How to prevent understaffing during (major) incidents

When an emergency call comes in, firefighter rush into action. Regardless of the magnitude of the incident, the risk of not having enough crew immediately comes to the mind of the fire chief’s almost every time the pager goes off. In case of major incidents, however, even if the station assembles a full crew for the primary response, managers still know they may need to request off-duty personnel to respond to crew secondary vehicles, or worst case scenario, other stations.

When it looks like a situation is about to escalate, the "traditional" system only makes it worse. This system requires station managers, or in some cases dispatchers, to manually pick up the phone to call in off-duty personnel, in order to solve understaffing at the time of an incident. Obviously, the problem is that they are already busy, as they have to plan for the scene or answer a flood of emergency calls, respectively.

dispatcher calling in firefighters
The traditional system typically requires a dispatcher to manually reach off-duty personnel. (Source: ICMA Photos, Flickr)

Precious time is lost when chiefs are trying to call their own people on the phone, and they turn out to be truly unavailable. Worst case scenario: they have to ask Fire Control to request backup from neighboring stations.

Getting a hold of off-duty personnel remains a challenge not every fire station has the ability to solve efficiently. Implementing clever technology in the fire service is the way to go, but choosing a suitable solution can also represents a challenge.

The ideal protocol

Mapping out the process of how personnel is called into action is the first step towards finding a solution. There are three stages that can secure a proper response to emergency calls:

  1. Plan ahead

Reliable, real-time insight into the availability of the crew is essential to prevent the unpleasant surprise of understaffing at the time of the call. Reliable scheduling is very helpful, but preventing imminent understaffing in real-time requires an additional effort: the continuous monitoring of available staff and their skills, and alerting managers and off-duty personnel in case of understaffing ahead of time.

  1. Confirmation of attendance

Alerting all on-duty personnel and confirming their attendance to the incident provides additional guarantees. In order to do this, response confirmation and GPS tracking are essential to reduce uncertainty and turnout times. Confirming attendance should be as easy as pressing a single button on a pager or smartphone. For station managers, visual confirmation of attending crew members, their location and estimated time of arrival can provide additional certainty and allows them to focus their attention on planning for the incident.

  1. Fall back to plan B

Finally, if stage 2 fails because insufficient people are responding, fire stations can resort to alerting off-duty personnel. This should be as easy and effective as possible. For example, by using a system that automatically alerts off-duty personnel with the missing skills after 30 seconds. These are then asked to confirm or decline their attendance as in stage 2. This way, managers know if they’ll have the ability to crew within the first 30 seconds. If not, dispatch can be alerted to request other stations to respond.

FireServiceRota automatically alerts off-duty personnel with the required skills in case of understaffing.
FireServiceRota automatically alerts off-duty personnel with the required skills in case of understaffing. It then locates and tracks personnel who confirmed to provide additional guarantees during an incident.

Implementing a simple, yet powerful solution, such as FireServiceRota, with the ability to address all three stages — from monitoring real-time resource availability, and requesting confirmation of attendance, to alerting off-duty personnel in case of understaffing— can save time when it matters the most and provide an efficient response to incidents before they become catastrophic.

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