By D. Brady Rogers
The downed economy has sparked a volunteer debate — why can’t we save money and use volunteers?
For starters, the number of volunteers is declining. It’s simply becoming harder to recruit, retain, and keep trained in an era of single parents, two working spouses, and the need to work multiple jobs.
Finding volunteers is only part of the problem. Training them is another. Many departments — even career agencies — are fighting to maintain basic levels of service. Fire call numbers have dropped, yet demands for service have increased.
Then there are the complexities of the fireground. Staffing often doesn’t let incident commanders have an aide. Other departments have lost them through budget cuts. And yet the need for an aide has become more critical on the scene reviewing preplans, accountability systems, multi-channel operations, increased alarm assignments and the staging of apparatus, further complicating our operational and situational awareness.
Perhaps it is time for a “new age” in volunteerism. Volunteers could respond and staff fire stations as “greeters” when a station and its personnel are committed to incidents. They could be available to give out road directions, assist walk-ins in getting the proper help, or to provide a simple level of security at a time when stations are vulnerable. Or, with more advanced training, they can assist with firefighter rehab or become a scribe for the incident commander.
The Massachusetts Department of Fire Services has developed a tremendous system of incident and operational support to fire departments at no cost. Special operations groups — composed of volunteers from different departments — are located in areas throughout the state. The teams do not assume command from the local jurisdiction. Instead, they support command functions, firefighter rehab and other logistics, from providing a command post and equipment to photographing and diagramming an incident, to helping the IC prepare press releases.
Others have developed incident management teams. But most teams train and respond to large or catastrophic incidents; not the first, second or third alarm structure fire, level one or two mci’s, or smaller haz-mat or technical rescue calls that challenge smaller departments. On its websitegives examples of incidents that Incident Management Teams (IMTs) can be used for. They include natural disasters, terrorist incidents, train derailments, aircraft incidents, and other large/complex accidents or public events requiring the cooperation and joint participation of two or more agencies or jurisdictions.
In an Executive Fire Officer (EFO) applied research project; Dedicated Incident Management Team Concepts for the Orange County Fire Department, William Sturgeon recommended that the Orange County Fire-Rescue Department develop at least two local All-Hazards Incident Management Teams. He recommended that these teams would be responsible to enhance the current ICS structure on incidents greater than a secondalarm, disaster operations, and large scale planned events. Coincidentally, in Orange County, New York, their IMTs two-fold mission, according to the Hudson Valley Insider, includes assisting Incident Commanders in complex local incidents. In 2006 Gary R. West of the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, Arizona in his EFO paper; Evaluating and Implementing the Incident Management Team Concept at Northwest Fire/Rescue District also recommended the concept for possible adoption to second alarm incidents.
The United States Fire Administration advocates for Type 4 and Type 5 IMTs that can be localized personalized, to meet the needs of each agency.
Type 4: City, County or Fire District Level – consist of emergency response personnel from a larger and generally more populated area, typically within a single jurisdiction. This level IMT may be developed within larger city or county departments or fire districts. The membership will involve personnel from emergency response and public safety agencies or organizations within the jurisdiction. This team would primarily respond and operate within the city, county or fire district having jurisdiction.
Type 5: Local Village and Township Level – consist of emergency response providers from a small to medium sized municipality or a group of smaller jurisdictions who are part of a mutual aid agreement. It is envisioned that Type 5 IMTs would be developed in, but not limited to, areas serviced by smaller volunteer or combination departments that, individually, may not have adequate resources but jointly could support an IMT. It would, in most cases, respond and operate within the jurisdictional boundaries of those communities that are signatories to the agreement.
In Pennsylvania, the Office of the State Fire Commissioner describes local IMTs that may be utilized at include major structure fires, multi-vehicle crashes with multiple patients, armed robbery operations, or a hazmat spill. The foundation of our needs already exists.
We need to develop a system that deploys these people automatically, at the time of the incident and again based on the type of call. Ideally, a tiered response of an Incident Management Team (dependent on the size of the incident or at the request of the I.C.) would prove to be one approach. We don’t necessarily need the technical training of a formal Incident Management Team. We don’t need a dozen people at a second alarm structure fire; but a small, manageable, number trained to assist the command structure. Using teams on smaller incidents prepares them for larger incidents and helps to build working relationships.
Other assets alreadyare in place. Consider a tiered response of your Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). The purpose of CERT members, according to the FEMA website, is to educate people about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area and trains them in basic response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations.Already encouraged to support emergency response agencies by taking a more active role in emergency preparedness projects in their community, why can’t a criteria be set, and selected people be trained further? They could be utilized more frequently by fire and EMS departments at incidents to respond and support emergency operations.
Structure fire support is listed as one of the type of incidents the Mohave County CERT has responded to. In South Carolina, the Kiawah Island CERT already supports the St. John’s Fire Department’s rehab program. And as recently as March 24, a New Hampshire CERT assisted the Laconia and Gilford Fire Departments at a structure fire. Again, there are already systems in place. As with the Incident Management Teams this also helps to build a partnership and prepare them for large scale events.
Finally, consider an outreach program to students of local college law enforcement, EMS or fire science programs. Already interested in public service these tech savvy students may be able to take your support, accountability and documentation to new levels. These programs, provide valuable assistance to the command staff, and reaches out to a community asking for the use of volunteers. It develops a partnership with those interested in careers in fire or EMS, or those simply wanting to help, as our volunteer firefighters have done. Trained to listen, document, in accountability or serve as a runner, they can provide valuable support to the incident command staff while freeing up more experienced personnel for other tasks. In times where budgets and staffing have been cut, departments strain to meet demands of service, these new age volunteers may be a viable solution in assisting with incident management. Our ultimate goal is the safety of our firefighters. Or as President Bill Clinton said “Volunteering is an act of heroism on a grand scale. And it matters profoundly. It does more than help people beat the odds; it changes the odds.”
D. Brady Rogers is a captain/shift commander with the Centerville-Osterville-Marstons Mills (Mass.) Department of Fire-Rescue & Emergency Services. He holds a master's degree in public administration, is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program, and is an accredited Chief Fire Officer.