Stronger Together: Making the Case for Consolidating Rural Fire Services

With fire service consolidation comes greater consistency in planning and response [PM Magazine, July 2020]

By Jeremy Mitchell | Jul 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

Saturday, 1600 hours

Dispatch: “Attention Fire Department X, respond to a report of an apartment fire at 1234 Shady Drive, fire seen in a ground-floor apartment.”

1603 hours

Dispatch: “Second page for Fire Department X, also Fire Department Y and Fire Department Z, respond to 1234 Shady Drive for the working fire in an apartment…getting several calls.”

1605 hours

Dispatch: “Fire Department X, County Sheriff’s is on scene reporting fire through the front window extending up the side of the building.”

1607 hours

Chief Y: “ Dispatch, Chief Y is on the air. I’m en route; is there an engine company responding yet?”

Dispatch: “You are currently the only fire unit responding to this call.”

Chief Y: “I understand. Please call two more departments for personnel.”

A scenario very similar to this recently happened in my area—and situations like this are increasing locally and nationally among volunteer fire departments. In this case, “Chief Y” turned out to be the first unit on scene; he was able to complete a size-up (a quick evaluation of the building, fire conditions, and life safety risk) and verify that there was no civilian life hazard. The actual fire attack began 15 minutes after the initial dispatch when two combination departments, each with a travel distance of over 10 miles, arrived on scene. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that for these rural fire departments, most of their volunteer members were engaged in the fall harvest and unable to respond.

While hindsight is always 20/20, the last item worth considering about this fire is that a full-time fire station staffed by three firefighters is located within two minutes driving time from the fire. This is just one example of why it’s time to consider consolidation of rural fire services. In this article, I will conduct a “thought experiment” discussing some of the benefits of consolidation using my county as our example.

Case Study: Champaign County, Illinois

Located in east central Illinois, Champaign County is home to 25 fire departments, made up of fire services of all kinds: career, combination and volunteer, aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF), advanced emergency medical services (EMS), hazardous materials response, and special rescue. There are six fire departments in the county, which are either full time or offer some type of combination staffing—larger, generally self-sufficient communities. They are excluded from our study, leaving us with 19 fire departments serving a population of approximately 23,500 people and cumulative budgets of $2.7 million.

On average, each department serves a community of 1,286 people with an average budget of $142,105, although depending on the population and tax rates, county department budgets can deviate as much as $30,000 higher and lower. Champaign County’s rural communities are remarkably homogenous, consisting mostly of single family homes, multi-family residential units, schools, and small businesses devoted to supporting agriculture, the largest sector of the local economy. A 2018 report found that approximately 70 percent of the emergency services call volume involved vehicle rescue or EMS, while the departments experienced a slightly higher than national average incidence of actual fire calls, approximately 15 percent of total responses. Average response time from dispatch to the arrival of the first unit on scene was 10 minutes.

Why Consolidate?

The salient point arguing in favor of fire department consolidation is whether the local fire department can effect a timely response with an appropriate number of competent staff. For a number of county departments, this is not the case. NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Services Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, states that for a “typical” response to a 2,000 square-foot single-family home, the fire department shall place six fire suppression personnel on scene within 14 minutes, 80 percent of the time.1

Note that I say fire suppression personnel; I recall a house fire in an occupied home to which I responded with a driver and an EMT, with only myself to fight the fire. As I read Section 4.3.2 of NFPA 1720, placing six personnel on scene means an incident commander, a driver, and four personnel trained and capable of performing primary search and fire control. Clearly, the standard wasn’t met in this case or in our opening scenario.

The fire department’s primary responsibility and primary focus is on the prevention and suppression of fire. If the fire department is incapable of assembling an effective response, it must know how to access the necessary resources and integrate them into an effective plan. With fire service consolidation comes greater consistency in planning and response because all of the players will be following the same playbook, so to speak. In fact, developing that playbook (i.e., rules and regulations, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and incident management systems) is much easier if a few people—a consolidated fire department’s command staff—only have to do it once.

Conversely, as things currently stand in Champaign County in our study, 19 departments are struggling to develop 19 different plans with 19 differing degrees of success in implementation. The differences in plans, and in effectiveness of service delivery, are rooted in perceived differences among the county’s villages. The county’s homogeneity works in favor of planning for emergency response; for a house fire in a given village, an incident commander should be able to count on this particular resource from his station, followed by these and those resources from the next closest stations. This will allow him or her to prioritize tasks based on conditions and first arrival, and have a workable incident action plan immediately. The same resource allocation would be dispatched in another community as the consolidated department’s standard working fire response.

Another building block of a consistent and effective response is apparatus, of which there is a wide variety in Champaign County, including pumpers, pumper tenders, tenders, light and heavy rescues, and water towers. Apparatus purchasing is reactive, either when another vehicle becomes inoperable or based on what the membership wants instead of actual community need. However, at a minimum, a pumper, pumper tender, and some type of initial attack/light rescue will see these departments (serving an average of 1,200 people) through the vast majority of their calls for service.

