In the previous decades, fire chiefs continually have been pressured to cut budgets and find creative ways to save their districts money. This has meant that firefighters everywhere have been asked to do more with less. We have cut staffing despite an increase in call volume. We have seen fire stations close. Old equipment is kept in service well past its prime. And yet, we are asked once again to do more with less.
Firefighters are known for having the ability to overcome any obstacle. It is in our very nature to do so. Sayings such as “Make it happen” and “Adapt, improvise, and overcome!” are part of our daily vocabulary. These philosophies serve us well in a career where it is simply impossible to prepare for every scenario that you will encounter.
And as firefighters promote into management positions, they often bring that mindset with them. “Whatever you throw at us, we will overcome.” But, are our chief officers doing us, as firefighters, and the public a disservice by holding onto those philosophies once they have promoted into management positions? Ask yourself, at this point, can your district really continue to do more with less-less fire stations, less personnel, less equipment, less pay?
Doing Less with Less
In some cases, combining two companies in one fire station makes sense. It saves the expense of building or maintaining two fire stations instead of one. In other the cases, the increase in response times makes this option unacceptable, as an increase in response times has repeatedly been shown to negatively affect patient outcomes and increase dollar loss. And often, especially in our older stations, there is simply not enough square footage to make this option workable.
What about fewer personnel on each apparatus? In April 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published a study which showed that four-person companies were able to complete essential firefighting and rescue tasks in a residential structure 30 percent faster than two-person crews and 25 percent faster than three-person crews.1
The same report also cited earlier studies that came to a similar conclusion, including the 1990 National Fire Academy study which found that “in smaller communities … a company crew staffed with four firefighters could perform rescue of potential victims approximately 80% faster than a crew staffed with three firefighters.” (1)
Another study intended to demonstrate the effects of crew size on firefighter effectiveness in high-rise building fires found that: “A five-person crew located the victim on the fire floor 25 minutes and 19 seconds (50.6 percent) faster than a three-person crew and 12 minutes and seven seconds (32.9 percent) faster than a four-person crew.” (1)
In the case of personnel, it has been proven time and again that we cannot do more with less. In fact, when understaffed, we are not only inefficient, we are also more likely to be injured. In 1981, a report released by the Seattle (WA) Fire Department found that, “total hours of disability per hours of fireground exposure were 54 percent greater for engine companies staffed with three personnel when compared to those staffed with four firefighters, while companies staffed with five personnel had an injury rate that was only one-third that associated with four-person companies.”2 A joint report from the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and Johns Hopkins University concluded that “ … jurisdictions operating with crews of less than four firefighters had injury rates nearly twice the percentage of jurisdictions operating with crews of four-person crews or more.” (2)
Recent statistics from San Bernardino City (CA) Fire Department showed that, from 2009 to 2015, the fire department’s budget was cut by more than $6.2 million (18.2 percent), causing it to cut 42 suppression positions, while the call load in the city increased more than 35 percent. It no surprise then that between April 2009 and April 2015, there was a 250 percent increase in injuries. All of those injuries are not only unacceptable from a firefighter’s perspective, but they are expensive for the departments that employ those firefighters.
Sleep Deprivation and Outdated Apparatus
In busy departments where tight budgets require firefighters to do more with less on a daily basis, these risks are often multiplied by an extreme call load and chronically fatigued firefighters, posing a real risk to the communities they serve. A 2010 article based on a recent scientific study was published by Science Transitional Medicine warning that, “Being awake for 24 hours straight can impair our abilities as much as a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent.”3 It goes on to say, “When chronic sleep loss is super-imposed on the natural low-performance periods of our body’s 24-hour rhythm, reaction times slow to about 10 times normal, even if we got a good night’s sleep the night before-a truly hazardous situation.” (3)
This perfect storm of fatigue is compounded once again when exhausted and sleep-deprived firefighters are racing through the streets in an apparatus that is outdated or poorly maintained. Does your district even have a replacement plan for fire apparatus? Or is the plan to just drive it until it implodes? Are we doing more with less, or is it costing us more to try and skimp by with equipment that is in constant need of repair?
