What is in this article?:
Use of resident firefighter programs is increasing steadily, and the trend may be a predictor of fire department staffing models in the 21st century.
(Article appeared in print as "Extra credit")
Two forces are driving change in the fire service today. The first one is obvious: the economy. Declining tax revenues are forcing more cities to lay off firefighters and close stations.
The second force is less obvious, but may be just as significant. There are fewer fires today than in the past. The NFPA reports that the number of fires has been dropping every year since the organization’s first study in 1975. The reduction in fire incidents, likely the result of fire prevention and public education, has created the perception that fire risk is lower and fire departments can get by with less.
In response, fire chiefs often warn citizens about the impact on safety and then adapt to the new conditions. But some fire chiefs are tapping into a new resource to keep adequate staffing — college students who live at fire stations for free and, in turn, bolster firefighter ranks.
Career and combination departments use resident firefighters, also known as live-ins, to increase crew sizes and fill in for absent firefighters. Volunteer departments use them to reduce turnout time and improve response levels when volunteer availability is low.
Doing more with less
When Justin Wyne enrolled at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, he also became a resident firefighter on the Warrensburg Fire Department. The department’s flexible duty hours allowed him to carry a full academic load and graduate in four years.
The idea for Warrensburg’s resident firefighter program surfaced when the city was planning to build a second fire station. According to Deputy Chief Jim Kushner, the chief at the time saw such a program as a cost-effective way to augment the career firefighters with a smaller impact on the city budget. The university’s student body of 12,000 yielded a more than ample number of candidates for the resident firefighter positions. Station No. 2 opened in 1991 with rooms for six residents.
Information from the career and combination departments in the study indicated that they started their resident firefighter programs for the same reason as Warrensburg. Personnel costs take up the lion’s share of career fire department budgets. Resident firefighters reduce annual costs and, as they are temporary employees, don’t add to pension burdens.
Resident firefighters also are an asset to volunteer departments. For one, they solve a problem that is universal to volunteer departments: fewer volunteers. In addition, because the residents live in fire stations, they improve response times. Many volunteer departments schedule their residents to be in their stations in hours when volunteer availability is low, such as weekdays
The range of duties and duty times is related each fire department’s priorities. For example, career firefighters on the Prince George’s County (Md.) Fire Department staff many stations during weekday daytimes only. The department counts on resident firefighters and volunteers for responses on evenings and weekends. Resident firefighters on the Cheney (Wash.) Fire Department work full-time shifts along with career firefighters, with time off to attend classes.