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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Staffing in Roanoke

Staffing in the Roanoke Fire-EMS Department. This topic has bothered me for a long time. There are several issues relating directly to staffing, and I hope to cover several of them in the next few paragraphs.

First of all lets talk about trucks being out of service. I think that if we had scrolling message boards outside of each station notifying the citizens of when the trucks are out of service and why, we would have several complaints. I know that a lot of it is part of life like going out of service occasionally and being out on a call, even out of service for training. However, being a firefighter on the Northside, it is amazing how often Engine 2 and Engine 13 are out of service due to manpower.

Now let me give you a little background. All of Roanoke City's Fire Engines are staffed with a minimum of 3 firefighters (I will leave rank out of it). 3 of the 4 ladder trucks are staffed with a minimum of 3 firefighters. Recently, one of our Ladders (Ladder 7) has been staffed with a minimum of 4 firefighters. This is due to the fact that the Engine was taken out of service at that station and replaced with an ambulance. Better or worse, there are more issues concerning this removal of an engine. The Ladder that remained in place of the Engine Ladder combo now acts as a Quint, meaning the truck can do everything an engine and ladder can do (for the most part). The problem is that the truck doesn't do anything on it's own except sit quietly. Therefore, now you have 4 guys doing the job that in Roanoke requires 6 and in other cities requires 8 to 9 firefighters. That is right, in some cities, the minimum staffing is 4 on engines and ladders and even 5 on some ladders. But Roanoke apparently places a lot of stock in its firefighters by doing the job with 3.

I digress, the issue is staffing not removal of apparatus.

The point I was beginning to make with laying out the minimum staffing is just that; the minimum staffing is 3 on each piece except 1. If you walk in any fire station in Roanoke you will see 3 on the truck 80% of the time (just an educated guess). Where are all of the extra firefighters? Well the answer is that there aren't many. With guys off on vacation, sick, and light duty, and vacancies due to retirements, firefighters quiting, and other reasons we are left with the minimum on duty.

So basically every day we begin with the minimum unless by chance a station here or there has an extra firefighter. Extra being used very loosely because actually an extra firefighter would be above and beyond the 4 assigned to most apparatus.

So that is at 0750 hours when we begin our shift. Soon, apparatus will be magically marked out of service because of numerous reasons. Company level training, individual training, drug tests, physicals, meetings, investigations, promotional testing, Captains meetings, and many other reasons. Basically, anything that would require at least 1 firefighter to leave the station and not be able to answer calls while being in their first due territory.

This is when, on the Northside, Engine 2 and/or Engine 13 are most commonly out of service. It is usually out of the Battalion Chiefs hands. They work with what they have. On the Southside, I would imagine that the situation is similar. I bet the citizens would have a fit if they knew how often these trucks are out of service, when just a handful of more firefighters would fix the problem.

In the past, I have been a huge proponent of minimum staffing of 4, or compliance with NFPA 1710. Right now, I am not even pushing for the minimum of 4, but rather just the minimum of 3.
After all, if we have to mark a truck out of service because a firefighter has to go to training then are we really meeting the minimum of 3. I THINK NOT. Minimum staffing of 3 should mean a minimum of 3 all the time. Doesn't it just make sense. It seems to me like a cover up. Sure, the system allows for a certain amount of trucks to be out of service at a time. But for what reasons. Maybe we need to reform the system and add some positions just to ensure the minimum staffing is met.

I am kinda scared to ask for a minimum staffing of 4 anymore. The way things are currently going, if it was agreed upon, it would cost marking 5 trucks out of service unless of course we had every vacancy filled and everyone was at work that day.

I will leave you with a couple of things.

First of all, the Charleston review panel has come out with a recommendation of a minimum staffing of 4 in 2 years. Charleston FD is approximately the same size as Roanoke Fire-EMS.

Second, this video from the IAFF on NFPA 1710 (thanks for the heads up from Jay at Sorry for those of you on City Computers, you aren't allowed to access YouTube.

Thirdly, this video from Fairfax County IAFF on the topic of staffing.


Anonymous said...

Why don't you post the engines that are out of service each day so that we the citzens will know and we can make some calls to council. Is that difficult to do?

