By Reggie Connell, Managing Editor
A fire department is a major component of a city's public safety model. It's also one of the largest items on a municipal budget.
In Apopka, members of the city commission, Fire Chief Sean Wylam, and Mayor Bryan Nelson debated the Apopka Fire Department budget presentation, and then again during the millage/budget hearings.
The primary issue? The number of firefighters on a fire engine during a fire call.
“Are we meeting the minimum requirements for the apparatus (fire engine)?” Commissioner Diane Velazquez asked. “If it’s a three-man fire truck… if it’s a two-man fire truck, are we meeting those standards?”
"We have two two-man units," said Wylam. "That pretty much augments our manpower in certain applications. We are required to have 17 people on the scene of any fire. ISO and the NFPA don’t care how those people get there. They just want that manning on-scene.”
As Wylam said, the ISO rating is not based on firefighters per apparatus, but by the entirety of staff at the scene. There is, however, a study conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and a recommendation by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) that four firefighters are the optimal number on an apparatus during a fire call.
Members of the City Council questioned if a two-person staff on the apparatus and a two-person squad in a separate vehicle was the best way to answer a fire call. Nelson, however, pointed to the effectiveness of the AFD over the years.
“We got our ISO-1 rating 17 years ago, and we ran the same program,” he said. “So under Chiefs Anderson, Bronson, Carnesale, and Wylam, we’ve always had a two-man squad and a two-man fire truck. So now, all of a sudden, 17 years later, now it’s important we go to three. What changed?”
Wylam also bolstered the case with the AFD's ability to respond to all of its calls for service, plus some of Orange County's.
"We have a contract with the county. We also have a contract in place where we assist when they call us. We responded 175-190 times in the last two years to assist Orange County. How many times did we ask them to assist us? Zero. We’re handling our call volume and more. Only .8% of the fire departments in the country have an ISO-1 rating. That is the litmus test… and for these grants, that’s the litmus test. We’ve applied for them for multiple years. The squad system is in place and it’s worked for 20 years."
But despite the AFD’s success in servicing calls and assisting Orange County, Commissioner Kyle Becker still believes three-person teams are a safer way to approach a fire call, and Wylam confirmed that he is working toward that plan.
“I just feel like the line of discussion up here is that it’s incorrect thinking to try and get to three-person staffing on the apparatus,” Becker said. “But I’ll go back to the budget workshop where I asked if money were no object, is that a staffing model you would pursue, and the answer was in the affirmative… so it’s not like I’m fabricating this idea of going to this model because I think you agree we should be going to this model. I’m just using your acknowledgment during the budget workshop.”
“As we increase…,” said Wylam. “But when you ask if we can handle more than one fire call… we’re not Orlando yet. We’re getting there. We’re more like Ocoee right now. Ocoee cannot handle more than one fire call without the help of the county. That’s why agreements are in place. It’s a mutual aid thing, but we are handling our calls. We proved it by showing on a daily basis how many times we are assisting them. They signed a contract with us.”
"If you had the budget, would you pivot your thinking to say ‘I’d be staffing my engine at three people per engine’?” Becker asked.
“Absolutely,” said Wylam. “That’s something I want to aim for… budget or not.”
Should the AFD have three or four-person teams on their fire engines? Or do the two-person squads make up for the two-person staff on the engines? How do other fire departments staff their apparatus?
The Apopka Voice surveyed 14 cities in Lake, Orange, and Seminole counties that have similar budgets, populations, or are in close proximity to Apopka to see how other fire departments compare. Eleven cities responded to the survey, and as it turns out, most are employing similar models of managing their fire departments... but there are also some noteworthy differences in their approaches.
In measurable percentage statistics, Apopka is in the upper half in three out of four categories:
The AFD falls out of the upper half only when measured against the number of firefighters on an apparatus. Leesburg and Apopka are the only two departments that send only two firefighters on a fire apparatus to a fire call.
Despite having a competitive budget, and a higher-than-average number of firefighters in comparison to the other 10 departments, the AFD holds to its plan of sending two firefighters on an apparatus, with a two-person squad in a second vehicle. Wylam says this strategy is effective because of the square mileage of Apopka compared to its population.
