Homeland Security and Public Safety

Are Firefighters Spread Too Thin?

Today’s firefighter is expected to wear many hats, sometimes even a law enforcement one.

Firefighter hazmat response
Firefighters’ roles have expanded far beyond flames and into other areas of responsibility like hazmat response. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Kenny Holston

As firefighters arrived on the scene, they knew they’d encountered something truly different that would test their accumulated skills. The lady had a snake under her rug. “I said to her, ‘With all due respect, why did you call the fire department?’” said Phil Davis, a retired deputy fire chief from Elk Grove, Calif. “She said, ‘Because I knew you’d come.’”

It’s true. Rescuers want to rescue, and that ever-ready mentality has been the hallmark of fire departments for decades. (Cats in trees? No problem.) But that same can-do attitude has some policymakers thinking that firefighters can — and will — do anything.

In most fire stations today, putting out fires is merely the start of a day’s work. In addition to the emergency medical services that have long been a part of the repertoire, many fire stations field their own specialized hazardous materials team. They perform skilled rescue operations from deep wells and swift water, deliver babies, engage in counterterrorism and sometimes even catch snakes.

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Of the 31,854,000 calls to U.S. fire departments in 2012, only 1,375,000 were for fires. Medical aid accounted for the bulk of the rest at 21,705,500, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Hazmat, mutual aid, false alarms and other events made up the difference.

Some say this ever-expanding mission creep is dangerous, stretching resources too thin and diluting firefighters’ ability to do what they do best. It seems reasonable to ask: How did we get here? What are the risks? And what’s to be done about it?

In the News

What do firefighters do besides dousing flames? A scan of recent headlines helps demonstrate the degree to which fire stations have extended their efforts.

In July, New Mexico hazmat teams dispatched from local fire stations three times in a single week. In one case they tackled a suspicious package containing an unknown powder addressed to Gov. Susana Martinez’s office. The letter contained court documents. Earlier that week, clerks in the Santa Fe and Tierra Amarilla courthouses had opened similar packages, with hazmat stepping in each time.

Last summer an Arizona monsoon sent firefighters on swift water rescues three times in under an hour. A man got trapped in his car, a woman was swept under a bridge and a teen boy got stuck in the middle of a wash.

In December, five Cornelius, Ore., firefighters won commendation for helping a woman deliver a baby in her car. And in September, firefighters in Brooklyn, N.Y., delivered Toni Davis’ baby on the couch in her apartment. “God bless those firemen; they always come through for us,” said new grandmother Arlene Davis.

Sometimes they even put out fires.

Gathering Momentum

The fire department’s expanding role has been going on for decades. In the 1970s, doctors home from Vietnam began introducing emergency medicine into firefighting. Hazmat emerged in the 1980s, and in the 1990s, firefighters increasingly took on the role of technical rescue experts.

Lately the call for services has cascaded: Hazmat has come to embrace weapons of mass destruction, which has led to counterterrorism duty. Somewhere along the way, active shooter response got tossed into the mix. In the most extreme examples, some firefighters also serve as active police officers.

Much of this expansion is budget driven. With rescue professionals already on the payroll, some policymakers have seen a natural logic in saddling those professionals with additional rescue-related tasks (or at least roughly related).

Some of the phenomenon can be attributed to firefighters themselves: that can-do persona, that readiness to serve. And some of it’s just lousy PR work. “The fire service hasn’t a done a good job marketing itself,” Phil Davis said. “There’s still this wrong belief that firefighters are sitting around the station petting the Dalmatian and playing checkers. So when people at the highest level of government see a need, they’ll say, ‘Let’s give it to the fire department, they’re not doing anything.’”

Paying the Price

Some see a definite upside to all this. At the Sacramento, Calif., Metropolitan Fire District for example, Battalion Chief Steve Turner sees counterterrorism as a natural extension of firefighters’ emerging role as a force for prevention. Heightened awareness of terror threats is a natural corollary to promoting smoke alarms. “If we see a box of chemicals, 10 years ago we wouldn’t have known to take that seriously,” he said. “Now we do know, and we have systems in place to take that more seriously.”

But there’s a price to pay: All these extra responsibilities come with added training requirements, said Kevin Spellman, retired captain of the San Rafael, Calif., Fire Department. By the time he retired in 2010, “we were spending considerable time on training to meet these ever-increasing federal requirements.”

“The citizenry would get themselves into trouble, and when we responded we’d sometimes get ourselves into trouble. So the federal government said, ‘Let’s develop rules to protect us from ourselves.’ Now you’re spending a tremendous amount of time in the classroom, in addition to an increasing number of incidents you’re responding to.”

The pressure is especially strong on the 20 percent of firefighters who do this for a living. For them, training is mandatory, whereas volunteers can’t be forced into a classroom. Yet without that added training, those volunteers can’t be tapped to help meet the expanded operational requirements, thus putting more pressure on the careerists.

That demand for perpetual training weighs heavily on Paul Lurz, a battalion chief in the Baltimore County Fire Department, where work beyond the occasional house fire now includes hazmat, search and rescue, and work with the county bomb squad.

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine. Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md. He also contributes to Government Technology magazine.