How to Combat Understaffing in Firefighting Operations

Fire chiefs are continually pressured to cut budgets and find ways to save their districts money. This leads to firefighters everywhere being asked to do more with less. They have cut staffing despite an increase in call volume, stations are closing and old equipment is kept in service far past its prime. At this point, we must ask, can your district really continue to do more with less and less fire stations, less personnel, less equipment, and less pay? 

The Effects of Understaffing

The fewer staff members there are, the more work the members that are there must do. And with careers like firefighting and emergency response, it becomes very easy for these staff members to be massively overworked and feel physically exhausted and mentally drained, and be more likely to make errors in their work that can be dangerous to themselves, their fellow team members, and the ones that they are working to help.

After the recent California fires, a look at LA County Fire Department overtime data found that overtime costs had risen by 36 percent in recent years. This is a trend throughout the state, with all but one county having a surge of over 30 percent. For many departments, it can be cheaper to have a firefighter work overtime than it is to hire a new firefighter, but this has been proven to not be the ideal solution.

Earlier this year, a firefighter in Washington filed a claim against the city of Yakima for $450,000 in damages, stating that he was injured on the job as a result of understaffing in his fire squad. His employment was later terminated due to an inability to perform his job functions, which came about because of his injury. In another Washington case, the Camas-Washougal Fire Department was cited for violating occupational safety requirements in a March 2017 house fire. The department violated their “two-in two-out” requirement because they were understaffed, and the department was fined $4800.

Saving the Service

Many businesses instead choose to “do more with less” in these cases, but this is not a realistic proposition for firefighters and emergency response.

It is extremely important to be honest and educate the public. If public safety is truly at risk, make sure that the public knows it and what it will take to fix the situation. Educating them is a continuous process. Our citizens must fully understand what is at stake long before we ask them for more funding. If the public isn’t aware of budget, staffing, and coverage problems, when they do hear about them they may assume that the fire department or its leaders are at fault, or may assume that very necessary staffing is simply a waste of taxpayer money.

Look for new sources of revenue and learn how to write grant proposals. Develop a cost recovery program and make sure that the recovered funds go back into the fire department budget, not into government funds. Consider hiring an expert. Firemen are not forensic accountants, professional negotiators, lawyers, or media experts. Recognize when it is time to hire an outside professional

Have a contingency plan before budget cuts are forced on you. Figure out ahead of time how you can best reallocate resources and funds in a way that does not jeopardize the safety of your firefighters. Normally the plan will have an impact on public safety. Make the public aware of what those impacts will be and why they are necessary before they are implemented.

It’s crucial to step up and be brave enough to say, “No, we cannot do any more with any less. These are the risks, and they are unacceptable.” Never allow another budget constraint to further compromise firefighter safety and public safety.

Taking the time to improve retention in these operations can help to reduce the problem of overstaffing. Implementing effective training programs will also help responders to feel more comfortable with their duties and reduce the risk of stress and burnout. Volunteer firefighters can also be a solution to lighten the workload of an operation’s current staff.

Though budgeting can be difficult and cost-cutting is tempting, it is crucial that all firefighting operations have insurance programs in place to keep their teams safe in their difficult tasks. Our FirePlus program is priced competitively, and we’d be happy to work with you to find the coverage that would best fit your operation.

About Provident FirePlus

At Provident FirePlus, we offer custom tailored packages to best protect firefighters and volunteer firefighters. We understand the risks that emergency response teams are subjected to on a daily basis, and have worked to serve these dedicated professionals for over 87 years. For more information about our products and policies, we invite you to contact our experts today at (800) 447-0360.

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