One firefighter short: Arlington fire chief says no, some express safety concerns

01/05/2014 3:37 PM

01/05/2014 3:39 PM

When an Arlington fire engine and its crew of three arrive at a structure fire, the firefighters must wait for help before even considering sending anyone inside.

The Arlington Fire Department follows state law, which requires four firefighters present before anybody can enter a building engulfed in flames unless there is a imminent life-threatening situation, or the fire is in its beginning stage.

So the Arlington Professional Fire Fighters association is advocating for the department to follow the lead of the Fort Worth and Dallas departments by adopting National Fire Protection Association standards that recommend every fire engine have a minimum of four firefighters, allowing immediate response to a fire.

Though the recommendation is not required, “the NFPA is still an industry standard and non-compliance could become a legal problem as it has to [do] with negligence and the standard of care,” firefighter association President David Crow wrote in a letter to the Star-Telegram.

The city follows the agency standards for equipment, uniforms, apparatus and fire ground procedures —why not staffing? he asked.

But Fire Chief Don Crowson said a 2006 third-party study revealed that Arlington does not need four firefighters per engine and that a second firetruck arrives to comply with the two-in/two-out state law within one minute, 20 seconds. This is a 30-second improvement from a couple of years ago, he said.

The NFPA recommends that the first fire engine arrive within four minutes; Arlington fire engines take four minutes, 20 seconds, officials said. Arlington’s total response time is five minutes, 22 seconds. NFPA’s recommended total response time is five minutes, 20 seconds.

Instead of having the additional staffing on the engines, the chief said, he uses a squad program, in which two sets of firefighters drive SUVs to respond to low-priority calls in the city’s busiest units. The staffing also has not lowered the city's rating by the insurance agency that ranks fire departments nationwide based on the quality of fire protection.

Crowson said the squad teams reduce firefighter fatigue on two of the city’s busiest units, engines 2 and 4. Engine 2 used to respond to 5,000 calls a year on the east side, but now it responds to 2,600. Engine 2 also used to have four firefighters, but Crowson shifted one firefighter to the squad team.

He said the squad SUVs can also aid in fire support by following the two engines to a fire.

“There’s not a fire chief in the world that doesn’t want more staffing, but we believe in Arlington we should justify our needs before we ask for additional staffing, and those needs are typically related directly to system demand,” Crowson said.

Several Arlington firefighters expressed concerns on a city survey stating that by not meeting the standard, the department could be putting its men and women at risk:

… When we arrive on scene of a fire we have requirements to have at least four people on the scene prior to making entry. However, our minimum staffing only allows for the engines to have three people on them and the quints [ladder trucks] to have four. So when an engine arrives on scene first we are unable to make entry into a fire until another engine arrives.

A total of 231 fire employees took the survey, which was made available to all 335 fire and 104 dispatch Fire Department employees.

With four-person staffing the driver operates the pump, two firefighters advance the water hose and enter the building, and one officer gives directions and supervises, said Ken Willette, manager of the public fire protection division at the NFPA.

Willette said this allows each firefighter to focus on a specific task.

“If someone challenges the work practices of the fire department, if somebody suffers a line-of-duty death or serious injury and they seek action … OSHA’s two-in/two-out and NFPA 1710 are always referenced in court,” Willette said.

Arlington firefighters do not have to wait on a fourth person if the fire could pose an imminent life-threatening situation, or if the fire is in its beginning stages and can be put out with extinguishers, according to policy.

Crowson said ladder trucks generally have a staff of four.

“We cannot be trapped in singular thinking. That’s why other departments are moving to squads. You have to justify why there is a need,” Crowson said of increasing staffing.

Neighboring Fort Worth and Dallas follow the two-in/two-out standard by staffing all fire engines and trucks with at least four firefighters.

The Fort Worth department implemented four-person staffing in 2005 and has since saved taxpayers 8.9 percent on insurance premiums, Battalion Chief Richard Harrison said.

The Insurance Services Office ranks fire departments nationwide. Those rankings factor into how much insurance costs for a city’s residents. ISO rankings range from one, the best, to 10, no protection.

Harrison, who directs community risk reduction, said the Fort Worth department’s four-person staffing moved it up a spot to Class 2, saving taxpayers money.

The Arlington department also holds a Class 2 rating.

The Dallas department has mandatory four-person staffing on engines and ladder trucks, a requirement that has been in effect since the late ’80s, Capt. Bernard Pipkins said.

Pipkins said the norm was three firefighters per engine when he joined the department in 1980, but the new standard changed everything.

“It has helped us out tremendously,” he said. “Each person has a specific duty, whereas before we three had to double up on duties.”

Willette said the fire protection agency’s standard should be used to measure efficiency.

“The real goal is for communities to understand there is a recommended staffing level of four that is needed and the fire department should be able to explain to the community what is the risk, what’s the cost and do you think it’s worth it to have less,” he said.

Crowson said he has served on the NFPA committees and knows how the process works.

Crow, the fire association president, wrote to the Star-Telegram that the “APFF believes the main obstacle for not adopting NFPA 1710 in Arlington is money, it would require a substantial investment by the city to achieve this standard.”

The Arlington Fire Department has the lowest per capita cost of North Texas’ top 10 most populous cities.

“If you think about it, do cars really need brakes? If you take your foot off the brake, the car will eventually stop, one way or another,” Crow wrote. “But, is that the best way for a car to stop? … The same could be applied to staffing standards and NFPA 1710.”

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