By Steven Knight, PhD
It is often said, with a little truth and satire, that the fire service is “200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” As a third-generation firefighter within the same department, to me it is clear that there is more satire in the old adage than truth, as the fire service has continued to assume new roles, training, and capabilities over the years. As an industry, however, traditional fire service deployment models have changed at a much slower rate.
Reviews of some alternative deployment models are presented here for discussion and consideration. It is important to acknowledge that each community is unique, as both internal and external forces shape policy decisions. The economic, political and fiscal realities in each community may vary as well, as the citizen’s expectations for services.
Risk-based deployment models
The concept of deploying based on risk is not new; most fire departments intuitively understand that greater risk should correlate to greater resources and capabilities. A simple example is deploying a ladder truck in an area with higher risk due to elevated buildings, or having more firefighting personnel due to the difficulties of moving water and equipment on multiple floors. This common-sense approach has served the fire service well.
We now operate in an environment of enhanced transparency and accountability, however, and the fire service must do a better job articulating why we do what we do and communicating the return-on-investment of current response models. When considering options, an honest assessment of the risks the community would assume by implementing alternatives should also be presented.
The standards of cover process is an excellent tool to establish a method for measuring risk and identifying a commensurate manner in addressing or mitigating risks. The Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) and Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) has a well-defined process and guidebook references available. The standards of cover process, and the accreditation model as a whole, is the most comprehensive and structured process to measure and articulate deployment decisions I have seen in my career.
Establishing base-level services and introducing peak demand units
The traditional fire suppression deployment model is a readiness model. It is predicated on always having sufficient resources ready for response. Since we do not generate our own emergency work, there can be high costs associated with such a high state of readiness or availability.
As communities search for alternatives to ensure long-term sustainability, there are times when replicating the current emergency services readiness model is challenging. What a number of communities are beginning to do is establish the baseline readiness required to handle the identified community risks 24/7. To achieve a more fiscally-efficient method for addressing growing call volume is to introduce peak demand units, which only function during the peak hours of the day while maintaining all baseline services.
This deployment strategy has proven successful for a number of reasons; most notably is the distribution of demand throughout the day and across the geographic service area. If a department’s call volume rises by 5 percent each year, and the majority of calls occur between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., then a preponderance of the 5 percent growth will be concentrated between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. as well. Once baseline services have been met, targeting the times and areas of greatest need provide the largest return on investment.
Peak demand units have been deployed in a variety of manners that are tailored to the local environment. Some communities have staffed a full fire engine and others have deployed quick response vehicles. A non-empirical assessment would suggest that most agencies are providing peak demand units using overtime, but other agencies have formalized a new schedule to accomplish the increased staffing goal.
One common practice utilized in the industry is to cross-staff, or dynamically staff, resources. In other words, a single crew may take the appropriate apparatus to the type of call they are being dispatched. One example would be to have a fire engine and an ambulance available in a fire station. The single crew of three would either take the ambulance or fire engine, depending on the call type. For many smaller agencies with low call volumes, this has proven to be an effective deployment consideration.
There are limitations on cross-staffing units. Once the call volume becomes too frequent or the rate of simultaneous calls rises, then each respective unit needs to be separately staffed. Each agency can establish its own thresholds to monitor the effectiveness of cross-staffing units; I suggest a good starting point would be no more than five calls per day and a call-concurrency rate of no more than 15 percent. That means that 85 percent of the time, when a call is received, the primary crew should be able to respond and return to available status prior to a second call, or more, occurring at the same time.
Following the science
In the past decade, Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) has provided considerable evidence-based research on fire behavior. Similarly, a myriad of peer-reviewed research has been published evaluating the efficacy of response time in emergency medical services. A review of each of the lines of research would be a robust discussion in and of itself.
The condensed version is that fires are burning hotter and faster than in the past decades when we had legacy fuels and construction. The net impact is that fires are progressing to flashover in as little as four minutes, when legacy construction would have not progressed to flashover for nearly 20 minutes. Similarly, the body of evidence-based research in EMS suggests that for the high-acuity, high-risk of mortality patients, there is a correlation between response times of less than five minutes and improved clinical outcomes. This subgroup of high-acuity calls, however, represents a very small minority of EMS incidents in which time makes a difference on outcome.
We can view the science through two lenses – half-full or half-empty. The half-empty view is that most agencies would be challenged to deliver services in less than five minutes for both fire and EMS incidents. If an agency recognizes that the time is closer to eight or 10 minutes, then the community has to focus efforts on effectiveness once on scene. If it is too cost prohibitive to expand the distribution response model to five minutes or less, then maybe focusing efforts on an appropriate and effective response force from the available stations has merit, as the majority of incidents are not time sensitive. Additionally, more prospective risk-management activities such as community risk reduction, fire prevention and code enforcement should be elevated.
Utilizing the half-full lens, the science would suggest a quicker response time under five minutes may be beneficial for a collectively small number of incidents. A case can be made that a more robust distribution model, such as the addition of more fire stations, is warranted. In most communities, however, the fiscal reality may be cost-prohibitive without a trade-off of alternative staffing strategies.
For example, a community could have five stations with a response time of eight minutes with three or four personnel assigned to each apparatus. An effort to achieve a four-minute response time may require ten stations – for round numbers – but due to fiscal constraints, the staffing on each engine would have to be two. In most communities the vast majority of incidents are handled with a single resource. However, we can’t discount the necessity for an effective response force.
One community found that an effective response force of 15 personnel could arrive on-scene of a structure fire three minutes faster by utilizing “power stations,” than they could by staffing uniformly across all of the stations. In this case, power stations are defined as regionalized stations with 75 percent of an effective response force. A commitment with a smaller first-response force can work to achieve a reduced response time while maintaining, or improving, the effective response force capabilities. These factors also have to be balanced against a variety of community-specific geographic response limitations.
Autonomy of each community to establish service levels
These examples are intended to generate thoughtful consideration for how we can best meet the demands of our changing environment. Each community should, and does, maintain the autonomy to establish service-level objectives and deployment strategies to meet those objectives within the unique local environment. The existing political, economic and fiscal realities in each community will help shape policy, as well as its willingness to accept risk, ability or desire to purchase protective services. Within this context, there is no singular best method for deploying resources, but rather a tailored strategy that meets the needs of each unique local environment.
About the author
Steve Knight, Ph.D., a Fitch & Associates senior consultant, brings more than 25 years of fire and EMS experience to the firm. He served for nearly 17 years as assistant fire chief for the City of St. Petersburg, Fla. He has been a subject matter expert for both the National Fire Academy and the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE), a nonprofit corporation that serves as the governing body for the organizations that offer accreditation, education and credentialing services to the first responder and fire service industries.