Just mention staffing or manpower in a room of firefighters of any rank and heads will turn. It is something we are all concerned with and that very few departments are happy with. If you were at a firefighters conference and asked for a show of hands how many were satisfied with their staffing on engines and truck companies, very few if any hands would go up. If you asked the same question at a fire chief’s conference the answer would be close to the same with a few more hands going up. So yes, it is a concern for all firefighters. For this article I will concentrate on engine company staffing although the same principles could be applied to the truck companies.
So what is the ideal number of firefighters that should be on an engine for fire responses? I am not sure anyone can state without argument what the ideal number is, but I’m pretty close to certain that a two person engine company is not it. I can only speak for paid departments although I would think there is not much two people can do as a first arriving unit. If the department always has two engines responding from the same station on every fire call with two personnel on each unit would put four personnel on the fire scene until more help arrives. But if a department had that set up, why not put all four on the same engine? And I am sure there are reasons why you would keep two engines responding, but I can’t think of any. So a two man engine crew can stop at the plug, wrap the hydrant, lay a line and wait for the next unit to connect to the hydrant, but once on the scene entry should not be made except in extreme lifesaving circumstances. But who would go in? Okay I beat that dead horse. A two man crew will get a unit on scene and can take command and perform size up and a quick walk around. But confine, control, extinguish, and maybe rescue will have to wait for another unit.
A three man crew is a little better and is what I am accustomed to in the department I worked for. We also had a EMS unit with firefighters responding so that for the most part, there were five personnel on scene with an average response time of about four and a half minutes. And of course there were two more engines and a truck company responding. Within the first eight to ten minutes from alarm time there were usually 14-16 personnel on scene. Yes, it is a good system for three man engine crews. You can leave a man at the hydrant who can then charge the line when ready, walk to the scene and usually arrive at about the same time as the second or third engine. Plenty of personnel to perform the basic firefighting operations required. Did I mention this is in a mostly residential city, and most were single story. So the system worked very well. I certainly can see where that same three man engine crew would not be ideal depending on the demographics of the community. One size does not fit all. With three people you can grab the hydrant and charge it, but you still only have two people at the scene. I feel comfortable in saying that a three person engine crew works well dependent upon the demographics and needs of the individual department or municipality.
Four personnel on an engine? All the time? Now that would be great. In my work experience with an EMS unit responding at the same time, you could catch the hydrant, the officer could take command without going in, and still have enough personnel to comply with the two in two out rule. Ideal? As I said, an argument can be made for any number one may think is ideal, but it does make some sense that the more personnel on an engine translates to getting more of the important stuff done when you get on scene. So we can agree at least in concept that four is better than three and three is better than two.
A five person crew as minimum staffing? I am sure there are some out there but I don’t know where. It would be interesting if there are any to know the demographics of the community, the size of the department, and how the department came to have five on the engine.
At the end of the day, I would submit that ideal staffing on an engine company would depend on your community, the size of the department, response times of other units, and the risks your community leaders are willing to take. These risks certainly should be explained by the fire chief along with his recommendations so that the community leaders can make an informed decision, whether we think it is right or not. When it is all said and done, they make the decision.
As firefighters we all believe we know what would be ideal staffing for our engines. As leaders, and as fire chiefs, we probably have the same number in mind but have to weigh that number with what we know the budget will pay for and what we know the community leaders will be comfortable with. Rarely do the numbers match, but as firefighters, we make it work and for the most part done in a safe manner.
I have really only touched the surface on this somewhat sensitive subject. But maybe it will start some people thinking.
Remember to stay safe – Everyone Goes Home
William Jolley has 37 years of experience in the fire service with 20 of those years in a management position. William was the Fire Chief of Haines City, Florida, a city of Approximately 20,000. Prior to that William was the Assistant Chief of Saint Petersburg, Florida, where he worked for 35 years.