Fire departments come under scrutiny

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Despite the economic troubles with clever thinking fire chiefs can still deliver high-quality service

Many fire departments are being challenged by budget crises, rising call volume, personnel and equipment shortages, security issues and the overall expectation to do more with less. Effectively managing these challenges requires a basic understanding of how changes in levels of fire department resources deployed affect outcomes from emergencies that occur daily. Failing to manage these challenges can leave individuals, a fire department and a community vulnerable to undesirable events. Both in the UK and the US, fire departments have seen response times suffer as staff are laid off. For instance, Canvey Island, in Essex, has not had a full-time fire crew since October 2011. A part-time, but still fully trained, staff have been in place sine. However, figures released earlier this year have shown that this has had a dramatic effect on response times in the region. Average duty response times had risen by two minutes in first nine months after the change, and the average maximum response time rose by an alarming eight-and-a-half months. Since November 2011, the station’s average monthly responses have also consistently exceeded eight minutes, rising to more than ten minutes at the start of 2012. Prior to the switchover, the average monthly response time hovered between six and seven minutes. In March 2012, the average response time was eight minutes 56 seconds. Unsurprisingly, the news has not gone down well with local residents. One told the local press that “The fire service promised this would not have an impact on response times and it clearly has. In those extra two minutes you never know what could happen. It could be the difference between saving a life and not.” Essex Fire and Rescue, who are in charge of the Canvey area, say that the move will help save £845,000 a year, and argued that, although the response times had risen, it had meant that the local rescue pump has been more accessible: “Since the move to retained firefighters, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service has used mixed crewing to ensure Canvey’s rescue pump remained on the run, and availability has significantly improved. There has been no increase in appliances from elsewhere being the first appliance to be mobilised to incidents on Canvey.” On the other side of the Pond, in Los Angeles, fire chief Brian Cummings has been summoned to appear in front of the city’s council to explain why his department has “been unwilling or unable to develop a plan to reduce response times and improve public safety.” When he was elected in 2010, Cummings had devised an innovative cost-cutting plan to help Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cut over $50 million from the city’s fire department budget, while nudging response times back down to pre-recession levels. However, his plans have largely failed to materialise: Response times are worse than when stations were fully staffed, and dispatchers are struggling to process 911 calls quickly. Cummings has argued that he is doing all he can with limited funds and promised to improve things if and when he gets more resources. He also said that other measures of his force’s performance had been ignored, with the media instead focusing too much on the negative headlines. LAFD Commissioner Alan Skobin has criticised Cummings, saying: “I saw no evidence that he had the professional focus or tools to approach it…” and suggesting that Cummings was not interested in ensuring the department’s performance reporting is accurate, thus undermining public confidence. While it is understandable that difficult economic times will have an impact on the fire service, fire professionals have to bear in mind the measures they take in order to both maintain public confidence and, more importantly, continue saving lives and protecting property. It is up to fire chiefs to decide what risks they are willing to take and how much they are prepared to cut back on. Cutting staff would lead to lead to longer response time and less quality of care; cutting equipment will mean there’s less to go round – either way, it will be more dangerous to the general public. The operational performance of a fire department depends on three key factors: Resource availability/reliability – the degree to which the • resources are ready and available to respond Department capability – the ability of the resources • deployed to deal with the incident Overall effectiveness – the outcome achieved by the • deployed resources To have a reliable, and thus successful, response to an incident, fire-fighters and their equipment must be properly equipped and available. As the number of calls increases and the number of fire-
fighters/equipment available decreases, it is increasingly likely that the fire services will lose effectiveness. It is up to fire chiefs to ensure prioritise what equipment or how many personnel to send to each incident. It is often down to timing: It is pointless wasting time spending dozens of fire-fighters to a small-scale fire; similarly, assigning a large fire to a small team would endanger both their lives and the public’s, as well as risk even more property damage. The job of the fire chief is to decide when and where to deploy his staff. To do this, they target a point in the fire’s growth that marks a significant shift in its threat to life and property. This is called the ‘flashover’. At flashover, a fire engulfs everything in the room, and the ensuing heat, smoke and pressure begins to force the fire into adjoining rooms. This is a massive risk to the survival of any occupants of the room. It also creates an exponential growth to the rate of combustion and risk to the fire-fighters’ health and safety. Furthermore, more water and more fire-fighters are needed to extinguish the larger fire, and, as flashover fires cause more damage and cover a larger area than regular fires, more personnel are needed to perform a search and rescue operation once the fire has been put out. It is therefore critical for the correct number of fire-fighters to tend to a fire, and at the right time. The key is to find the minimum acceptable response force to engage in the fire before flashover occurs – meaning fire-fighters must arrive at the right time, and with the correct equipment. To create a so-called ‘effective response force’, the minimum number of fire-fighters and equipment must be dispatched to the emergency location within a maximum travel time. The maximum travel time is a good indicator of resource deployment efficiency. In America, NFPA Standard 1710 gives guidelines on the number of on-duty fire personnel that are needed to carry out specific tasks in various hazard levels. Although it focuses mainly on low hazard environments, 1710 also touches on medium and high level hazards as well. Fire chiefs can also use the Fire Protection Handbook to identify initial attack response capabilities for low, medium and high hazard occupancies: HIGH HAZARD OCCUPANCIES: Schools, hospitals, nursing homes, explosive plants, refineries, high-rise buildings and other high life hazard or high fire potential buildings. Response capability – At least four pumpers, two ladder trucks, two chief officers and other specialised apparatus designed for the combustible involved; no fewer than 24 fire-fighters and two chief officers plus an extra safety officer and a rapid intervention team. Extra staff is advised. MEDIUM HAZARD OCCUPANCIES: Apartments, offices, mercantile and industrial occupancies not normally requiring extensive rescue by fire-fighters. Response capability – At least three pumpers, one ladder truck (or combination apparatus), one chief officer and other specialised apparatus; no fewer than 16 fire-fighters and one chief officer plus a safety officer plus a safety officer and rapid intervention team. LOW HAZARD OCCUPANCIES: One-, two- or three-family dwellings and scattered small businesses and industrial occupancies. Response capability – At least two pumpers, one ladder truck (or combination apparatus), one chief officer and other specialised apparatus, no fewer than 12 fire-fighters and one chief officer plus a safety officer and a rapid intervention team. Obviously, these are merely guidelines – different numbers of fire-fighters and/or equipment may be needed in various scenarios. It is the job of the fire chief to think fast and react to the developing situation. They must act in the absence of complete information in order to ensure the safety of the public and their crews, and put the fire out as quickly and efficiently as possible. This involves a certain amount of experience and intuition, but also shared knowledge. It is vital that fire professionals meet and share stories and how they reacted to situations. Every fire professional has both success and horror stories, which they can pass onto others. Learning from one another is the best way for fire professionals to be able to progress. Although fire departments the world over are facing staff and equipment shortages due to the economic downturn, with some clever thinking and resource management, they should theoretically still be able to deliver high levels of service. However, as the cases of Canvey’s non-permanent brigade and the LAFD chief’s public grilling show, in reality this is not always the case. The public will always need reassurances that their emergency services are doing the best they can to maintain a swift, professional and high-quality job of protecting their lives and property.

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