From today's Citizen's Voice
Of all the physical challenges career firefighters must endure - roller coaster cortisol levels, extreme exertion in hostile environments, and a panoply of occupational injuries and diseases, to name a few -the greatest threat is short-staffing, for the obvious reason that it just makes everything else that much worse. But there are some not-so-obvious reasons as well. Things that need to be discussed openly in cities like Wilkes-Barre in the face of a persistent trend toward fire department on-duty manpower reduction, along with fire stations closing and fire engines being put out of service, often permanently.
Fundamental to any such discussion is the understanding that there are basically two very different modes or styles of fire fighting - aggressive interior attack (firefighters call this "balls to the wall") and defensive containment (firefighters call this "surround and drown" or "putting on a water show") with an emphasis on protecting nearby, at-risk structures (called "exposures") while the fire is extinguished from a safe distance. Ideally, the latter approach is used only for low value, abandoned buildings where no civilian lives are at stake. Some fire departments, typically rural volunteer organizations, must employ the defensive mode more often than they would prefer to because of manpower constraints and equipment limitations (i.e. no fire hydrants). The big advantage of a paid municipal department like Wilkes-Barre is that it can go either way - defensive or offensive - as required, assuming it has the necessary on-duty manpower, debatable as things now stand.
Why, we might ask ourselves, is the style of firefighting used so heavily dependent on manpower? This answer is simple. Despite revolutionary improvements in communications and equipment over the years, firefighting has remained a very labor-intensive occupation. Firefighters call this, "putting the wet stuff on the red stuff." And for this they don't need a 1,500 gallon per minute pump as much as they need another firefighter on the nozzle beside them. Or at least someone close enough to assist should they encounter trouble. And trouble is encountered on virtually every interior fire attack, it's just a matter of degree.
The entire nation witnessed a horrifying example of what can happen in aggressive firefighting on 9/11, with the collapse of the Twin Towers. Many lives were lost, but a significant number were saved, at great cost, by a courageous New York City Fire Department. This potential for disaster, on a smaller scale, exists everywhere firefighters attack fire aggressively, with personal safety taking a back seat to civilian requirements. This is how firefighting has always been conducted in New York, and the end result was probably a foregone conclusion the moment the towers were struck. The Wilkes-Barre City Fire Department is over 100 years old, was modeled after the New York City Fire Department, enjoys a long tradition of aggressive firefighting where it is appropriate, and has made a huge difference over the years. Lives that could have been saved have been saved. Property that could be protected has been protected, and salvaged as well. Many, many rescues have been performed.
Over the years, hundreds of Wilkes-Barre City firefighters have given themselves to this cause and sacrificed for it, one and all. How? Studies have shown that the average career firefighter's lifespan is seven to ten years shorter than any comparable profession, and there aren't many comparable professions, though mining comes close.
Professional firefighters know this, and they accept it. What they will never accept - what they cannot accept - is being hamstrung at the outset by insufficient on-duty manpower, to a point where aggressive firefighting cannot be successful, where it carries all of the risk and none of the reward. And this in the face of potential disasters that aren't losing any of their potential, even as population shrinks. Think of the high rises (Wilkes-Barre has over thirty), the college dorms, the jails, the hospitals, the movie theaters, the nursing homes, the "tight" neighborhoods where rain gutters nearly touch, and you'll begin to get the picture. And make no mistake - every time fire department on-duty manpower is reduced, morale goes down while risk goes up, for reasons already alluded to. Morale, you shouldn't be surprised to learn, is the single most important "tool" every firefighter possesses. Very little can be accomplished without it, yet when morale is high, the impossible becomes possible, the unthinkable thinkable, the inner reserve of necessary strength and courage unfathomable.
But the Wilkes-Barre City Fire Department has already been cut to the bone. The point of diminishing returns has been reached, and perhaps passed. The city's firefighters are already in a desperate situation - before the alarm sounds. They're running on raw courage and not much else. Any additional reduction of on-duty manpower will only bring preventable disaster that much closer, or require a department-wide tactical shift away from aggressive firefighting toward "water shows" which will eventually produce the same result, and may ultimately prove to be the unkindest cut of all.
Rob Burnside, a retired Captain, is a twenty-year veteran of the Wilkes-Barre City Fire Department (1977-97).