A report on the condition of the Detroit (MI) Fire Department (DFD) found that a pattern of continual postponement of maintenance and replacement of fire apparatus had placed the community at significant risk. Independent reporter Steve Neavling wrote, “Detroit’s 46 fire engines, 18 ladder trucks, and six squads are rundown and unreliable …. As a result, rigs are routinely sent to fires with bad brakes, defective oil gauges, faulty hydraulic systems, mismatched tires, broken pumps, leaking fluids, nonworking sirens and lights, and patchwork repairs that often come undone during emergencies.”4 The article also states, “To blame are chronic issues that have plagued the fire department for decades-shoddy maintenance, poor management decisions and reckless budget cuts.” (4)
Deadline Detroit published the city’s rebuttal to Neavling’s article, but even the city admitted, “It is well known that for years, even decades, the DFD fleet has been beyond its service life and that historically, fleet upgrades were not made a priority.”5
Finally, Neavling’s article revealed, “Not one of the city’s specialty rigs works. Detroit no longer has a foam truck for gas fires or a pumper to protect the city’s airport. And Detroit’s fire boat recently failed to pump water, rendering it useless.” (4)
But this isn’t just a Detroit problem, or even a problem plaguing only bankrupt cities. It is obvious that quality fire protection is no longer a priority for many of our country’s biggest cities. Recently, San Francisco (CA) Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White had to make the agonizing decision not to send a strike team to help those battling the deadly Valley Fire in Lake County, California. After sending six units to the Butte Fire, another massive California wildfire, Hayes-White determined that the department could only afford to send one unit to the Lake Fire. When questioned about her decision in a Fire Commission meeting, she cited not a lack of firefighters but a lack of equipment.
“The Fire Chief voiced her own criticism for the city, saying that repeated funding cuts have depleted the department’s resources, leaving firefighters with an aging fleet, subject to maintenance problems and limiting their response capabilities.”6
In her article “Come Hell or High Water,” Miami-Dade (FL) firefighter/paramedic Gea Leigh Haff wrote: “Despite the fact that Miami is the cruise ship capital of the world, is the number one recreational boating community in the nation, and has the largest container port in Florida, Fireboat 1 was the only fireboat in service … South Florida’s fireboats are an endangered species … More than four million people pass through Miami’s port, and yet both the City of Miami and Miami-Dade Fire Departments have had to fight to keep their boats in service. Sometimes, because of budget constraints, Miami-Dade County has no fireboats in service at all.”8
Pay and Benefit Cuts
And lately, the pay, benefit packages, and retirements of career firefighters have also been under constant fire. But this is no longer the era of the “big dumb” firefighter. Today’s fire service has more training and education than ever before. The level of training and education required in many career departments means that the public is basically paying the salaries of professional athletes, some after years in the fire service, with the equivalent of a doctoral degree’s worth of education and training. People like that, who are also willing to do a job where they not only run into burning buildings but also get vomited on, bled on, insulted, and even assaulted on an almost daily basis, do not come cheap. And the risks that they take follow them long after they have left the fire service. Cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, bad knees, bad backs, torn rotator cuffs, autoimmune diseases, and the list of damage we do to ourselves in the course of our careers is never ending.
So what happens when these highly trained and motivated professionals begin losing pay, benefits, and job security? Many leave! They retire, find jobs with other departments, or find other careers entirely.
In just the first four months of 2015, 10 firefighters (nearly 10 percent of the department) left the City of San Bernardino after fiscal mismanagement and multiple budget cuts caused the union to wage an extended battle with city leaders over pay, benefits, and working conditions, and the city itself declared bankruptcy. That means that in just four months the citizens of San Bernardino lost access to around 100 years worth of firefighting experience, according to IAFF Local 891. Those firefighters may be replaced with new recruits, but it takes years to build a seasoned firefighter. In a city as busy as San Bernardino, which had 31,316 calls for service in 2014, including more than 1,000 fires, this loss of not only personnel but experience is huge.
