Sustainable Fire Protection
(Revised June 6, 2012)
Justifying fire department staffing levels has always been a big challenge. Fire chiefs understand the reality of fire, but civilians generally do not. 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. The trend toward fewer fires is feeding the public perception that staffing can be reduced.
In communities with career firefighters, fire protection is often the second highest budget item (behind police protection). Since personnel costs make up the lion's share of fire department operating expenses, fire chiefs 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 eventually occur that threaten to grow into conflagrations. When they do occur, the only effective way to stop them is with a rapid response of multiple apparatus and firefighters.
I believe that many fire departments can resolve this dilemma without layoffs and closed stations, but it requires that they modify the usual way to staff fire departments.
Traditional fire department staffing
The current fire department staffing model was created in the 19th century and has not changed since. 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 effectiveness comes at a cost. Networks of stations with 24/7 staffing make fire department response very reliable, but 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, states that at least 14 firefighters are needed to suppress a house fire. That number can double in urban cities, where homes are closer together.
Meeting that standard requires a dense network of stations and several firefighters per apparatus. Per NFPA 1710, the minimum staffing for pumpers is four firefighters. It requires five firefighters on ladder trucks. A response to a house fire requires a minimum of two pumpers, one 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, with 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 third 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.
A sustainable staffing model
Several US fire departments that are on or near college campuses staff their apparatus with a staff of career firefighters who are augmented by college student/firefighters. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Fire Department is one example.
The UA Fairbanks fire department protects the campus and surrounding off-campus areas with two stations. It staffs the stations with 11 career personnel and 40 student/firefighters. The career and student/firefighters work 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off duty. The student/firefighters are enrolled as full-time students and must carry at least 12 credits per semester. When absent from duty for classes, they arrange for off-duty student/firefighters to fill in.
The fire department pays student/firefighters hourly wages and gives them free housing. The pay is much less than career firefighter wages, but enough to pay their college expenses. Since most of the time on each 24-hour duty shift is spent on standby, student/firefighters have adequate time to study. Career firefighters fill the leadership positions, so the student/firefighters always work under the supervision of experienced personnel.
When student/firefighters graduate from UA Fairbanks, the department replaces them with incoming students. Since the student/firefighters do not accrue pension benefits, the fire department's pension burden is much lower than fire departments of the same size that are staffed with 100% career firefighters.
Recruitment and selection
During the spring semester, candidates for student/firefighter positions undergo a physical fitness test and interviews to determine their suitability for the job. The selected candidates spend two months during the summer break training as firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMT's). They are then assigned to shifts and begin work in the fall semester.
This staffing model allows the UA Fairbanks fire department to provide the same (or higher) level of service as non-college fire departments, but at reduced salary and pension costs.
Fire departments need not be on or adjacent to college campuses in order to implement variations of the model used by UA Fairbanks and other college fire departments. Many fire departments are located near several college campuses. Those fire departments would have a larger pool of student/firefighters by allowing them to attend one of the several campuses in the area.
Student/firefighters - the basic concept
Fire departments would select qualified college-bound students to serve four years as full-time firefighters. In return, the student/firefighters would receive free college educations. Preliminary comparisons of career firefighter compensation and student/firefighter college expenses show that fire departments could support a student/firefighter for one half to one fourth the cost of a career firefighter. And 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 would attend classes and serve as firefighters at the same time, just as they do at campus fire departments like the UA Fairbanks example. They 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 number should yield a substantial pool of student/firefighters for several fire departments.
At the end of their service, student/firefighters leave with college degrees and no education debt. They would also be 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 intern for initial training, those costs would support a ratio of up to four student/firefighters per one career firefighter.
For student/firefighters, fully-burdened cost estimates may include housing, meals, transportation and living expenses, depending upon each fire department's program. For example, some fire departments may opt to provide free housing could further reduce the fully-burdened cost of student/firefighters.
Recruitment and selection options
There are two basic options for recruiting and selecting student/firefighters. The first option is to use the same model as UA Fairbanks and other college fire departments. As described above, they recruit college-bound high school seniors and currently enrolled students in the spring of each year. The size of the recruit pool would depend upon the number of institutions with a preset maximum tuition and pre-determined commuting distance.
Successful recruits would spend the summer months training to the Firefighter II and EMT certification levels. At the beginning of the school year, successful candidates would be assigned to duty shifts.
High school fire cadet programs are another, and preferred, option. Fire departments that operate high school fire cadet programs have a recruitment and selection advantage. The cadet programs attract high school students who are interested in fire service careers. Adding a college student/firefighter program option to their cadet programs would yield a more reliable method for attracting, preparing and evaluating suitable candidates. A typical fire cadet selection process would proceed in the following steps:
- The sponsoring fire department would invite interested high school students and parents to orientation meetings that describe the program's objectives, benefits and requirements. The meetings would be open to freshmen through senior year students.
- Interested students would be invited to participate in the department's physical fitness test. Testing students from all grades gives potential student/firefighters more time to work on meeting the physical requirements by their senior year. Also, the test will help potential candidates decide if they are suited to such a physically demanding job.
- Cadets would attend extra-curricular classes on Firefighter I, II during each school year. EMT training would begin in their junior and senior years.
The extra-curricular training will yield several benefits. For one, those who decide that the student/firefighter program is not for them will drop out over time. For another, the fire department trainers can evaluate 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 would continue the selection process with interviews and psychological evaluations.
One benefit of fire cadet programs is that students can decide early on if they have the interest, dedication and ability to perform this public service in return for a college degree. It also gives them time to improve their physical ability.
On duty days, student/firefighters would be given time off to attend classes, and then return to work for the remainder of their shifts. Fire departments would have the option of leaving the positions open during their absence or paying off-duty student/firefighters to fill the positions. For example, one college fire department pays off-duty student/firefighters $10.00 per hour to fill in for on-duty student /firefighters who are attending classes. On weekends and semester breaks, the student/firefighters would be available for their entire 24 hour shifts.
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. 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 have many options for adjusting their existing firefighter selection processes 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 what is expected of them, can live in a paramilitary environment, and are motivated to support their fellow firefighters to the nth degree. In my experience, a thorough interview process and psychological assessment can identify candidates who have the right motives for becoming firefighters.
College fire chiefs with student/firefighters cite turnover as a potential problem. Some applicants see the student/firefighter position as a stepping stone to a career job. After completing their firefighter training, some student/firefighters are apt to search for full-time firefighter jobs and drop out of college once they secure a job.
Fire departments can do several things to increase retention. First, a thorough interview process will help to 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. Readers can find them listed by state at www.fdlivein.com. The fire department web sites often have detailed information about their particular programs.