February 16, 2009

A Thought on Minimum Manning

Justin Katz

I know and trust Lieutenant Michael Morse of the Providence Fire Department, and he certainly makes some persuasive points on minimum manning:

From my seat I witness Providence's manpower used beyond the breaking point daily. Day after day, we are forced to tap resources from surrounding communities to answer 911 calls. Crews from Cranston, East Providence, Johnston, Pawtucket and anywhere else Providence can find fill the void when we need emergency responders. The people in those communities are under-protected while their first responders are busy bailing out their neighbors in the capital. It is a recipe for disaster. ...

One thing that is imperative in the fire/EMS service is consistency. From our end, we need to know where our resources lie, how long before they arrive, and how many will show up when called. While I am doing CPR with my partner, I'm also formulating a plan based on my expectations. I know Engine Company 11 has been dispatched from the Reservoir Avenue Fire Station and will arrive within a few minutes with three firefighters on board. I'll need two trained people to continue CPR, one to drive the rescue, my partner to monitor the heart, administer oxygen and start IVs. That leaves me to administer medications, defibrillate, document and contact medical control. Nobody is idle during an emergency. Often we have nobody left to drive the fire engine. We do the best we can and make due with what we have.

What if the mayor closed Engine 11 for the night rather than pay overtime? What if two firefighters showed up five minutes later than planned? What chance, if any, the patient had for survival would be tossed aside because of irresponsible budgeting? Is this the best our society can do?

The basic distrust is that the people setting manning levels stand to gain financially from overtime. (Whether that is really a factor is a debate into which we needn't slip.) The basic challenge is that schedules will always hover somewhere between full-time equivalent positions.

To square this circle, although I hate to create any additional departments at the state level, what if Rhode Island were to establish (or adjust rules and regulations in whatever way necessary to enable municipalities to establish) a statewide or regional fire authority that would take care of some of the organizational and back-office work entailed in sharing full-time firefighers/rescuers from town to town? The fire authority could bring an outside perspective to disputes about the number of team members necessary at any given time, and more importantly, it could organize a mixed volunteer and professional force that would split time with different departments.

I'm not suggesting a union-hall type setting to which such employees would show up to grab their daily assignments. Rather, their schedules would typically be nearly as regular as firefighters' currently are.

That way, each town or city could remain fully staffed without requiring a significant number of work hours to be paid at time-and-a-half. There would also be a new route toward securing full-time jobs or volunteering. (Details about pay, benefits, and pensions would have to be worked out of course.)

Just a thought.

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Great post by the Lieutenant.

It is amazing that East Providence officials allow their rescues to run to Providence several times a day every day.

Posted by: Frank at February 16, 2009 2:28 PM

At a City Council meeting about a year ago or so, the Council gave figures for how many trips EP made to Prov. as opposed to how many Prov. made to EP. The inequity was staggering. EP made about forty times the calls that Prov. made. Reciprocity is a great thing.

Posted by: bobc at February 16, 2009 2:53 PM

Thanks for the info

Posted by: Frank at February 16, 2009 4:19 PM

Bobc- part of the reason for the disparity is because Providence very rarely has a rescue available to send if EP needs one.

EPFD actually did stop sending more than one truck at a time into Providence a year or so ago, as did North Providence.

Cicilline then reminded the respective mayors how much money their cities made from insurance billing of runs in Providence. The restrictions were rescinded.

Thing to remember is that every time East Providence has a fire, they get two fire trucks from Providence to cover EP stations. Any major fire in EP will doubtless see a much more significant response from Providence.

Shut off the rescue aid, and that firefighting power might be denied. Cicilline is NOT above tactics like that.

Posted by: EMT at February 16, 2009 6:48 PM

Michael Morse makes a good case that the minimum manning issue is about the low staffing levels being tolerated by cities and towns. Some mayors have maintained that the cost of hiring new firefighters is more than paying overtime to cover absences. Now they want to reduce minimum manning to reduce their cost to their budgets. Who gets hurt? The citizen gets hurt with reduced protection. Firefighters get hurt by the reduction in staffing as Lieut. Morse points out. Who gains? Short term gains would be for mayors grandstanding their ability to take on unions and serve taxpayers. Also the wealthy taxpayer would be happy until the time that an auto accident or heart attack is not handled in a manner we have grown accustomed to.

Posted by: Phil at February 17, 2009 7:36 AM


Are you suggesting sharing firefighters from community to community on a day to day basis to avoid overtime for minimum staffing? If so, you need to know that there are NO fire departments in the state that run with a single firefighter above minimum manning. Never.

Therefore there is no other community to borrow "extra" firefighters from.

It is a sorry fact that if the general public had any idea how understaffed every fire department in the state is on every shift they would be outraged!

Posted by: Tom Kenney at February 17, 2009 6:29 PM

That's why there would have to be some state-level authority organizing the "sharing." Every town would have its own firefighters, but there would be a pool that worked part time in those that needed it, up to full time across towns if desired.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 17, 2009 6:46 PM

I think what Mr. Kenney is trying to say is if the pool was created to achieve proper staffing in every RI town the pool would be, by far, the largest group of firefighters in the state.

Posted by: Frank at February 17, 2009 7:22 PM

I see. There are a few things that I see as problems with this idea.

1. This "pool" would need to be administered on a daily (twice daily) basis - prior to the day shift and prior to the night shift - this would be an added expense. The members in the pool would need to be available every day on an hours notice, if not there would be too many phone calls to make in a very short time in order to fill the vacant spots.

2. I see that you're seriously underestimating the qualifications to be a firefighter. The training levels in each department across the state are completely different. The type of fire service that goes on in Foster for example is not the same as the type of fire service in Providence - and vice versa. Each department has different equipment that operates in different manners. Each department has its own SOP's and Rules & Regulations to follow. It would be like taking an Airman from the Canadian Air Force and asking him to be a US Marine for a day.

3. A "huge" part of a firefighter's worth is his familiarization with his district and the special hazards of the city or town. Without this knowledge he may never be able to find the emergency let alone mitigate the problem.

Things are much more specialized in modern fire departments than most peoiple understand. The old days of just showing up and throwing water at a fire or scooping up a victim from an accident and hurrying to the hospital are gone.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at February 18, 2009 5:42 PM
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