FireFleitz said...

For me to put up on the site each time apparatus goes out of service and then back in for the reasons that I feel they shouldn't would keep me busy. I do not know of a way to easily do this, although I am open to suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Post a bulletin board or poll to the site that allows us to post times/dates in and out. OR continue to occasionally post a link to this article w/comments allowed and we can put it in ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Unless you educate the citizens of your problem, most of will not know or understand it. The City is very good at leaving us in the dark about things they do. I consider what you're talking about a critical problem, yet I never hear mention of it outside of the hospitals, stations or on line.

It threatens my safety, my property, my insurance rates and not to mention firefighter's safety not having a safe number of men or women on a truck. I think it's ridiculous to staff with three.

Here's a hypothetical question. The first due engine is out of service, you get a call for a structure fire. How far out is the second due truck? Then when it gets there with three men, one has to man the pump panel, the other two might be able to make an initial attack, but likely there are other things that have to happen first right?

Shed some light on these things as well. Most of us are fairly ignorant of what all must occur on a fire scene, etc.

You give me some good stuff to work with and I'll write council myself.

Anonymous said...

Think about this. Fire doubles in size for each minute of burning. If a fire isn't discovered right away it gets a decent head start. If the first due engine company is out of service then the next due truck is a minimum of 3 additional minutes away (on top of the intial 3-6 minutes the first truck would respond). That is assuming they are not out of service or committed to another emergency call.

The initial responding engine cannot attack the fire unless there is a life safety risk. This is due to the two-in, two-out policy that has been handed down. This isn't the city's rule it is law. Should a medic unit arrive first the only thing they can do is advise of the nature of the fire and get ready for action. Should a ladder truck arrive they may be able to put water through the windows, but there's a 50/50 chance they have no water. Still the unit and scene will be understaffed.

If 1 engine and 1 ladder arrive at the same time, then an effective intial attack may begin. This is still lacking due to the many other jobs that are being left uncovered on the scene. We can fight the fire and maybe even ventilate the superheated and damaging smoke and gases from the structure but we cannot properly attend to the salvage aspects of our job.

When staffing is to a proper level firefighters can committ men to the salvage of our customer's belongings. Covering furniture, rescuing pets, removing valuable items to the yard, covering exposures, and things such as that. Understaffed units are the leading cause of exposures being involved in fire. Sure the fire can get a jump on us and lead to the exposure house but there is no excuse if we arrived prior to this happening.

Not pointing fingers or placing blame I can think of 5 fires in the last 2 years that have expanded beyond the initial confines to cause major damage. The reason? Understaffing. Plain and simple.

We have been complaining about the staffing issues for years. When we merged with EMS the department gained an invaluable service for the community. This also happened to be the same period as the faltering staffing of fire apparatus. I am not saying EMS responses are the cause of Roanoke City's fire protection being reduced, but in trying to cover the EMS needs we had to cut our fire coverage.

This is the begining point, not the cause or the end. The city manager will opt out of any hiring for firefighters and expansion of fire services. Regardless of what she says in public, she dislikes having to provide fire service and will take every opportunity to cut staffing and hide the needs.

Chief Hoback has and will continue to run our department efficiently but he has his hands tied by council. He does not have an evil intent with our staffing, but he does want to feed his family and do his job to his best potential.

So who do we need to step up? The citizens and council. How? go to the meetings and write your councilmen and request additionl funding and staffing. Demand it, don' request it. Then and only then can we being to offer the quality service the citizens of Roanoke deserve and require.

Anonymous said...

I've NEVER seen the first due engine not aggressively attack the fire as soon as they arive, no matter where the next truck was! Sad to say and dangerous I know but I have done it a few times in the past by MYSELF. 3 to a truck is just not enough and thats proof. 1 man on the pump, officer doing size up, walk around, and in this case hooking to the hydrant that was right in front of the truck....mean while I was getting it done!!

Anonymous said...

Baltimore City Maryland does the same things every day and night. Closed for preventive maintance, EMT training, Medic unit staffing, special orders, Haz-Mat training, drug tests, ect. This is a USA wide policy of closing down companies to avoid overtime. Welcome to the club.