Two-Man Fire Crews Pose Greater Risk

Payson’s budget problems force two-man crews, but national study shows danger to public, firefighters

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Two-man fire trucks cannot effectively fight a fire or enter a burning building to save people, but do suffer a sharply higher rate of death and injury, according to a just-completed national study.

Payson was running two-man crews for six months due to budget problems.

The industry-standard four-man trucks complete essential tasks like laying hose, searching buildings and getting water on the fire 30 percent faster than two-man trucks, according to the study. The findings were based on a simulated fire in a 2,000-square foot house conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The study could have major implications for Payson’s current struggle with fire department staffing issues. For six months, furloughs and an overtime ban forced Payson to frequently run two-man trucks. Moreover, the town is currently building a third fire station, which will cost nearly $1 million annually to staff if the town hires the additional 9 or 10 firefighters necessary to operate a three-man truck 24 hours a day. Town officials hope a federal grant will cover the cost of the firefighters for the first two years — but that grant would provide barely enough money for a two-man truck.

In the current fiscal year, Payson has returned to two, three-man trucks. The department has 21 firefighters, two firefighter-administrators and 11 reserve firefighters with a $2.6 million budget.

However, the latest study suggests that two-man trucks could pose risks for both homeowners and firefighters.

For starters, new rules issued by the federal government won’t let a two- or three-man crew enter a building to fight a fire unless there’s another crew with a hose line standing by to rescue the first crew if things go wrong. The need for a two-man crew to wait for a second truck could eat up most of the response time gains of a third station.

On the other hand, even a two-man truck at a third station could cut several minutes off the medical calls that make up the vast majority of fire department runs. The time savings would affect medical calls in areas like Chaparral Pines. Manpower isn’t as critical an issue on medical calls, since a private ambulance with two paramedics on board also rolls on medical calls. As a result, even a fire truck staffed with just two paramedics would probably have backup from the two private paramedics to handle the call.

On the other hand, a two- or even three-man truck could face a critical manpower crunch when it arrives on the scene of a house fire.

The latest NIST report adds to the evidence that four-man crews on a fire truck have a much better chance of rescuing people from a burning house, with less risk to firefighters. The great majority of firefighter injuries and deaths involve heart problems and muscle strains brought on by exerting too much effort in the stress of a fire while wearing 70 pounds of gear.

A previous National Fire Academy (NFA) study found that a four-man crew could rescue potential victims 80 percent faster than a three-man crew. Another study found that three-man crews had injury rates 54 percent higher than four-man crews.

Local fire chiefs familiar with the study said it demonstrates the hazards of two-man crews.

“The standard should be four firefighters on a truck,” said Houston Mesa Fire Department Chief Chuck Jacobs, who also served as Payson’s fire chief for 22 years.

“Three on a truck should be an absolute minimum — when you get below that, no one should spin that it’s adequate. It’s dangerous to the firefighters who try to do more with less — it gets to a point where you are no longer functionally effective.”

Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch agreed. “Two people on a truck just doesn’t work. You can’t enter the building — you can’t really fight the fire. We are all in favor of what Payson’s trying to do (by building a third station), but I hope they don’t go below three-man engine companies, because that will affect the community’s safety.”

Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi said the study “proved what we know intuitively.”

However, he said sometimes budget concerns force compromises. “If I had my druthers, yeah — we’d go with a standard staffing plan. But you have to be prepared: You have to have Plan B and C and D. Two people is better than no people — you do what is affordable and acceptable at the time.”

The NITS study carefully measured the speed with which crews of various sizes tackled 60 simulated fires in a two-story house in a research test facility.

The nation’s 400,000 structure fires each year kill about 3,400 people and inflict about $8.5 billion in property damage. Those fires cause the death of an estimated 100 firefighters annually and injure tens of thousands.

The NITS study found that four-man crews have a big advantage over two- and three-man crews, partly because they can start several tasks at once. The four-man crews also suffer fewer injuries, probably because they can assign two firefighters to strenuous tasks like handling the hose and setting up fans to blow smoke out of the building. Curiously enough, five-man engine companies didn’t gain much additional efficiency at least in these simulated house fires.

One of the most crucial differences centered on searching a burning building to determine if someone was trapped inside — a task where a few minute’s delay could prove lethal.

Four-man crews completed a search of the building 30 percent faster than two-man crews and 5 percent faster than three-man crews.

The four-man crews created a whole checklist of critical tasks 30 percent faster than a two-man crew and 25 percent faster than a three-man crew. That works out to a 5- to 7-minute advantage.

That doesn’t sound like a lot of time — but the firefighter rule of thumb holds that a fire doubles in size every minute, says Jacobs.

“A layperson doesn’t really understand the difference a minute makes,” said Jacobs. The study documented the inexorable turn of the clock — an extra 76 seconds to stretch a hose line, an extra minute to start water flowing, an extra minute to search a smoke-filled room. The piling on of tasks can easily produce a fatal delay — at least for the relative handful of fire calls that involve burning buildings.

The study cited a growing body of research linking firefighter injuries to crew size.

For instance, large cities using four-person crews had half the firefighter injury rate of cities using smaller crews. By the same token, a study by the Austin Fire Department found three-man crews had an injury rate one-and-a-half times higher than four-man crews.

Jacobs said the higher injury rate makes perfect sense, given the high-stress nature of a fire or medical call and the human nature of firefighters.

“Firefighters are can-do people. When they get to an emergency, they want the job done. Firefighters will literally kill themselves trying to get the job done. When you see these short crews, you see the increased injury rate. That’s the extremely important thing the study shows,” said Jacobs.

deMasi agreed that two-man crews take a toll on firefighters. “The No. 1 killer of firefighters is heart attack and stroke,” he said. “The task is the task — pulling a two-and-a-half-inch hose weighs the same whether you’ve got one person on it or two. You put a lot of physical stress on your body.”

Chief Hatch noted that the 30 percent difference in speed between a four-man and two-man crew “could be the difference between a building that’s safe to enter and one where the roof’s going to come down as soon as the firefighters go in — so minutes do matter. Instead of having two or three guys on a hose, you’ve got one guy — and it just eats him up. With all that’s going on reducing budgets, we’re seeing injury rates go up.”

Hatch and Jacobs both said they supported a third Payson fire station to cut response times in a crucial area of town, but both suggested that a truck with a two-man crew would still leave critical gaps.

“I would rather see them build the building, but then wait until they can staff it as a three-man engine before they occupy the building,” said Hatch. “A two-man truck — sorry, not much you can do.”

“They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do,” said Jacobs of the no-win choice faced by Payson in staffing the third fire station — and coping with its budget shortfalls. “Just don’t pretend that it’s adequate. The goal should be four-man trucks, the minimum should be three.”

deMasi said he must operate within the fiscal constraints imposed. “You should have more than a two-person crew — I can’t argue with you.” But a third fire station “will mean a faster response time — we’ll be able to take action quicker. And in the long term, it fits very nicely as the town grows.”

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