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Firefighting: It’s a whole new ballgame

Situational Awareness Matters!There is little doubt the economic recession of 2008-2009 had a significant impact on the nation’s fire service. Hardly a day went by where there wasn’t some news about an organization that downsized, rightsized or capsized. There are all kinds of explanations and terms being attached to what happened.

One I heard at the time was this will be our “New Normal.” This term seemed fitting as the fire service was facing changes unlike anything most had ever experienced (at least in recent times).

Many fire service leaders were not confident that fire department budgets or firefighter positions were going to return to their pre-recession levels. If they did return it would be a very slow process. Thus, the situation many fire departments found themselves in was The New Normal or what some might call: “A paradigm shift.”

Joel Barker, credited as being the person who popularized the concept of paradigm shifts in modern times, shares a story about Swiss watch makers – renown crafters of some of the finest time pieces in the world. As the story goes, the person who discovered digital watch technology first pitched their idea to Swiss watch makers who shunned the inventor’s idea, quipping: Who would ever want a watch that did not use moving parts to ensure precision?  The dejected inventor, with his head held low, left Switzerland and traveled to Japan to see if anyone there would embrace his digital watch technology. The rest, as they say, is history. The paradigm for watch wearers changed and the Swiss watch makers found themselves in tough times.

The paradigm for emergency services also shifted and unless ways were found to improvise, adapt and overcome, there could be consequences. The consequences most concerning were those associated with emergency responder safety.

The do more with less edict can only go so far. Can emergency response departments find ways to be more efficient and effective in response during trying economic times? In many cases the answer was yes. When economic times were good and budgets and staffing were increasing at healthy rates, some organizations were able to capitalize on those opportunities and became resource abundant. However, the economy, and now a pandemic, dealt many communities some tough cards that required a tightening of the belt and created a call to find new or different ways to provide service.

However, there is a limit to how much better an organization can become based on the benefits of being more efficient. That point (termed the point of diminishing return for the economics-minded readers) is where each incremental decrease in a budget (or staffing) result in a corresponding impact on the organization’s ability to safely and effectively serve the community. The size and complexity of the organization and the services it provides, coupled with the complexity of the community, means the point of diminishing return can be different for every organization.

Depending on these factors, the point of diminishing return may come with the reduction of a single line or staff position. In very large organizations the point of diminishing return may not come until a dozen or more positions are reduced. Whatever the size of the organization, however, that point does come. It is at that point that bad things can begin happen if the organization does not fundamentally change the way it does business.

The safety impacts of a budget or staff reductions cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. There are other forces in play. For example, lightweight construction and hydrocarbon-rich contents are contributing to earlier rates of flashover and earlier building collapse – a significant safety concern for firefighters. There are also growing challenges being faced by fire-based EMS organizations as their aging communities increase the demands for medical services. High volume demand for EMS services may reduce the number of firefighters available for a structure fire response – another significant safety concern for firefighters.

The game 

Sometimes when looking at an issue that can be as emotionally charged as safety in a community and safety of its firefighters, it is beneficial to use an analogy. The analogy chosen here is to compare a fire department to a baseball team. Granted, the consequences of a bad outcome in baseball (the loss of a game) pales in comparison to the potential consequences of a bad outcome at an emergency scene (injury or loss of life). But follow the analogy through before passing judgment.

On a baseball team, each player fulfils a specific role on the field and performs specific tasks assigned to their position. Each role is so specialized it prohibits the positions from being interchangeable. Further, it is impossible for any one player to effectively fulfill multiple roles on the field at the same time. It is common, however, for two or more players to work in tandem to perform a task or to back each other up. At no time does a baseball team ever operate with less than the prescribed number of players – nine.

Hypothetically, say the team’s owner and management have determined the revenues collected were not going to sufficiently cover the team’s expenses. The fiscal shortfall facing the team can be addressed in essentially two ways – increase revenues or decrease expenses.