Some of those who left were captains who accepted entry level positions with other departments; this is nearly unheard of in the fire service. Local 891 Director Kenneth Konior likened this to a veteran colonel in the Marines accepting a position as a private in basic training in the Army.
So, where do we go from here? What can each of us, and especially union leaders and chief officers, do to ensure that our beloved fire service not only survives but is properly funded?
Saving the Service
While no single strategy will work for every agency, here are a few tactics that can help combat budget cuts.
- Do your research. As a chief officer or union leader, you should know the numbers, your population, how much that population has increased in recent years, your call load, how that call load is trending, your budget, where you can cut, where you can’t, what needs shoring up, and how much it is going to take to pay for it all.
- Be honest and educate the public. We are all aware that good education and training are critical to a firefighter’s success. But educating our public is just as important! Never sugarcoat the situation. If public safety is truly at risk, make sure that the public knows it and what it will take to fix the situation. We are the fire department. When you feel like you are losing a politically charged budget battle, it certainly helps to get the public on your side. But for that to happen, we have to educate them. And that is a continuous process, not just something to be done when the fire department has a new tax on the upcoming ballot. Our citizens must fully understand what is at stake long before we ask them for more funding. Remember: If the public doesn’t hear about budget, staffing, and coverage problems from us, when they do hear about them they may assume that the fire department or its leaders are at fault.
- Never allow another budget constraint to further compromise firefighter safety.
- Put dangerous equipment out of service. Limit the number of hours your firefighters are forced to work. And if these steps mean browning out stations-do it anyway. If the firefighters aren’t safe, the public isn’t safe.
- Look for new sources of revenue. Learn how to write grant proposals. Develop a cost recovery program and make sure that the recovered funds go back into the fire department budget, not into generic government coffers.
- Consider hiring an expert. We are firefighters. We are not forensic accountants, professional negotiators, lawyers, or media experts. Recognize when it is time to hire a professional from the outside.
- Have a plan. Have a contingency plan before budget cuts are forced on you. Figure out ahead of time how you can best reallocate resources and funds in a way that does not jeopardize the safety of your firefighters. In many cases, that plan will have an impact on public safety. Make the public aware of what those impacts will be and why they are necessary before they are implemented.
- Don’t be afraid to say no! Be brave enough to say, “No, we cannot do any more with any less. These are the risks, and they are unacceptable!”
There is a time when each of us must do what is best for both the public and the fire service. That time is now.
1. National Institute of Standards and Technology, “Landmark Residential Fire Study Shows How Crew Sizes and Arrival Times Influence Saving Lives and Property”, 2010, http://www.nist.gov/el/fire_research/residential-fire-report_042810.cfm.
2. Averill, Jason D, Lori Moore-Merrell, Adam Barowy, et al., “NIST Technical Note 1661: Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments,” NIST, April 2010, https://www.iafc.org/files/deptAdmin_NISTdeploymentReport.pdf.
3. Cohen, Daniel A, Wei Wang, James K. Wyatt, et al. “Uncovering Residual Effects of Chronic Sleep Loss on Human Performance,” Science Translational Medicine, Vol. 2, Issue 14, Jan 2010.
4. Neavling, Steve, “Rolling the dice: Detroit routinely sends dangerously defective rigs to fires,” Motor City Muckraker, July 2015.
5. “Detroit vs. Steve Neavling: Is Story on ‘Defective’ Fire Rigs Misleading and Wrong? Deadline Detroit, August 2015, www.deadlinedetroit.com.
6. KTVU, “SF Fire Chief defends limiting aid to Valley Fire,” September 2015, http://www.ktvu.com/news/24473235-story.
7. Haff, Gea Leigh, “Come Hell or High Water,” FireRescue, April 2015.