Sustainable Fire Protection
[Author's note: This is an update of a post that I originally wrote in 2012]
Justifying fire department staffing levels has always been a big challenge. Fire chiefs understand that fire suppression is manpower-intensive, but civilians generally perceive fire departments as over-staffed. Consequently, a gulf exists between what fire professionals and the general population consider as adequate fire protection.
The current economic climate has made that challenge more difficult. Defending adequate staffing when other city services are being cut is difficult enough, but the trend toward fewer fires feeds the public perception that staffing can be reduced.
In communities with career firefighters, fire protection is usually the second highest budget item in the general fund (police protection being the highest). Since personnel costs make up the lion's share of fire department operating expenses, fire chiefs who face budget reductions have no option other than laying off firefighters and closing stations.
Staff reductions create a public safety dilemma. Fire calls are fewer than in the past, but fires will occur. When they do occur, the only effective way to stop them and prevent conflagrations is a rapid response with enough apparatus and firefighters.
Fire departments are finding ways to reduce costs without layoffs and closed stations by modifying the traditional staffing model.
Traditional fire department staffing
The current fire department staffing model was created in the 19th century. It calls for fire stations close enough to each other to get several fire apparatus to a fire scene in a few minutes. Most stations have a minimum of one pumper, staffed by firefighters who are on duty around the clock. Some stations also house ladder trucks and other special equipment, with crews of firefighters for each apparatus.
The traditional way of staffing fire departments is effective, but that effectiveness comes at a cost. Several factors make them more expensive than non-public safety services. For one thing, fire suppression is labor-intensive. The National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) Standard 1710, the nationally recognized standard for fire department operations, calls for a minimum of 17 firefighters to suppress a house fire. That number can double in areas where homes are closer together.
Compliance with NFPA 1710 requires a dense network of stations and at least four firefighters per apparatus. It requires four or five firefighters on ladder trucks. Thus a response to a house fire requires a minimum of three pumpers, a ladder truck and one chief officer.
The standard also sets maximum travel times. The first apparatus must arrive within in a four minute travel time, and the remaining apparatus arriving two minutes after that.
Filling positions when firefighters are on vacation or ill is an additional cost factor. As firefighters gain seniority and accrue more vacation time, filling empty positions requires more personnel or higher overtime costs.
Pension costs are a big factor. Firefighters retire at age 50-55, much younger than non-public safety personnel. As a result, adequately staffed fire departments have heavier pension burdens.
The next section describes how fire departments with career firefighters can reduce personnel costs without cutting the level of fire protection. A later section will show how the model can work for volunteer and combination fire departments as well.
Sustainable staffing models
Fire departments are turning to full- or part-time temporary firefighters in the form of college students, whose compensation ranges from free housing to complete tuition and expenses for their service. Fire departments in urban areas have several colleges within commuting distance. The greater the number of campuses, the larger the pool of candidates.
Student/firefighters - the basic concept
Fire departments generally select qualified college-bound students to serve four years as full-time firefighter/EMT's. Some departments accept two-year college programs. In return, the students receive subsidized or free college educations. Preliminary comparisons of career firefighter compensation and student/firefighter college expenses show that fire departments can support two or three student/firefighters for the cost of a career firefighter. In addition to lowering salary costs, the student/firefighters would not add to fire department pension burdens. More cost details are presented below.
Student/firefighters attend classes and serve as firefighters at the same time. Duty schedules for full-time firefighters requires only 9-10 duty days per month. The availability of on-line classes further reduces potential conflicts. The student firefighters would be free to attend any college within a reasonable commute that offers competitive tuition rates. For example, the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MN) metropolitan area has ten colleges and universities within a one-hour commute of dozens of career, combination and volunteer fire departments. That yields a substantial pool of student/firefighters for several fire departments.
Student firefighters must carry full-time class loads and maintain at least "C" grade averages. At graduation, the student/firefighters leave with college degrees and no college debt. They are also experienced firefighters, an advantage should they decide to pursue fire service careers
Data on the average cost of college educations and firefighter salaries show that fire departments can support multiple student/firefighters for the cost of one career firefighter. For example, the median starting salary (including benefits) for firefighters in the US is $60,000.00 ($48,000.00 salary plus 35 percent in benefits). The median annual cost to attend a public college (including tuition and dorm fees) is $12,000.00. Assuming a cost of $3,000.00 per student firefighter for initial training, those costs would support a ratio of up to four student/firefighters per one career firefighter.
Such cost comparisons will vary by region. A recent comparison of college costs with firefighter salaries in the Kansas City revealed that an average firefighter salary and benefits would could pay tuition, housing and living expenses for 2-3 college student firefighters.
Cost estimates will also vary by the scope of a fire department's program. My post titled "Resident firefighters" cites a number of fire departments that only provide free living quarters to those that include tuition, transportation and living expenses.