To increase revenue, the franchise could take several courses of action or combine several simultaneously. The club could increase ticket prices. While this would increase the revenue per ticket, the overall revenue may decrease if less people buy tickets and come to the games. Less attendance may also impact the revenue from concessions and merchandise. The club could increase the price of concessions and merchandise. Again, this may increase the revenue per hot dog, but the overall revenue may remain constant (or even decline) if less people buy hot dogs.

As with the revenue options, to reduce expenses the franchise could take several courses of action or combine several simultaneously. The club could cut operating expenses by controlling utility costs or by reducing the quality (and subsequently the cost) of food, merchandise and supplies. They could reduce personnel cost with staff reductions in a variety of areas including administrative staff, ticket sales, concessions, merchandise, field maintenance, and parking attendants. Or, the team could reduce the number of baseball players on the field.

I want to focus my discussion on the reduction in the number of baseball players. While reductions in other areas bring their own issues, if a team makes significant cuts in the number of players and subsequently begins to lose games, the core purpose for the existence of the organization begins to erode.

When a team cuts field positions, the decision as to which positions get cut may be based on contractual obligations of individual players. Therefore it may not be the poorest performing players who are the first to go. Rather it may be the newest players on the team if, say, the contract says cuts are made in reverse seniority order.

If the team cuts players whose performance is marginal or they cut players who see little field time, the impact may not be so significant. However, what happens when the cuts are so deep that the team can no longer play the game with nine players on the field? Maybe the team has to take the field with eight players. Such a short-staffed situation would surely have an impact on the performance of the team.

In some fire departments the cuts have been so significant that core services are being provided with less than adequate staffing – the equivalent of a baseball team taking the field with eight players. This team is not going to be able to perform the same as it did when it had nine players on the field. The vacant position is going to lead to an impact on team performance.

Situational Awareness Matters!The team is going to have to assess the impact of the loss and determine which position they are going to leave vacant. It is hard to imagine any position on the field that is not vital to team success. Arguably there may be a few positions that are absolutely essential for the team to even be functional.

For example, a team without a pitcher would forfeit the game immediately when they took the field. No pitcher = no game. What about a team without a catcher? Under this scenario, every pitch thrown would become an opportunity for runners to pass the bases with no concern of being picked off by the non-existent catcher. Perhaps the team cuts the first base position? If a ground ball were hit to the infield, there’d be no one at first base to receive the throw and runners would most assuredly earn a single. It’s easy to see these three positions are absolutely essential to team success. All other positions are up for reduction consideration.

It could be argued that on a fire scene, like on a baseball field, some positions may be more essential than others. For the sake of this analogy, let’s say the proverbial field positions (key roles) at a structure fire are command, safety, vent, entry, search, attack, back-up, salvage and overhaul. Isn’t it ironic that it’s the same number of essential key roles whether it’s for baseball or firefighting – nine!

The fact there are nine key roles is not saying a fireground can operate with nine people. Each of the key roles identified above requires a team of players, not one individual. How many players in each essential team role is the subject of much debate. If each role were staffed with just two people (which is woefully inadequate for all roles except perhaps command and safety), that would set the bogey at 18 firefighters (minimum!).

So which roles on the fireground are the essential ones – tantamount to the pitcher, catcher and first base position in the baseball example above? Again, this could be the basis of much debate and since it is not the point of this article to identify the positions which are essential and which could be eliminated, hypothetically positions of command, search and attack will be identified as the essential ones. All other positions are subject to reduction consideration.

If the baseball team reduced some field positions it could, arguably, make adjustments for the losses. The physical expanse of the field, however, does not afford one player the ability to cover two geographic positions at the same time. It simply is not possible.  However, the infield or outfield could shift, physically, to provide coverage for the lost position. The shift would create a hole in the standard line of defense for the baseball team – a hole their opponent would surely identify and quickly exploit to their advantage. This scenario makes it relatively easy to predict the team is going to suffer losses.

