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Emergency Services: How Much Equipment Is Enough?

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

Proponents of expanding fire and police services say that if we have a fire station on every corner, we would save all lives. While this sounds good, it is not practical because there are many factors that affect survivability in a tragedy. If it’s a fire, the victim may already be dead because of a delay in reporting the fire. This is why smoke detectors and fire alarm systems are required in many types of properties. Even better than detection systems are the instillation of suppression systems, such as automatic sprinklers.

Opponents of expanded fire services may say if only one fire apparatus arrives, the crew can assess the situation, take initial action and summon extra help if needed. After all, most communities outside of heavily populated areas do not have simultaneous fires and a large portion of the ambulance transports could have occurred via private vehicle.

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes are the standards and norms for a community. Within the fire service, there are many National Fire Protection Association Standards and the Center for Public Safety Excellence’s Standard of Cover that help guide the proper amount of protection based on the hazards present in the community.

From a police standpoint, there is no national standard on the number of police officers and the structure of the organization. However, workload studies and benchmarking with other communities can help guide these decisions.

What Is the Balance within the Community?

The actual amount of resources in either department is realistically limited to the local community budget. Within some government and tax structures, there is one large pot of money that must be divided among all government services. In some years more money can go to public safety, in other years that money must be spent on roads and parks.

Within some government structures, funds are separated by legislation in the form of levies, which the community must pass to fund the different government services. The most common levies are for police and fire. But there must be a proper balance.

If you must pay for police and fire and not for repairs of infrastructure or economic development, you set your community up for long-term failure. Look at many Rust Belt cities where industry has left due to a lack of investment in economic development. These communities suffer from a downward spiral that increasingly uses police and fire services because the population does not have a means to take care of themselves.

How Much for Each Event?

Beyond the limitations of the community and budget, internal limitations and thoughts can be the final factor in success of failure to provide adequate for municipal services. We have all seen fire departments that have too many personnel on duty and want to limit their use because there might be legal liabilities to having the apparatus respond.

We have also seen fire departments where there’s a whiff of smoke and the dispatcher sends the equivalent of a two alarm fire.

Critical Task Analysis Should Result in a Balance of Needs and Resources

A critical task analysis should result in a balance of needs and resources. There are many tasks that need to be conducted simultaneously if the responding units are relatively close to the scene or in series of actions if the equipment pieces are far apart; the first unit on the scene must conduct multiple tasks prior to the arrival of subsequent companies.

Determining what tasks are needed and building an adequate number of companies to handle special tasks is a good way to go about this task analysis. Among the relevant factors is the need to allow personnel to maintain self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) standards through the event.

There will always be a battle over the amount of protection a community requires. So it is important that public safety leaders have a good grasp of the standards and hazards in their area.  That will permit them to recommend the correct amount of resources and explain those needs to the community.

When the community recognizes how it will benefit they will vote for funding to secure the needed resources.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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