That Lonely Feeling, The Ticking Time-Bomb of Short-Staffing

First, I need to apologize and make a confession. I'd like to apologize for such a long absence and the lack of content on the blog. There's a very good reason for it, I assure you. Which leads me to the confession. I believe that early on I copped to not being the most tech-savvy guy in cyber world and that is in direct relation to the lack of content. You see, I, uh, well that is, I mean, uh, well….<sigh> I forgot how to get into my own blog. Yeah, you read that right. I forgot how to get into the admin section of my own blog. I'm an idiot, I know. I can assure you that the proper web address is now safely tucked away in triplicate in different secure locations, if I can only remember where those are…

Ok. Everyone got their cup of regulah? Watch out, the diamond-plate may be a little wet yet from the wash. Dry it off and have a seat.

So, as the title implies I'd like to talk about a subject that is getting a lot of attention in our job right now; staffing reductions. I'm going to approach it from  little different angle however. It seems like everyone is talking about it and everyone is doing so in relation to firefighting and potential fire related deaths. While I agree with both of the arguments that a reduction in staffing effects our ability to accomplish essential fireground tasks in a timely manner and our ability to simultaneously conduct aggressive search operations I think we may be emphasizing this too much. Bare with me, I know that is bordering on sacrilege. In order to explain where I'm coming from I need to relay a story. I know, what's new right? What can I say, it's the Irish story teller in me.

We were dispatched with still companies to a reported pin-in on one of the expressways that is in our district. It was reported as a car versus semi-truck with heavy damage and serious injuries. The still Engine and Battalion Chief arrived first and reported the same. Next to arrive was the still Medic and Tower Ladder, bringing  8 firefighters and the chief to the scene. Upon our arrival we found a semi-truck had stopped in the break down lane on the outside of the highway with damage to the under-ride guard and trailer. The rear of the trailer was compressed probably three or four feet, enough to get it even with the rear dual. What was left of a car was in the inside lane with both front wheels gone, the hood and fenders flush with the windshield, the engine was in a million pieces spread everywhere and the drivers door and roof area were scraps of metal that looked like a metal sculptor decided to experiment with a chainsaw.  It was one of the most serious accidents in recent memory. So with our arrival the total on-scene compliment of firefighters was 12 plus a chief. Many departments would feel lucky to have that on the scene.

The Engine Lieutenant had finished his size-up and was reporting to the chief while his guys were dropping a hose line. The Tower Captain was getting his crew to work dragging out their compliment of extrication gear and securing the vehicle and we were told to dump all of our extrication gear and cribbing and get to work. I happened to be on the tool that day and went to the car to make my own size-up. I quickly determined we need to remove both front doors, remove the roof and roll the dash and probably would end up cutting both seat backs as well. I relayed this plan to both my Lieutenant and the Tower Captain. It was decided the Tower would take the passenger side of the car while we concentrated in the driver side. The passenger was alert but had multiple complaints (both she and her friend, the driver, were thankfully wearing seat belts), but the driver was unconscious and not able to be aroused. The B/C quickly requested an additional Medic, Engine and the District Chief to the scene. Soon thereafter we requested a medical helicopter to the scene, which required an additional Engine and Ladder company for the landing zone. So in total we were committing 23 firefighters and 2 chief-officers. And take it from me, every single guy there was busting his rear for approximately an hour until both patients were removed and on their way to separate hospitals. My department has gone from a staffing of 4 per Engine and Ladder to 3 over about the last 10 years. Luckily they have left us and our sister company alone and we still have 4. For how long, however, no one knows. If you look at this particular incident that would have given us an additional 5 firefighters on the scene to help. Now, it's been hot around here lately, and humid. During this incident four different firefighters had to be removed from work and sent to cool down and rehab due to exhaustion, three voluntarily and one involuntarily. So, as it turns out the girls were making a packie-run from a party they were at and jumped on the express to avoid traffic. MSP estimated they hit the truck doing about 85. It probably goes without saying alcohol was a factor.

So why the story about a pin-in when we're discussing short-staffing? Well, in my department most guys are firefighter/medics. We run ALS Engine companies as well as two ALS Squad companies plus the Medic units. While we had what many departments would consider a ton of firefighters on this job almost everyone was used up almost immediately. The still Engine had the Luft assigned as "Operations", the driver/operator manned the line, the back step firefighter/medic assisted the medics from the ambo. The still ambo was obviously used up immediately. The still Tower's Cap'n was made "Extrication", the driver/operator and the back step firefighter went to work on the extrication on the passenger side. Our entire 4-man crew went to work on the driver side extrication and the B/C was obviously the incident commander. With the arrival of the 2nd Engine, the Luft and the D/O went to work with the Tower company on the passenger side extrication and the back step firefighter/medic helped the 2nd due ambo. The helicopter landing zone Engine Luft and Tower Cap'n worked together with thier crews to set-up and secure the LZ and the D/C took command of the LZ. Everyone was used up immediately. And once those guys that I mentioned earlier had to go cool down and were removed from the operation their was no one to replace them. Granted, we could have called for additional resources but nearly the entire battalion and one half the town was there already. With the reduction in manning over the years we were missing 5 additional firefighters that could have been rotating in and out or lightening the load in other ways.

Like I said in the intro, everyone is talking about rolling brown-outs, staffing reductions and company closures and how it relates to the possibility or probability that this continued practice will lead to civilian or firefighter deaths . In some cases it already has. And again, while I generally agree with this stance, I'm really sick of hearing it. Everyone is beating the same drum and saying it the exact same way. "Mr. Mayor, if you close these 2 Ladder companies someone will die." "Selectman so-and-so, you are severely hampering our ability to save lives with these proposed cuts to our manning. Someone will die." "Mr. town manager, the continued practice of rolling brown-outs puts the lives of those people that would normally be served by that fire house at risk. It is only a matter of time until someone dies." Maybe it's the fire services version of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf". While indeed there is a wolf lurking, who knows where or when it will strike. And since our fire load is in general down, although that is becoming arguable again, the odds are that the cities, villages and towns will probably continue to get away with it unscathed. But what if we put a different spin on it? What if we acknowledge the danger in a fire situation but use other types of calls to try and ram our point home. Much more common calls, like the one I illustrated in the story above. Or the Alameda, California story. Or something else that is common and equally as dangerous as a structure fire in your area. 

We got both our patients out and to hospital relatively quickly while delivering good EMS care at the same time. Our patients probably did not directly suffer from the history of our decreased staffing. But there was another price to pay in the brothers that went down due to the weather and the heavy toll the extrication was taking on them. Another thing that the city hall dwellers hate are increased insurance premiums and workers comp settlement costs. What if a couple of our guys would have had to take time off or be hospitalized due to their injuries? I just think there are other ways to tackle this than with our current illustration of the Grim Reaper hanging out in every browned-out firehouse. One that might actually make some headway with the suits. 

I've seen the following video a few places on the web now. Maybe you have too. It was made by the Redwood City, California IAFF Local in response to threatened budget and staff cuts by their city council. It almost completely ignores the structural firefighting aspect of the job but still delivers a very poignant and powerful message about other aspects of our job that are just as important. Give it a few minutes and watch.



Pretty good huh? Now getjerbutts off 'da tailboard and quit watchin' videos and go do something!


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