FIRE! But Who, What, Where, and When?

By Billy Goldfeder

Dear Nozzlehead,

I have taken several of your lectures at the Fire Department Instructors Conference International as well as attended your seminars here in our state. I am interested in your thoughts on response policy as I am currently working to change ours. We currently have a single department (one station) alerted for a structure fire in our town during the hours of 1800 and 0600, and we go two departments dispatched (two stations) during the hours of 0600 and 1800 based on the fact that our area is made up of volunteer firefighters. I am looking to go to a three-department hit 24 hours a day to any reported structure fire in our area. I would appreciate if you could give me some guidance on this issue.

—Concerned in the Garden State

Dear Concerned,

There is A LOT of this going around lately, concerns about response in combination or volunteer fire (and EMS) departments. I took on the issue pretty hard last Fall (see “The Volunteer Fire Rescue Gamble,” FireRescue, October 2017), but it is worth covering again—specifically related to your questions about time-of-day response.

In 1956 there was a book written entitled The Romance of Firefighting by Robert S. Holzman (and it’s still out there and copies are available). While the book is a wonderful fire service history book, the title is what always got to me. The “romance”... and I thought, is that what I am feeling? NOT exactly like my first girlfriend but a cool feeling of how much I absolutely LOVE being a firefighter; a feeling I felt as a little kid with anticipation and as a new firefighter in 1973. And I am one of the lucky ones because that love has only gotten stronger.

Have I had some bad days? Of course! Have I had to deal with some mutts who weren’t into it and were annoyed with those of us who were and are? Absolutely. But it never slowed me down. Ever. When I was a probie, I remember some of the old-timers watching my level of enthusiasm and love of being a firefighter with curiosity. It’s a romance of sorts, and one I am lucky to be involved with.

While not every firefighter is obsessed like others, there are many GOOD firefighters at all levels. But unfortunately, these days, for a variety of reasons, the active volunteer ranks are less and less. (I covered quite a bit of that last Fall.)

As I stated in the beginning of this column, while I am thrilled that there is a lot of buzz about this critical issue, there is not enough action. There are not enough leaders taking it on. There are far too many heads in the sand, afraid to lead the evolution of their organization.

Your question offers a great opportunity for a different view of the issue.

While you currently send one “department” (station) during some hours and two departments during others, you are interested in having all three roll together 24/7 when there is a reported structural fire.

My immediate response is: ABSOLUTELY! However, it really requires more information and discussion. So here are a few thoughts related to that starting with: Show me the fire. That’s my standard response when I hear people loving or whining about the latest fire behavior studies, air flow, venting, etc., and it applies in your case as well.

Prior to a fire, it’s important for fire department leaders to look at several things, including the following:

What do you have? What are your responsible for protecting?

What do you want to accomplish? What’s your goal? Force entry, water on fire, search, rescue, vent, etc.? Within what time constraints? How many companies will you need? How many firefighters are on your companies? Who may/may not turn out? Are they truly “qualified” firefighters or are they riding along but unable to go interior? Yep, that’s a very real issue out there!

What are your resources? And this, Brother “Concerned,” helps you find the solution to your question! What are your resources? When there is a fire, STATISTICALLY (go back five years) how many certified, SCBA-interior qualified firefighters respond in a timely manner? Get the FACTS by determining the following:

Who has been showing up in the past five years?

What are their qualifications?

Where are other fire companies coming from (time and distance)?

When does your department arrive (day, night, weekend, etc.) after being alerted, and with how many personnel?

When do the mutual-aid companies/departments arrive?

How many firefighters are actually needed?

It is all preplannable (my word, don’t look it up, just go with it). Once you get the facts, you will be able to determine how many stations (or companies), what apparatus, and how many firefighters you need. And while some areas may have some unusual challenges (industrial, large-capacity occupancies, mid- or high-rises, etc.), the following should be of help to you in determining the needed staffing for a small, single-family, wood-frame dwelling in a hydranted area. Now, to be clear, needed staff means qualified volunteer firefighters who show up within minutes, not “later” to get “cheap credit” for the run—just say’n.

Lay it all out. You need the following (and this is very general, for the sake of discussion, using absolute minimal numbers of firefighters):

• Three lines (nine firefighters, two lines on the inside, second one backing up the first, the third goes to a secondary access point or wherever the conditions dictate).

• One firefighter on the hydrant/one on the pump (two firefighters).

• Forcible entry and search (two firefighters).

• Vent (horizontal or vertical or flow path control) (two firefighters).

• Rapid intervention/on deck/two out (three firefighters, just to start the process).

• Command (two fire officers, where one chief can observe A/B in command and the other is on C/D giving command a 360 view).

It comes to 20 firefighters, and that’s bare minimum in my opinion. If there are indications of it being a working fire, then you may need to double the initial alarm; it’s up to you based on WHAT you want accomplished and in WHAT period of time. What time period do you want them to arrive? Do the math! Or, let’s make it easy. Let’s pretend it is your house on fire; now, set the turnout and response times you would like. How ‘bout that?

This should help you figure out answers to your issue: Determine factually who will show up with how many firefighters in what period of time. Once you have the facts and the stats, you will then KNOW how many stations, apparatus, and firefighters you need.

You may find out that, during certain times, you will need three stations and other times you may need five (that is, if the stations can only turn out four firefighters per station). It all depends on the facts and what you are responsible for protecting and responding to. Once again, we find that it is always about what’s best for the people having the fire … and those fighting the fire.

Got a fire service question or complaint?

Let Nozzlehead hear all about it. He’ll answer you with 2,000 psi of free-flowing opinion. Send your letters to: Nozzlehead, c/o FireRescue, PennWell Corp. 21-00 Route 208 South, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410, Attn: Diane Rothschild (