East Contra Costa Fire Chief Says Firefighters Will Attack Structure Fires in Defensive Mode

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With a 3-station service model with time and distance as the enemy, the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Fire Chief says that come August, the way firefighters respond to fire calls will change.

On Monday, Chief Brian Helmick told the fire board that by dropping from a 4-to-3 station model it decreases the districts resources by 25% and that unless a life is at stake, they will no longer be able to be an aggressive interior fire attack organization.

“The Master Plan calls for 9-stations, 3 is just not adequate to provide the services that will protect the citizens and businesses in our community,” said Helmick. “We have been working with our neighbors next door at Contra Costa County Fire to determine the best way we can get resources… today we have an automatic aid agreement that limits us to two resources and there have been many situations within the agreement that does not make it work within the existing 3-station model so we have been trying to figure out how to maintain some sort of automatic agreement and or go mutual aid.”

  • Automatic Aid – an agreement where two fire district sends the closest available resources regardless of District boundaries.
  • Mutual Aid – an agreement where two fire districts send a specific number of units upon request, thus creating a slight delay in response due to an approval process.

Helmick stated that a final decision on Contra Costa County Fire aid to East Contra Costa Fire and visa versa will be decided by August 1, 2017.  He also added as an organization, with or without an agreement, under a 3-station model they have to make additional changes in how they respond to all types of calls.

“As of right now, we are working as if there will be a mutual aid agreement,” said Helmick.

Helmick further told the board whether its mutual aid or auto aid, it determines how they will approach incidents.

“Operationally as a District, regardless of automatic or mutual aid, we have to change our operations. It’s something we have been looking at and something we need to do now that we are going to be a 3-station model indefinitely,” said Helmick. “This is a resource issue with time and distance being our enemy.”

He explained that with only three engines, they do not have the resources to provide an aggressive fire attack.

“That means we arrived at scene, identify the situation and we aggressively go into the structure and fight the fires as aggressively we can to not only protect life, but property,” explained Helmick. “With us being a 3-station district, with a time and distance working against us, we have no other option but to change our operations to a defensive fire attack. A defensive fire attack means we arrive at scene, we start defensive. The only exception to that rule is if there is a life safety issue. If we know there is a life safety issue we will risk a lot to save a lot, we will go into a home with one resource at scene and do everything within our means to save a life. However, if we identify if everyone is outside of the occupancy, there is not a life safety situation, we modify our operations accordingly where we start defensive, we work transitionally to an offensive fire attack, due to time and distances there is a high probability we will not be able to achieve an interior fire attack.  That means we are fighting the fire from the outside.”

Helmick further stated that they are transitioning by August 1 to become a defensive structure firefighting organization–meaning the priority is not protecting the home on fire, but preventing the fire from spreading to neighboring homes, structures and vegetation.

For the District to become an offensive structure firefighter organization, it would require the fire district to grow to a 5-to-6 fire station district explained Helmick stating he did not have a timeline of when they would be possible.

Vince Wells, President of the Unified Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230, stated that CONFIRE has increased staffing and the response model within CONFIRE up to 7-units on a structure fire to ensure rehab and accountability on scene.

“East County is forced, and I support Brian on coming up with that we have to train differently we have to learn differently and we can only expect 9 firefighters and that is if nothing else is going on,” said Wells. “I want to make sure that efforts are being made to make it safer for the firefighters, it’s still a crap sandwich and we are just putting toppings on it to make it palatable, the effort still needs to be there to find the funding, this is not going to be sustainable.”

Wells noted that the same crews who were up for a day and a half on the Marsh Creek Fire had to get up the next day and respond to calls explaining that when you are churning guys over and over again on a large amount of calls, there is a fatigue and injuries could happen.

Wells encouraged the Board to continue to look for funding.

Board Member Joe Young stated this was the new reality and explained the thinking of a fourth station needs to stop and get their minds on a 5 station or 6 station model.

“What you are seeing today is the realization of what we really are and creating what I call  the status quo foundation in which we are going to try and build from. We have to accept three is what we got and that is our foundation, now how are we move forward. To be an offensive attack agency, we need those 5 or 6 stations, until we get there; I think we are talking about a defensive operation.”

Helmick will report back at the August 7 meeting on further changes being made to how firefighters will respond to calls.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Stop the fatigue, go eight hour days. You must change with the district resources. Too long of shifts are dangerous for our firefighters. The 24 hour 3 day model no longer fits ECCFPD. I bet the response times would get better too.