“We’re a unique city in that we have 35 square miles and not as dense a population as certain areas," he said. "Where we are unique is our squad vehicles. We have two two-man units. That pretty much augments our manpower in certain applications. We have six fire stations. We have to use a system that is unique for us because of that, but it works. Now, what I want to see in the future is an increase in manning. We’ve never had that here, but I want to grow with the increase in population… so as we see that increase, that’s when we need to increase those people on the apparatus.”
Other departments in the area operate with a different plan in mind.
The Orlando Fire Department (OFD) is a massive organization with over 500 firefighters and a budget of over $125 million. It's not only ISO-1, but is rated in the top 1% of fire departments in the United States, and is the only fire department in the state of Florida to have ISO 1 classification, International Fire Accreditation, Emergency Management Accreditation Program certification, Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services and ACE accreditation (911/Communications Center).
"The Orlando Fire Department's standard operating procedures and protocols allow for the most efficient deployment of our resources to ensure the health and safety of our residents," said Ashley Papagni, Public Information Manager for the OFD.
She went on to explain the OFD's reasons for staffing its apparatus with 4-5 firefighters.
"On a four-person engine, this ensures the Lieutenant can assess the scene and report back on the type of structure, conditions, and fire behavior, while the two firefighters pull hose lines and the Engineer conducts pump operations - the intricacies of providing water to the hose line. It's called fire science for that very reason. If we were to run short, the Lieutenant would have to assist with other responsibilities, such as pulling hose. By keeping eyes on the scene, the Lieutenant can provide the rest of the crew with direction, feedback, and tactics on how to knock the fire down in the most efficient and timely way - when minutes are critical - and to ensure the safety of the crews."
The Winter Garden Fire Rescue (WGFR) is a smaller department in every measurable way than the AFD, yet it staffs its apparatus with three or four firefighters per apparatus. Why? To conform to NFPA standards.
"The WGFR strives to staff our units in a manner that is consistent with NFPA 1710 standard," said Chief Jose Gainza.
The NFPA 1710 Standard that Gainza is referring to is the "Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, 2010 Edition", which states that a fire engine will be staffed with four qualified firefighters on a fire call. It's the same standard that the Tavares Fire Department and the Oc oee Fire Department refer to.
Despite a small population and a team of only 27 firefighters, the Tavares Fire Department still manages to put two or three on a fire engine, and partners with other local departments to cover fires in Tavares.
"The NFPA recommends a staffing level of 4 personnel on an Engine," said TFD Chief Richard Keith. "That is a goal for us, and we’ve been working toward that goal slowly, and steadily. We are able to augment our personnel needs with very robust automatic aid agreements that we have in place with Lake County, Leesburg, Eustis, and Mount Dora. Through these arrangements with our neighbor communities, we are able to meet the NFPA recommendations for numbers of personnel operating safely at a fire incident."
Despite being in the bottom half in firefighters per 1,000, and in budget percentage to the general fund of the city, Ocoee also puts four firefighters on its engines, and maintains an ISO-1 rating.
"Current staffing levels are in an effort to strive to meet NFPA 1710 Standards on Response and Effective Firefighting Force on the scene in a timely manner to affect life safety and property conservation, in addition to the protection of firefighter personnel," said Ocoee Fire Chief John Miller.
Despite a small population and only 51 firefighters, the Leesburg Fire Department (LFD) staffs its engines with three-person crews. But according to LFD Chief Joe Mera, budget constraints limit him from staffing at four.
"We staff our apparatus with three but we would rather have four per apparatus," he said. "The city is only comfortable with a staffing level of three per apparatus due to budget issues and keeping costs down. Three firefighters is a good number with us having a Battalion Chief because it does allow us to start fire operations and still maintain compliance with Florida Administrative Code (2 in/2 out) although four per apparatus would make us more efficient."
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), This provision requires that at least two employees enter the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) atmosphere and remain in visual or voice contact with each other at all times. It also requires that at least two employees be located outside the IDLH atmosphere, thus the term, "two in/two out".
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