Situational Awareness Matters!On the fireground (setting aside the three hypothetically essential roles of command, search and attack) the roles subject to reduction are safety, vent, entry, back-up, salvage and overhaul. Reducing staffing for any of these roles creates holes in the fireground operation the same way as holes are created on a baseball field.

Firefighter responsibilities can be shifted to provide coverage for the lost roles. However, as with the baseball example, this shift creates deficiencies in the department’s standard line of defense for a firefight, a hole the opponent (in this case, the fire) – will surely identify and quickly exploit to its advantage. As in baseball, it becomes relatively easy to predict there are going to be losses. To think there will be no impact on performance or outcomes… is playing fantasy baseball.

On the baseball diamond when a team loses a game there is little significance to the overall wellbeing of players, fans, owners, or the general citizenry. The sense of loss is only temporary because the impact is so minimal in the big picture. However, on the fireground, the significance of a loss can be very substantial to firefighters, the city, the citizens and the overall community. As a fire department reduces resources that impacts core services, the opportunity for bad outcomes increases exponentially as the opponent (the fire) finds ways to exploit the department’s shortcomings.

The strategy

Some organizations have been able to survive a reduction in resources by focusing on reducing non-core services. During abundant times, when organizational budgets and staffing were growing, some departments sought opportunities to start new programs and services and perhaps in the process created new staff positions. Some of those programs and services may not be directly tied to the core mission of the department.

When times become lean, organizations were forced to determine if there were any non-core programs and services they could shed (perhaps only temporarily). Applied to the baseball analogy, this might be the equivalent of making reductions in concessions.

The first task was to figure out what the core services were and how to preserve them.

But who gets to make those decisions? This question raised a host of potential challenges as cities contemplated their priorities. Is planting flowers in the parks more important than a fast paramedic response? Is snow removal on park pathways more important than having police officers on patrol? Unfortunately, in some cities, flower planting and pathway cleaning were higher priorities than public safety. The debate on the fairness of this disparity has raged on but the reality is you have a limited impact on the decision making of elected officials.

Department leaders should try to engage city management and elected officials on this topic. Doing so may result in limited success, however. Some elected officials and politically minded city managers may balk at the notion of having to prioritize the city’s services. For them, such a task may be the equivalent of asking a parent to identify which of their children like the most. They’re going to be reluctant reveal the answer and divulge which programs are their favorites (with emphasis on favorites versus priorities).

While it may not come as news, it is important to acknowledge that some elected officials and politically minded city managers are single minded. For the electeds, they are focused on doing the things that will ensure they remain popular enough to get re-elected. For some city managers, their focus may be on doing the things that will ensure they remain popular enough with the elected officials to stay employed. It would not be fair to lump all elected officials and all city managers into the category of being narrowly focused on their popularity, so long as it is acknowledged that such persons do exist and they may be the very people you are trying to get to prioritize city services.

There can be some risk to engaging elected officials in the discussion of priorities. If they are focused on maintaining their popularity, the programs that are most popular in the community, not the ones that are most essential, may rise to the top of their list.

I recall one story I read where a group of elected officials threw their support behind building a new library while withholding their support for a levy to build a new fire station (even though the fire station was reportedly in much worse condition). Why would this happen? From the standpoint of supporting popular funding options versus essential ones, many more voters are going to use the library each year that use the services of the fire department.

It’s always wise to engage your elected officials in these important discussions as they represent the citizens. Just remember the potential risk and do your best to educate them on the potential impacts. Alternatively, the task of determining the core services to be maintained in each department of the city might be left to the professional staff who possess a better understand of the impacts based on an established standard of service and the safety to personnel versus politics and popularity.

