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Numbers Game - Fire Staffing Impacts Evaluated

POSTED January 7, 2014 4:59 p.m.

When a fire hits, minutes are precious. Residents scramble to escape as lives and cherished possessions are threatened by the blaze. Seconds seem to slow as everyone waits the arrival of the fire department to contain a growing inferno.

If the rigs are too far off, the fire expands and continues to engulf the structure. The same occurs if the arriving rigs have too few firefighters, their tasks will take much longer as the firefighters’ action to avoid personal risk is delayed until sufficient personnel are on scene.

According to city officials in Oakdale, the closest fire engine to your home has only two firefighters and maybe a fire captain. However in many emergencies, this staffing is inadequate to conduct a safe rescue or quickly extinguish a fire as the city’s fire stations are staffed with half of the recommended minimum staffing guidelines, making a fire response less effective than what is considered the absolute minimum in most of the country.

The National Fire Protection Association, the industry authority on fire management, strongly recommends four on-duty personnel for fire companies whose primary functions are to perform basic firefighting at fires, including search and rescue.

Recent moves by the city show it taking the NFPA recommendations as just that; recommendations as opposed to mandates.

Despite warnings of inadequate service levels from its line personnel, a plea from its past long-term fire chief and an advisement by the current command staff against any cuts, even going against its own $32,000 study on fire department staffing and Measure O campaign assurances, when the Oakdale City Council accepted City Manager Bryan Whitemyer’s recommendation to lay off two firefighters to save costs to the city budget, the move brought the city’s firefighting crew to only 12 that at one time was as high as 22 members less than five years ago.

One firefighter per 1,000 people in population is the minimum staffing level advised by the International City/County Management Association. For Oakdale that would currently be 22.

Even the yet-to-be negotiated city contract with the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District does not raise the staffing of the local fire houses since the city will be contracting at its own existing levels.

“The NFPA recommendations are just those – recommendations,” said Stanislaus County Fire Protection District Deputy Fire Chief Michael Wapnowski. “All California fire departments strive to meet that. Obviously with limited funding, there can be economic challenges to meet that.”

Most area departments, in fact, do not reach those recommended levels.

“We are staffing at our best possible capabilities at this time,” said Whitemyer. “Clearly I would love to staff with four, but we cannot do that financially.”

Whitemyer added that even with a permanent Measure O to generate revenue it still would be difficult for the city to fund the needed number of firefighters.

A 2010 National Institute of Standards and Technology study found four-person crews completed 22 key tasks in a typical house fire 25 percent faster than three-person crews. The same test also showed that two-person crews could not complete essential fire ground tasks in time to rescue occupants without subjecting them to an increasingly toxic atmosphere.

Time is serious, the study noted, as an average structure fire doubles in size every two minutes and could “flash over” within eight minutes. Flashover is the point at which heat-generated gases ignite and dramatically reduce anyone’s chances of survival if they are inside the structure.

According to the Insurance Services Office Inc., or ISO, home insurance rates are based on not only just access to the fire department, but how well prepared local firefighters are to fight fires when they take place. To advance beyond a 10 rating, minimum standards require at least four firefighters serving a defined area.

Most insurance agents and underwriters rely on ISO ratings and use computerized rating systems to calculate home insurance premiums.

While the city may claim it has four on-duty, they are in opposite ends of the city, and not in the same ISO area. It would seem inappropriate to dispatch a sole engine company to a fire if the crew could not start firefighting and rescue operations because of safety concerns. If four are needed to get started on extinguish operations, why is Oakdale splitting the crews?

Whitemyer explained that since the majority of the department’s calls are of a medical nature, it’s better for response times to divide the personnel.

But when fewer than four firefighters arrive on a fire scene, the first company is faced with a critical decision. Does it initiate an interior attack without adequate staffing and unnecessarily risk firefighters’ safety, or does it delay the interior fire attack until additional resources arrive, causing further fire damage? Neither response is appropriate.

The problem is not isolated in Oakdale.

The NFPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have reported that fire departments across the nation lack adequate staffing. This deficiency has contributed to millions of dollars in lost time, thousands of on-the-job injuries, and dozens of line-of-duty deaths each year in addition to the losses caused from the delay in fighting the fires.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs recently reported that in many communities, the sustained economic recession is forcing decisions to cut fire department resources faster than fire service leaders can evaluate their impact.

Until 2006, Modesto maintained staffing with 4-person crews. Now staffing is 3-person engine crews with the regular use of additional volunteer firefighters. In 2011, bankrupt Stockton reduced its staffing to three firefighters on engines but kept four-firefighter staffing on trucks. Other cities in the San Joaquin Valley staff with either a 3-person or 4-person station.

Wapnowski said the Oakdale department also attempts to make up the staffing voids with an aggressive volunteer and intern program but with the state requirements for training and certification it is difficult to get committed persons. According to Wapnowski, Oakdale only has three interns but he hopes to bring the number up during the next year.

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