    • 8 hour shifts would require to hire more guys! The money is not there which is why they are in this predicament

    • I understand why you say this, and for many industries your observations make sense However, there are a lot of issues involved with firefighting that simply don’t exist in other industries, and that changes the dynamics surrounding time off from work significantly.

      There are a good number of sound medical and scientific reasons why firefighters simply should not work 8-hour shifts. Indeed, the 8-hour shift has virtually disappeared for firefighters in virtually every type of department, with every level of staffing – all for the same reasons.

      Most of the medical reasons revolve around toxic exposures, though the unique dynamics of firefighting-specific duties also comes into play as far as fatigue goes. To put it simply – the bodies of firefighters require about 24 hours off-duty in order to process out the incredible array of toxins they are exposed to in modern fires – even small ones, such as a car fire (which are far more common that structure fires, yet contain increasingly deadly chemical combinations). Medical exposures, as well, assault the body – and though the human body is highly capable of fighting off exposures, it was never designed to fight off the sheer NUMBER of exposures that firefighters often encounter in the normal course of their work these days.

      There are a variety of ways to get firefighters the time away from exposures that their bodies need. Not all departments use the three, 24-hour shift model, though that one may be the best from an exposure-recovery standpoint. Many departments (especially on the East Coast) go with that is often termed as “3 4’s” – in most cases, firefighters will work a couple days straight of ten-hour shifts, have a day or two off, then work one or two days of 14-hour (overnight) shifts, followed by additional days off. Though this means they do not get 24-hours off between EACH shift, they do still get regularly-scheduled 24-hour periods off within a set number of days. This, incidentally, also happens quite often in Western departments working 24-hour shifts when a firefighter has to work overtime (which happens a lot, generally speaking) – they may have to work for 48-hours straight (or more), but eventually WILL resume getting regularly-scheduled 24-hour breaks.

      By forcing firefighters to come in on a “normal” shift schedule – say, five 8-hour work days in a row – firefighters will be going for a solid week before they get a scheduled 24-hour break. If (when) they work overtime, this may stretch on even longer. Further, they won’t be coming in for only 8 hours – they have to come in early and prepare for the day before relieving the on-duty crew, and if that crew is out on a fire or other run they may have to go to the fire site in order to relieve them – meaning both the oncoming and offgoing crews will end up having a much longer shift than the requisite 8 hours. Imagine having three of this type of shift changes every day. The amount of increased workload, increased exposures without benefit of a detox time, increased interruption of work and increased chances for things to get “lost in the sauce” during shift changes will actually result in MORE fatigue – not less. This has been proven, time and again, with countless studies and research initiatives. Combine these factors with long bouts of often-mandatory overtime and less ability to “unwind” from the stresses of calls and tragedies encountered, along with the resulting lack of sleep even when off-duty, and a recipe for disaster exists.

      8-hour shifts, in the end, are deeply counterproductive and HURT firefighters – and the citizens that they serve. It also ends up being more expensive for the taxpayers of the area involved, as additional injuries, job-related illness, and accidents WILL occur that those taxpayers will be on the hook for.

      I hope this explains things in regards to why firefighters work such “odd” shifts. They aren’t odd – they’re just different, because this job is different. We do know what we’re doing, and there are usually pretty good reasons for most of the things that we do. This issue and many others like them in this industry have been studies time and again, for decades, by pretty much everyone on all sides of each agency, and answers have become pretty clear in most areas.

      That being said, I still can’t explain the rationale behind some departments’ bans on having Dalmatians in their firehouses now. I mean, I hear the arguments about not needing them because we no longer use horses, but still…..

  2. currently the remaining firefighters work 56 hours a week…………………. going to 8 hour shifts will be a 40 hour week – Get the Board Up Company for an eighth station, eventually no insurance company will even offer fire insurance to your towns – you people are more dense than the canadian rockies……

  3. Hey Geniuses, On a 40 hour week you have to hire triple the amount of personnel. This is a large expense. Although you could divide the pay(Which makes their pay even lower than it currently is) that won’t happen because of labor agreements which is a good thing. Benefits all still cost the same so you are basically tripling the cost to the district for no real gain. The district has a hard enough time hiring adequate personnel and retaining them. Going to this kind of shift work will kill all incentive for people to want to work at ECCFPD which means the current personnel will be forced to work extra shifts and wow, we are back to where we were. Please think through and qualify your ideas before putting them out there. It would benefit us all if you were a little more detailed in your process.

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