By whatever means it is accomplished, the department should make a list of non-core services that can be shed and prioritize that list based on public and firefighter safety. For example, if the department hosts birthday parties, while nice, shedding this program will have a comparatively low impact on public and firefighter safety. Such programs can be hard to give up though, especially when they have been on-going programs whose success is based on the hard work and dedication of loyal members. Deciding which non-core programs or services to discontinue may be the baseball equivalent of having to decide whether to close the concession stand or souvenir vendors. Both are popular but something has to be cut and status quo is not an option.

After all the non-core service cuts have been identified and implemented, the next task is to determine if the core services can be maintained at the same level with the remaining resources. Strategically, this task addresses how to make cuts while preserving safety. If the next round of cuts involves reducing very resources that provide core services then the service delivery model must change as well.

This can be an emotionally charged decision. Anytime fire department has to reduce its core services the loss can hurt – deeply. A loss of this magnitude can also result in members going through a grieving process that entails five stages: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Many fire departments have experienced reductions that impact core services – including staffing reductions that result in less front-line personnel providing services which impacts safety. The cuts have been tangible and department members grieved. Some were in denial. Others got angry. A few tried bargaining their way out of their situation while others got depressed.

What there seems to have been far less of is acceptance of the losses – a curtailment of the anger, bargaining and depression – and an acceptance of the loss. Perhaps it takes a long tome for members to work their way through the grieving process. Experts have not agreed on a pre-scripted schedule for how long a person should spend in each step of the grieving process though it is generally accepted among mental health professionals that extended periods of time in any step leading to acceptance can have unhealthy consequences.

The losses many departments have experienced are not going to be restored. As department members work through the grieving process and get to acceptance, they can begin determining how to adjust to the current situation – their New Normal. This will be a watershed moment for the department and the starting point for a meaningful discussion about how service delivery should change as a result of this new paradigm.

Situational Awareness Matters!As core services are cut, the mantra of do more with less is not possible. When the cuts are deep, the only possible outcome is do less with less. If reductions mean having one less truck company on the street, having to close (or brown out) a station or reducing the number of firefighters on a company, there is going to be a corresponding reduction in service. Back to the baseball analogy – a team with eight members on the field cannot play the same game, the same way, as when they had nine. While firefighters can be shifted and their roles shared, there needs to be strategic decisions made for how to avoid overextending firefighters, how to avoid taking dangerous shortcuts and how to manage the increased risk of loss.

A discussion among operational staff about how to accomplish this is essential. The expectations of members must be adjusted and there should be a healthy dialog that results in an understanding among operational personnel about what the new expectations are and how they impact street performance, the customer, and firefighter safety. Expect this to be a difficult discussion.

No firefighter worth their boots is going to want to cut street-level service to the customer. But all the pride or denial in the world isn’t going put nine players back on the field when the team has been cut to eight. Your fire department did not create the economic issues you are facing and, therefore, you should not feel guilty about managing the impacts in a way that ensures firefighter safety.

If responses to emergencies are going to be slower or entail using less firefighters, there is going to be an operational impact. Discussing the impacts and concerns openly and gaining agreement on what the new expectation should be is an excellent step toward reducing overextension, shortcutting and excessive risk taking.

As your organization engages in these discussions it might be worthwhile to work through some scenarios. One example might be a residential dwelling fire, using the resources the department enjoyed when times were good (i.e., pre-reductions). Chart out how long it took each company to arrive, how many were on each company, what each company did, how long it took to perform each task and what the result of each company’s efforts were. Then do the same scenario over again applying the resource levels of your new paradigm.

Realistically, the scenario and actions of crews should change and depending on the degree of reductions your organization has sustained. It may change significantly. Staffing levels and response times are two key factors likely to change. These, in turn, impact the pre-arrival fire progression, the risk profile of savable lives and the stability of the structure. This changes everything – or at least it should.

Resource reductions change the rules of the game and your beloved fire service is facing a whole new ballgame. It is vitally important to the safety of your members to accept your new paradigm and discuss how significant reductions in resources can impact street-level performance and make the changes necessary to protect the safety of your firefighters.

A derivative of this article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of Firehouse Magazine.