If these departments consolidated they could develop common apparatus, which increases familiarity even when working with companies from another station, and also will save on cost when a larger department orders several apparatus following a vehicle replacement plan versus several smaller departments trying to secure funding and place orders for their own equipment. The same SOPs, calling for the same equipment and the same complement of personnel increases operational effectiveness, which is another way of saying civilians and responding volunteers are safer and fire losses are reduced.

This helps save minutes on scene and mitigates a built-in flaw in the volunteer-service delivery model: firefighters have to travel to their stations and wait for an adequate number of crew to begin response. In Champaign County, that amounts to four to five minutes, and as an incident commander, you have to accept the fact that those are precious minutes you don’t get back when thinking about the possibility of flashover or survivability profiling. However, some of the uncertainty is eased if an incident commander knows what specific resources are on the way and expected within 14 minutes of dispatch.

How Would It Work?

A consolidated Champaign County fire service has to start at the top; the new chief would be in charge of 19 fire stations, dozens of apparatus, and hundreds of volunteer firefighters. Even for an accumulation of small, rural departments, it is enough work for a full-time administrative level officer. The chief needs a full-time training officer as well, since teaching new SOPs and ensuring task-level competency will drive consistency and establish the expectations of the new organization.

Operationally, the county would be split into four districts: three districts with five stations assigned, and a “short” district with four. These officers would have considerably more work to do than an average volunteer, but less than a full-time employee; their jobs would be classified as “full time/part time” and be compensated by some kind of stipend. The district chiefs would be responsible for operations, vehicle maintenance, and facilities working with their station captains (the former volunteer chiefs), who supervise the baseline station assignment of pumper, pumper tender, and initial attack/light rescue.

Based on risk assessment and population distribution, other equipment would be assigned to the district stations, such as spare apparatus, rescues, or elevated stream pumpers. This ultimately results in a lower total operating cost since at any one time only a handful of departments need a spare or the use of a specialized resource and nearly all calls for service—medical, MVC, outside fire, and service calls—can be handled by one or two correctly staffed apparatus. The same principle applies to loose equipment, hose, and PPE since most fire departments do not use valuable time and money trying to maintain a full complement of their own equipment.

Personnel Benefits

The benefits of consolidation are apparent when discussing physical assets and emergency response, but they extend to personnel administration as well. Having a paid/combination staff will enable development of job descriptions, training objectives, and objective promotional processes. In this way, volunteers will have a “career ladder” similar to full-time firefighters. If they choose to move residences within the county, there would be no starting over as a probationary firefighter because they could simply be assigned to another station.

The issue of EMS-only personnel or semi-retired members who prefer driving or performing scene-control activities is its own can of worms. If a volunteer fire department is consistently able to place four firefighters trained to the Firefighter I level on a pumper within four minutes of receiving an alarm, then it’s less of an issue. But on both operational and administrative levels, it’s much easier for managers to not have to think about which personnel can ride which apparatus, or who has what certification. Suppose you were the first due chief in our opening scenario: Would you rather be left wondering how many personnel were on responding vehicles, and what their capabilities were, or would you rather just “know” that nine personnel trained to the Firefighter I standard are responding, being supervised by three officers trained to Fire Officer I?

Obstacles to Consolidation

Consistently effective and safe operations, lower operating costs, better management, and personnel retention—it would seem that rural fire department consolidation in Champaign County is a no-brainer, but the idea faces substantial opposition for several reasons:

Ego: A consolidated fire department requires an act of political suicide by 19 village boards or fire protection district boards. Consolidation also requires 19 people to relinquish the title of fire chief, a goal that many have sacrificed for over a period of years. In Illinois, currently the state with the most subunits of local government, this act of dissolution and reconstitution seems inconceivable when they can enjoy their own fiefdoms.

Pride: “We’re better than they are at auto extrication.” “Those guys don’t like interior firefighting.” Champaign County firefighters are no different from their counterparts elsewhere; based on their interests and natural talents, some departments pride themselves on their own unique skills or services over others. But supposing risk analysis reveals that the department on the edge of the county with the heavy rescue needs a tender apparatus—and that its heavy rescue would be of more use if it was moved to a town closer to the highway? Would that fire department’s membership acquiesce, or would they refuse to consolidate and continue focusing on an aspect of service that’s less necessary for their local community? Would these firefighters put aside pride in “their” fire departments and have faith that they were becoming part of a larger, better whole? The step from many small fire departments to a larger county department seems small to an outsider, but it is fraught with meaning for longtime volunteers, and those relationships will have to be managed delicately if a change takes place.

Past practice: Among these 19 fire departments, some get along very well, some do not, and very few get along with the paid departments in the county. “We don’t like them” is an admittedly stupid reason for fire departments not to collaborate on adequate response, but it happens. The attitude goes both ways, however, as many career firefighters express distaste for working with the volunteers. The abridged fire at the beginning of this article might not have been extinguished by the three-person career-crew located much closer than the volunteers, but if all this crew did was respond and spend their on-board tank in an exterior attack, the fire would have been held in place while the volunteers were en route. There is a substantial body of literature discussing culture change and “blending” when fire departments consolidate, and putting aside old grievances and prejudices is a real concern. The new organization must realize the opportunity to create newer, better relationships within the department (people not used to working together) and without (people used to another service delivery model).

