Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What Firefighters Really Do All Day – Part 2

There are many things aside from emergency response, training, and apparatus/equipment maintenance that firefighters do during their workdays. Some tasks, like station chores and report writing, are not very glamorous. But everything firefighters do supports an overarching goal of providing the best service possible to their communities.

The paperwork never ends.

Paperwork. Like any other business, the fire service generates its fair share of paperwork (or the digital equivalent). Paperwork is often a firefighter’s least favorite activity, but it’s important from a legal standpoint, keeps the department running smoothly, and ensures compliance with national standards.

Incident reports document the circumstances and actions taken for every response. Statistics generated from these reports are used in a variety of ways at the local, state and federal level. For example, incident data can reveal the most common causes of fires, trends in fire causes, how many lives are saved by working fire alarms, or consumer product failures. Fire departments use response data to inform decisions regarding budgets, staffing, and resource deployment.

Documentation must also be maintained for fire and EMS certifications; apparatus and equipment maintenance and testing; inspections and pre-plans of commercial structures; and maintenance and cleaning of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Facilities maintenance. In most (if not all) fire departments, firefighters are the janitorial staff and grounds keepers. They tend to daily cleaning chores, perform routine maintenance, and make minor repairs to their facilities. Major repairs or facilities projects are typically contracted out.

Community risk reduction (aka fire prevention). One of the best ways to fight fires is to prevent them from starting in the first place. Firefighters teach children and adults about fire safety and make presentations to community groups. They assist those who need help installing or maintaining smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, give station tours to visitors, and conduct walk-throughs of buildings to become more familiar with floor plans and fire protection systems. In some departments, firefighters are also responsible for conducting fire inspections.

Public service. Sometimes a citizen needs help for a non-emergency situation and doesn’t know who else to call. Maybe a person has an overflowing toilet and he/she doesn’t know how to shut it off. Or a sewer has backed up into a basement or crawlspace. Sometimes wild animals (squirrels, skunks, snakes, etc.) get into houses, and domestic animals (dogs, cats, cows, horses) become trapped in drainage pipes, wells, or pools. Firefighters respond to these types of calls and more because they either have the resources, or can usually get the resources, to resolve the problem.

Community events. The public loves to see fire trucks and firefighters at their parades and festivals. Far from being a waste of taxpayer dollars, these are invaluable opportunities for fire crews to meet the people in their communities, answer questions, and share information about the services they provide. Kids also love seeing the trucks and meeting the firefighters. You can’t put a price on brightening a child’s day.

If you want to know more about what your fire department does, visit its website, call and speak to someone, or stop by a fire station. If the crew isn’t busy, they can show you the station and equipment and will gladly answer any questions you may have. After all, they’re not just hanging around playing cards, you know.

Check out my next post to learn more about a seemingly controversial aspect of being a paid firefighter: Eating and sleeping on the job.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What Firefighters Really Do All Day – Part 1

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
As evidenced by the September op-ed piece in The Mercury News and frequent comments from well-meaning (or occasionally just mean-spirited) citizens over the course of my career, it’s clear that many people have no idea what firefighters do all day. They still cling to the perception that firefighters get paid for hours of leisurely activities between occasional alarms. This notion likely stems from the days when fire departments only responded to fires, which were not an everyday occurrence. But times have changed, and so has the fire service.

Most firefighters no longer have a lot of time to sit around playing cards. There is a lot that goes on “behind the scenes” at any given fire department. Here is a quick look at some of what happens at the firehouse every day. I will cover more in upcoming posts.

Incident response. Obviously, a fire department’s primary responsibility is to mitigate emergency situations. Firefighters have been referred to as “the Swiss army knives” of the emergency services because they handle a variety of emergencies, not just fires. (See my previous post here.) That translates to more incident responses (also referred to as simply “calls” or “alarms”) per shift. The time spent on each alarm includes traveling to and from the incident scene, handling the emergency, and returning equipment to service in preparation for the next alarm. The latter can include cleaning vehicles and tools, refilling air cylinders for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), topping off apparatus water tanks, and/or restocking medical supplies.

Training. Because fire departments are now all-hazards response agencies, firefighters must be proficient in more skills than ever before. That means they must spend more time training to maintain current skill levels and certifications, or to develop new capabilities. Training can consist of hands-on exercises, drills, or evolutions in which firefighters don protective gear and practice water supply, fire attack, structural ventilation, vehicle extrication, search and rescue, and more. Training can also include classroom sessions, videos, or even “what if” scenarios discussed around the lunch table. The learning never stops because skills and knowledge can literally be the difference between life and death.

Apparatus and equipment maintenance. Yes, firefighters spend a lot of time washing fire trucks. These days, new structural fire engines start at around $500,000 (and that’s being conservative). Equipment such as hose, nozzles, SCBAs, ground ladders, generators, tools, and medical equipment can add another $100,000 or more to the price. Ladder trucks can run upwards of a million dollars, more for specialized apparatus such as tillers. Keeping vehicles and equipment clean and in good working order is a matter of safety and a source of pride. But it also protects the investment that you, the taxpayer, have made in those expensive vehicles and tools.