By Dr. Randall Hanifen
Recently, I had the honor of being invited to the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) Caribbean and South America’s inaugural educational conference and the annual general meeting held in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The organizer arranged for an informal meeting between the leaders of Caribbean fire departments and IFE’s leadership.
I represented the United States branch of IFE. During this meeting, it was surprising to learn about the vast differences – and the similarities – between the British, Australian, Caribbean, and American fire services.
The Organizational Structure of Different Fire Services
The meeting began with an overview of each attendee’s current fire service organization. Trinidad has a national fire service with 30 fire stations, covering an area about the size of Ohio. Many of the other Caribbean islands utilize a national fire service system.
By contrast, the United Kingdom is covered by 12 different fire and rescue systems that are coordinated with national standards on how to provide fire and rescue services. Australia is covered by its states within the country, and each state has one fire and rescue system with an overarching national system to coordinate all of the states.
I explained that the United States has around 30,000 different fire departments, run by local fire chiefs. While National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards exist, there are no rules governing the ways to administer 30,000 fire departments, unless those rules are codified in the state or local government. Despite the vast organizational differences between our nations, there were many of the same organizational elements.
Trinidad’s and Australia’s Fire Service Deployment Model
The operational organizational model for Trinidad was similar to the United States, but it had some distinct differences. The largest differences were the number of stations that cover a given area in Trinidad.
The response time in Trinidad’s urban areas was around 10 minutes. However, each station had multiple fire apparatus, six-person crews on the first response vehicle (engine) and a fire station officer, equivalent to an American battalion chief.
The person in charge of each of the fire apparatus (also known as an appliance) is a sub fire station officer. This position is the equivalent of a company officer in the United States.
Trinidad is divided into several areas, which have an administrative officer for each area. This person is typically recalled for fires occurring in their administrative area.
The Australian model was much the same as the Trinidad model.
Fire Service Personnel Training
Much of my trip and the reason for IFE’s presence in the Caribbean was the standardization of and opportunity for more training. This initiative is similar to Pro Board and International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) accreditation of programs in the United States, which allow for the consistency and third-party verification of fire service training.
This initiative also helps to ensure that fire service information is the same in all of the countries that comprise the Caribbean region. Since many of these countries are smaller than an American state, they need to support each other with personnel and equipment during a significant event or disaster. Without a standardized training curriculum and standardized equipment, it can become very difficult to provide the necessary response to a disaster.
Training for a disaster involves many different levels and needed knowledge, skills, and abilities for various job positions. At the firefighter level, there is the need to be proficient in providing basic search and rescue as well as delivering other humanitarian services.
Specialized search and rescue (SAR) teams need the ability to safely search through collapsed buildings and other urban areas and to document their efforts. At the battalion or fire station officer level, there is a need to manage all of the resources assigned to a division and determine any further needs related to fire, emergency medical services (EMS), SAR, and humanitarian support efforts.
Once someone rises to a division chief or area assistant chief, that person must fill command officer roles in operations, planning and logistics. Often, finance is left to other departments within a state government, but it can be managed by fire service personnel.
At the assistant or deputy fire chief level in fire services, collaboration for disaster response begins and is often carried out at the emergency operation center (EOC), where all disaster response representatives have a place. A fire chief will likely be a part of the multi-agency coordination (MAC) group that provides strategic planning and ensures that political issues receive attention during disaster response.
All Fire Services Ultimately Have the Same Purpose: Serving Their Communities
The operational model, structure and terminology used by fire services varies across the globe, but we have much in common, including our training principles. Ultimately, we all have the same goal: serving our communities as efficiently and safely as possible.