Misperception of need: Related to that pride in unique service is a community—and its fire department—not fully understanding the risks it faces or what resources are needed. While NFPA 1720 states that volunteer fire departments “shall participate” in development of community risk management plans (including evaluation of fire risk), in practice few volunteer fire officers do given time constraints and lack of training. Risk assessment is another important administrative task, regardless of department size, that falls by the wayside along with incident management and SOP development. The village of 500 people with a 15-person department might not understand why it’s not advisable or perhaps even feasible to maintain a fleet of five vehicles when instead it would be better served to plan operations around a single resource and four to six firefighters, with neighboring stations filling out a fire response.

Support services: The consolidation of Champaign County fire services as described creates a substantially larger organization needing an administrative framework in order for it to reach its full potential. We previously covered a paid chief and training officer, and compensated district chiefs, but a cadre of additional instructors are needed to deliver the training program; again, perhaps not full-time personnel but they would need to be classified as something other than volunteers.

Something else not discussed to this point is the utter lack of fire code enforcement in rural Champaign County and the variable quality of fire and life safety education in the rural communities. NFPA 1720, in Annex B, recognizes fire prevention and fire and life safety education as “management goals” of the volunteer fire department and acknowledges that staffing and response are only two components of community fire protection; volunteer fire departments also must apply fire and building codes to “limit loss of life and property.” A consolidated fire department, in good conscience, must also provide for fire code enforcement and life safety education, which would require additional staff, either full time or in another type of regular capacity.

Past experience in Champaign County shows that when volunteer firefighters attempt to enforce burn ordinances or fireworks bans, or address violations of the Life Safety Code, they are ignored or treated with derision because the public believes a volunteer has no kind of binding enforcement mechanism. Having compensated fire code and life safety professionals provides another career path for members of a consolidated department and hopefully serves to keep them interested and active in their department. Diehards among the rural departments will decry administrative “bloat,” but the ultimate goals are reduced incidence of fire, lower property loss and injury rate, and fire control using fewer resources. An appropriately staffed and supported administrative component better helps this type of department meet those goals.

An Imagined Future

Imagine the opening scenario, but with a fire response from a consolidated fire department with consistent equipment, personnel, and operations. Think for a moment how different the outcome would be:

1600 hours

Dispatch: “Attention Station 4100, Engine 4251, Engine 4351, and Rescue 4371, Chief 4001 and Chief 1001, respond to the report of a working fire in the ground-floor apartment at 1234 Shady Drive.”

1601 hours

Chief 4000: “Chief 4001 is en route to 1234 Shady Drive.”

Chief 1001: “Chief 1001 is en route as well.”

1604 hours

Station 4100: “Dispatch, Engine 4151 is responding to Shady Drive. We currently have no other personnel at our station.”

Engine 4351: “Dispatch, Engine 4351 and Rescue 4371 are responding.”

Dispatch: “Dispatch has that, 4151, (4351, and 4371. Chief 4001, County Sheriff’s Office advises that they are on scene and the fire is venting from a ground-floor window.”

Chief 4001: “10-4. Is Engine 4251 on the air?”

Dispatch: “Negative, no response from their station.”

Chief 4001: “Chief 4001 has that. Please dispatch an additional engine and rescue from District 5, and Chief 5001.”

1609 hours

Engine 4151: “Dispatch, 4151 is on scene at 1234 Shady Drive. It’s a working fire in a two-story wood framed apartment building with fire auto exposing from a ground-floor window. 4151 will have a line off for a transitional attack and will be moving into the fire apartment for primary search.”

Chief 4001: “Chief 4001 is on scene on Shady Drive, and will be assuming Shady Command. Engine 4151, I understand you’ll be performing a transitional attack. Engine 4351 upon your arrival I want you to secure a water supply for 4151; Rescue 4371, you’ll be performing a primary search of the apartment above the fire apartment.”

Because the engine companies operate out of identical apparatus (bought on the same purchase order), the driver/operators work together seamlessly to establish a water supply. Because of previous training according to department SOPs, the rescue company knows their job will be primary search of a multifamily dwelling, and Chief 4001 knows he will have help at the command post when Chief 1001 arrives. One station was not able to staff an engine company as originally dispatched, but Chief 4001 knows he can draw the exact same resource with the exact number of personnel, similarly trained, from a neighboring district and integrate them with no difficulty into his incident action plan.

Within a 10-minute window, the new department is able to place 14 personnel on scene and control a serious dwelling fire. All because the five fire stations included in our new scenario agreed that they are stronger together than they were apart, and with their neighbors and fellow firefighters, took the courageous step to consolidate.

 JEREMY MITCHELL is an assistant deputy fire marshal for Champaign, Illinois. He also manages the fire prevention services consultancy, GTC Fire Prevention. (gtcfire@outlook.com)

 

 

Endnote

https://www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/all-codes-and-standards/list-of-codes-and-standards/detail?code=1720

 

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