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It’s not something talked about often in situational awareness circles – over staffing. Far more often the focus is on issues of under staffing which, coincidentally, can be a significant barrier to situational awareness and can have a catastrophic impact on safety. There can be, on occasion, scenarios where an incident scene ends up having too many responders and that can cause problems.


Proper staffing

Before digging into what defines too much staffing, it is necessary to discuss what would be considered the right amount of staffing for an incident. This, of course, will vary based on the size and complexity of the incident. So, for example, we will look at the staffing for a single-family residential dwelling fire.

Arguably, the proper staffing would be somewhere in the range of 12-25 responders. This is not to say that every department is able to muster this many responders for every single-family residential dwelling fire.


Some organizations strive to front-load the staffing for critical emergencies. This could be considered a best practice. It sure beats showing up on an emergency, finding yourself significantly understaffed and then making a desperate call for additional resources while the emergency continues down a pathway of getting worse – and more dangerous.

The amount of resources to front-load is also a function of the size and complexity of the reported emergency. The good news is, the discussions (and decisions) about what is the right amount of staffing for various types of emergencies can be determined well in advance of the call.

For example, some departments have policies that stipulate when the heat index exceeds a certain threshold, a reported working structure fire gets two additional companies (6-8 additional responders) to reduce the impact of the heat on the operating companies. Some departments add additional companies for high-rise incidents because of the labor-intensive nature of high-rise operations.

The downside

The majority of departments and companies I talk with are far more likely to suffer the ill effects of under staffing and the associated situational awareness issues. However, there are times when over staffing can cause issues.

When the incident is large enough that all hands are working, this is not a situation of over staffing. In fact, arguably, it may be a situation of under staffing. Depending on the complexity of the incident, there should always be additional resources in a staging area if for no other reason than to provide relief to the working crews.

When there are too many resources assembled at a scene it can be difficult to find work for all the residual personnel. This can cause the idle personnel to become antsy and anxious to get involved. It can also cause the idle personnel to become frustrated if they feel like their time is being wasted. All of this can lead the idle personnel to engage in independent action (i.e., freelancing).

If the command structure does not have a means by which to manage the actions of idle personnel, this can impact the supervisor’s situational awareness as the supervisor may have to utilize some of his or her precious cognitive resources toward dealing with issues created by idle personnel.

Dr. Gasaway’s Advice

When it comes to staffing an incident, it would be nice to apply the Goldilocks Doctrine: Not too many… not too little… just right. But it can be very difficult to determine the right level of staffing for an incident prior to arrival. If given the choice, it is always better to front load the staffing. The earlier resources are dispatched, the better the chances the incident will not be overwhelmed by inadequate staffing. Here are seven best practices to consider when front loading your indecent staffing:

1. Establish a personnel staging area early. When front loading more than the standard first-alarm assignment (whatever that be for your community) it would be a good idea to establish a staging area for non-committed resources and to communicate the location well in advance of the resources arriving on the scene. Some thought should be given to the location of staging. If staging is close, needed resources can deploy quickly. However, if staging is too close, there is a greater potential that non-committed resources may engage in independent action.

2. Designate a staging officer. Establishing a staging officer early can also assist in managing non-committed resources. Absent a staging officer, each staged resource may feel they have a right to communicate directly with the incident commander. I recall interviewing a supervisor whose attention to the incident was drawn off-task when he was contacted by a staged resource asking when they could be released from the incident because they were tired of sitting in staging for an hour.

Managing multi-alarm incidents is complex and requires a great deal of mental resources on the part of the commander. The last thing a commander needs on his or her mind is needless radio traffic from a bored worker who wants to go home.

3. Use a command aide to help track resources. Command (or an aide) should keep track of all resources operating at an incident including the staged resources. A plan should be devised for rotating fresh resources into the incident operations through staging. Chances are that if a company has been in staging for an hour the crews operating on the front-line are in dire need of a break. And if they’re not, the incident is not complex enough to need staged resources for an hour.

The supervisor I interviewed admitted to me that he had forgotten that he had the additional resources in staging. The incident was a high-rise fire and he wasn’t sure how many personnel it was going to take to manage all the tasks including the salvage operations once the fire was under control. Under these conditions, maintaining some spare resources in a staging area makes sense.

This supervisor also admitted to me that he had overlooked designating someone to serve as the staging officer. In a follow-up conversation with the personnel in staging they admitted to the supervisor they felt as though they had been forgotten at the scene. And indeed, they had been.

4. Use a personnel tracking system. Using a personnel accountability system and resource management tool (being paper or electronic) can be a valuable tool in tracking personnel, including staged resources.

5. Periodically review your alarm cards to ensure you have the appropriate staffing dispatched on the front end of potentially critical calls. Consider additional staffing on the front-end for complex hazards and excessive weather conditions.

Action Items

1. Discuss what is the right amount of resources needed to dispatch to various types of incidents in your community, with consideration to response times for those resources and the various complexities that can increase resource needs (e.g., high heat index, high-rise structures, high occupancy structures, multi-victim accidents, etc.).

2. Discuss strategies for setting up staging areas including where the staging area should be located and how to designate a staging officer for incidents that will have staged resources.

3. Discuss strategies for how to rotate resources through a staging area.


If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.


Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.




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