Big City Thinking for Small Town USA

I have spent the last eleven years on a small combination department consisting of fourteen full time firefighters and ten volunteers. We seem to run into the same problems firefighters across the nation run into every day. We fight fires with less resources but are expected to more than what we are capable of doing. Our shifts consist of four career firefighters with a three firefighter minimum. Consistently we are responding to emergencies with three personnel and having to do the work of ten, with help coming 10-15 minutes later. So the question is, how can we get our tasks done timely and efficiently on the fire ground with fewer personnel than our bigger city departments.

The first step is getting our personnel to buy in. Getting them to go from “We can’t do that this isn’t the FDNY”, to “Let’s make this happen,” can be a challenge. This takes a game plan and hours on the training ground and good strong leadership. Every firefighter knows the first five minutes can make or break a scene. Every situation is different and no two scenes are the same. Prioritizing our tasks becomes a way of life with few personnel on scene, as only one task may get done at a time.

So let’s start with the leadership. Company officers are the first step to buy in. In smaller cities and towns, we usually don’t see a battalion chief showing up and running the show, its usually the first arriving company officer. That officer has a million thoughts running through their mind including size up, resources needed and initial tactics and tasks. It takes a solid officer or senior firefighter with great leadership skills and a great command presence. You have to be willing to go above and beyond for your crew. As an officer it’s your job to stay up to date on your training, going to trade shows to see new ideas and technology and leading from the front. If you drill on the training ground on how you want things done, then when the time comes, it will never be questioned. A step like this takes time, patience and a lot of training. Also as the company officer you need to set your expectations out on the table for your crew to know. If they know what you want and how you want it done there will be no excuses or questions to be asked at any incidents that you respond to.

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So the next question is how do you fight fire, do search and rescue, ventilate and possibly provide medical support with a small amount of people in that first five to ten-minute window. So what’s the answer, TRAINING. We train to do these things till it becomes second nature. We train our crews to make an educated decision like, how to position the truck upon arrival to allow maximum use of our hose line and deploying the proper hose line without being told. We train them how to do search off the attack line. We practice VEIS (Vent Enter Isolate Search) on known victims. We train them to use their senses to look at the time of day, read what the smoke is doing, look for vehicles in driveways and use their ears to listen for yelling victims. We want situational awareness 100% of the time as we don’t have the help of thirty other firefighters to get this done. Training has to become number one for small town USA departments, as fires are coming fewer and farther apart.

If we have a known victim or time of day leads us to believe that there is a victim inside and the may be salvageable then we need to figure out whether to put the fire out or initiate VEIS to search for victims. We do this by training on smoke reading, learning fire behavior, identifying building construction type and knowing general human behavior. These are basic things that all firefighters of any level in a smaller entity should know. Keeping up on the latest UL/NIST Research, such as door control for controlling ventilation and flow paths, and wind driven fire events, change how we train and how we ultimately act on the fire ground. Not to mention training makes us more efficient and just plain better firefighters.

I know this is all words we have either heard or read before but it leads into the next step which is fire ground efficiency. Utilizing your personnel when its limited is a testing task. You have benchmarks and tasks that need done but only limited personnel to do it. One thing that we have done that seems to work well is instead of assigning incoming units with predetermined tasks, we Have created a labor pool and use an on deck style of system. We take the personnel and when called for, assign them a task. This allows us to still get fire ground tasks done, but still maintain a personnel labor pool. For instance, you call for two personnel to do a VEIS to a second story bedroom, you get two firefighters that go and complete that task, report back on their findings and can rotate back into the labor pool.  Need a backup line deployed, by the way this should already be done and waiting on personnel to use it.  Firefighters can be assigned to that position upon arrival as needed.

So another question asked is what about Rescue intervention teams (RIT)? Well there is an answer, EVERYONE is RIT. You tend to hear the questions, “You don’t have a dedicated RIT team?” “What if something happens?” You tell them “you are trained in RIT and you become the RIT team”. We learn to adapt to these different roles. RIT equipment is still assembled, but you use the on deck firefighters as the RIT team. We’ve learned after the Phoenix studies of the Bret Tarver incident from 2001, that it usually takes more than one RIT team to get a firefighter out of a structure, situation dependent and this gives you a decent labor pool to get that done.  You can assign crews to soften the structure, place ground ladders and do continuous 360s and report back their findings to the other firefighters and command. If the situation arises where a firefighter gets in trouble you have the personnel to get them out. We get better educated firefighters on the scene that have greater knowledge of the structure they could be entering. You have to again train on this as it goes against a lot of what is taught.

We all strive to be the best at our job and know that our training could mean the difference between life and death. So why is it that there are still firefighters that fight change and new ideas. We are creatures of habit and when new ideas are brought up that changes our habits, you get some resistance. So let’s help change the minds of these firefighters and motivate them to try something new. I wish we could drop three engines, two ladders, a battalion chief, a rescue and a medic on a scene in the first five minutes but this just doesn’t happen in most fire departments. In the case of the volunteer side, just getting the personnel to help can be a challenge. So, we need to learn to do more with less and become a solid, well trained team. We need to train with neighboring departments and get them to understand what we are doing. They are our help and if they are confused, then the system can start to break down. Teamwork and training becomes the priority. The emergencies will come, with increased training and efficient use of our personnel then we can make any emergency go our way.

You will learn to adjust your strategies and tactics to our personnel availability. We can use a lot of the same strategies and tactics as our big city neighbors just sized down and adjusted to our needs. I have met a lot of bigger city firefighters and have spent many hours talking with them. I have found I can get a great education and hear different ways of thinking from them. When this happens I bring back what I have either wrote down or can remember and try to figure out how to adopt it to my department. This will always be a challenge, but it’s a rewarding challenge.

So in closing I would like to say just because we don’t have as many people, as many apparatus or just plain the size and area to cover as some of the bigger city departments, doesn’t mean we can’t function and think the same. Through training, buy in and strong leadership this can be done fairly easily. Just remember we all have the best job in the world, so let’s make every second count.

Patrick currently serves as a Firefighter/Paramedic for Wapakoneta Fire-Ems in Wapakoneta, Ohio. He has eleven years in the fire service. He is married to his wife Ashley and has three children Haley, Ethan and Ava. Patrick has a Bachelor’s of Fire Science degree from Columbia Southern University and an Associates of Applied Science in Ems from the University of Toledo. He also serves as the Coordinator for the PALS program and AHA outreach for Lima Memorial Health Systems. Patrick Is also a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association Maxwell leadership Program.

Posted in Fire Service, Firefighting, Leadership, Patrick Mullen, Staffing.