Recruitment and selection options
There are two basic options for recruiting and selecting student/firefighters. The first option is to recruit college-bound high school seniors and currently enrolled students in the spring of each year. The size of the recruit pool depends upon the number of institutions within a reasonable commuting distance.
Successful recruits spend the summer months training to the Firefighter II and EMT certification levels. In some cases, local technical or community colleges provide the training. In others, the fire department training division provides it. At the beginning of the school year, successful candidates are assigned to duty shifts.
Another option is to operate high school fire cadet programs. The programs attract students who are interested in fire service careers, and give them time to meet criteria like physical requirements. Typical fire cadet programs include the following steps:
- The sponsoring fire department invites interested students and parents to orientation meetings that describe the program's objectives, benefits and requirements. The meetings are open to freshmen through senior year students.
- Interested students are invited to participate in the department's physical fitness test. Students need not pass the test to become cadets. Rather, the test gives potential college student/firefighters more time to work on meeting the physical requirements by their senior year. Also, the test will help potential cadets decide if they are suited to such a physically demanding job.
- Cadets attend extra-curricular training on Firefighter I and II during each school year. EMT training would begin in their junior and senior years.
The extra-curricular training yields several benefits. The students have sufficient time to qualify as college student firefighters, as well as time to achieve grades that make them college-eligible. It also gives the fire department trainers a long-term evaluation process to monitor student progress and suitability for the job.
- Senior year students who complete the firefighter and EMT training, and are accepted by a college approved by the department, continue the selection process with interviews, physical and psychological evaluations.
Some departments allow college student/firefighters time off from their duty shifts to attend classes. They then return to work for the remainder of their shifts. Other departments leave the positions open during their absence or pay off-duty student/firefighters to fill the positions. For example, one fire department pays off-duty student/firefighters $10.00 per hour to fill in for on-duty student /firefighters who are attending classes. On other departments, the student firefighters arrange trades with off-duty student firefighters to fill in.
A note on union membership. The leadership should be quick to point out that college student firefighters would be union members like their career counterparts, so that the career members will not think that the program is a union-busting tactic.
Local conditions will dictate the number of student firefighters per shift. In cities where 1- and 2-family homes comprise the primary suppression demand, fire companies may have two student firefighters serving with a career officer and career apparatus operator. In cities with greater risks, career personnel would staff units such as hazmats, heavy and technical rescue. That is because they require technical training that are beyond the capabilities of firefighters assigned to engines and ladder trucks. Where cities have dense urban cores, they may use all career personnel in those areas and assign student firefighters to stations where the demand is lower.
Student/firefighters for volunteer departments
With some exceptions, volunteer fire stations are not staffed 24/7. Instead of being on standby at stations like career firefighters, volunteer firefighters carry pagers and respond to their stations from home or work.
Many volunteer fire departments have too few members available during daytime hours. The solutions are limited and daunting. Jurisdictions accustomed to the low costs of volunteer departments will likely chafe at budget increases sufficient to hire career firefighters. For example, hiring enough firefighters to staff one apparatus with four personnel on a 24/7 basis costs an average of $900,000.00 per year.
Jurisdictions facing such a dilemma could use student/firefighters for much lower costs than "going careeer." Besides the cost advantage, student/firefighter programs would solve a management problem created when departments mix volunteers with career firefighters. On many "combination" departments, ownership issues threaten to divide volunteer and career firefighters. This would not be a problem with student/firefighters because they would work under the supervision of the volunteer officers.
Student/firefighter success factors
For student/firefighter programs to succeed, city leaders would need to address several core factors.
- Qualified candidates
Student/firefighters will be full-time albeit temporary employees, and will be expected to perform at the same level as career firefighters. Cities typically have a firefighter selection process in place, and can use it to select qualified student/firefighters.
Firefighting is not a typical public service program. The dangers and stresses of the job call for individuals who understand the profession's risks, can adjust to a paramilitary environment, and will fully support their fellow firefighters. In my experience, a thorough interview process and psychological assessment can identify candidates who have the right motives for becoming firefighters.
Fire departments can do several things to increase retention. First, a thorough interview process will help identify a candidate's motivation for applying. Second, fire departments can set reimbursement policies for student/firefighters who leave before completing their commitment. For example, leaving during the first year could require a 100 percent reimbursement of training and tuition expenses. A sliding scale could apply to drop-outs during the rest of the four-year term,
Leadership will be a critical factor in a program's success. In order to remain in the program, student/firefighters will be required to perform their fire department duties, maintain passing grades and steadily advance toward graduation. Fire departments will need one or more officers to mentor the student/firefighters, monitor their progress and be their advocate to the other department members.
Student/firefighter programs will need a continual supply of recruits to replace graduates. Fire departments that operate high school fire cadet programs will be better able to maintain a pool of candidates who understand the job of firefighting, and have practiced the skills needed to pass the student/firefighter entry tests.
Hundreds of fire departments now have college student firefighter programs and have modified them to meet local needs. My post on resident firefighters includes a graph such departments by state.