hour program used by MFTE (Maine Fire Training & Education).

Within Maine DOL agency rules there is no clear guidance regarding minimum number of hours of training. In and of itself the outline provided is of little use to a fire chief other than as a guide to what subjects should be covered in training. Maine law gives chiefs broad authority on how to deliver training. Some chiefs conduct programs in-house or use regional training resources while others rely on the MFTE program. The minimum hours for in-house and regional programs varies because program content varies. MFTE’s program is based on the Jones & Bartlett Fundamental Skills course and runs to approximately 250 hours. Similar programs used in other states run from about 90 to 400 hours. The MFTE course is a NFPA standards based program and has been accredited nationally. We know that there is a training burden on volunteers. We could do something about it if officials could just agree on what constitutes a reasonable basic training program for volunteers. Volunteers should have training programs of reasonable length and designed for the duties they actually perform. Career firefighters ultimately require more training and a minimum of about 250 hours is the starting point.

Volunteer needs

A recent study of rural fire services in Pennsylvania provides a basis for beginning to understand the volunteer problem and deserves study by the fire commission. The Pennsylvania study confirms the findings of other studies that the volunteer system is failing nationwide. Two critical issues are department funding and quality of leadership. Other issues include safety concerns and training requirements. Pennsylvania volunteers clearly preferred local and in-house training courses rather than travelling to a distant training center. A recent survey by MFTE of Maine chiefs confirmed the same viewpoint, local training is better. The study also confirmed that volunteers have a very strong desire to serve their community and that compensation is not a significant incentive. Incentives such as state-of-the-art equipment and gear; income tax credits; college tuition credits; insurance coverage; and pension benefits ranked high among Pennsylvania volunteers. Maine should explore what this study tells us about volunteer preferences for training, incentives for motivation, and the importance of qualified leadership. 

We need facts and a plan

We could address redundancy in services if we had better data on existing resources. An accurate state database of fire department resources would prove invaluable, with it we might be able to determine just how many firefighters there are in Maine, what their training needs are, what resources exist, and what resources they may require. Decision makers using data instead of anecdotes and conjecture based on traditions and politics would go a long way to improving the situation. Work is now underway on developing a national fire department information management system that ties to existing NFIRS data and fire program software used by some fire departments. The system reportedly will include risk assessment tools for preplanning incident response. The program will offer fire departments the opportunity for applying GIS analysis to solve deployment and response problems. Maine’s fire service leaders should begin to lay the groundwork to participate in the national system. We know there is mixed enthusiasm for regional fire services, but if we are ever going to realize any progress the state needs to take a serious look at the ISO rating schedule and how it affects how we spend tax dollars on fire protection.

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