About the Author

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.


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6 thoughts on “Firefighting: It’s a whole new ballgame”

  1. Blame tends to be a pretty standard response by firefighters when elected officials choose to fund “favorite” projects. Firefighters blame the official for making a choice that opposes and undermines the funding of their department. Is blame some form of denial or anger? Or is it a factor that inhibits healthy progress toward acceptance?

    1. Chief,

      There are many firefighters who dedicate their lives to protecting others. This dedication becomes part of who they are – part of their identity. I think it’s a natural reaction anytime someone feels their dedication is called into question, in this case, in the form of budget reductions. I think when funding is allocated to other projects that are, by some firefighters’ assessment, unnecessary (at least when compared to public safety), it becomes personal. Many elected officials are not driven by the same passions as firefighters and police officers. That’s a difficult thing for some public safety providers to come to grips with.

      I do think that we could do better when it comes to understanding we are not the only priority in a city or county. An important priority, for sure. But elected officials are trying to balance many demands, some which compete with public safety.


  2. A guy stopped at a local gas station, and after filling his tank, he paid the bill and bought a soft drink. He stood by his car to drink his cola and watched a couple of men working along the roadside. One man would dig a hole two or three feet deep and then move on. The other man came along behind him and filled in the hole. While the first man was digging a new hole, the other was 25 feet behind filling in the fresh hole.

    The men worked right past the guy with the soft drink and went on down the road. “I can’t stand this,” said the man tossing the can into a trash container and headed down the road toward the men. “Hold it, hold it,” he said to the men. “Can you tell me what’s going on here with all this digging and refilling?”

    “Well, we work for the government and we’re just doing our job,” one of the men said.

    “But one of you is digging a hole and the other fills it up. You’re not accomplishing anything. Aren’t you wasting the taxpayers’ money?”

    “You don’t understand, mister,” one of the men said, leaning on his shovel and wiping his brow. “Normally there’s three of us: me, Elmer and Leroy. I dig the hole, Elmer sticks in the tree, and Leroy here puts the dirt back.

    Elmer’s job’s been cut … so now it’s just me an’ Leroy.

  3. Pingback: Episode 34 - Firefighting: A whole new ballgame - Situational Awareness Matters!™

  4. When I did a station location study for my own department in 1991, I coined the terms “critical fireground task” and “effective response force” to describe the importance of having enough firefighters on scene to perform the tasks that you noted. Using your baseball analogy, you can play the game without a right fielder, say, and let the center fielder cover both areas. The consequences of one outfielder doing the work of two? More runs scored by the opponent. The consequences of one firefighter doing the work of two (or three)? Higher fire loss, of course, but also higher than reasonable risk to the firefighter who is doing an inherently dangerous job to begin with.

    My suggestion for providing adequate staffing could be called a paradigm shift. It is called military-style staffing. The Army and Marines staff their infantry crews with two types of personnel, career soldiers and Marines to fill the leadership and technical slots, and enlistees to fill the basic rifleman slots. Fire departments can fill three slots on engine and ladder companies with career personnel. They can fill the fourth slot with individuals who sign up for four years. During that time, the departments pay their way through college, which they can attend while working full time. On average, departments can fill the fourth slot on two engines and ladders for the cost of one career firefighter.

    I am following this trend in fire department staffing, and maintain a database of fire departments that use college students to augment staff. There are over 350 departments on the list. The incentives range from free housing, the most popular, to full tuition. I’m in the process of verifying the number of them that offer tuition support in addition to housing. At this point, I have found 3-4 dozen that do.

    I believe that this staffing model is a viable answer to the staffing problem for many fire departments. When I mention this to firefighters, I get a visceral response of “no way, they don’t have enough experience?” I say better a firefighter with less experience than no firefighter at all. But I am realize that such a paradigm shift will take time. After all, I am told, the fire service prevented steam engines from replacing hand pumps for 50 years.

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