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Monday, March 25, 2013

The Art of Relocations


One of the most critical functions of any fire department dispatching office is to ensure that adequate fire and EMS coverage is maintained no matter how busy the day or how large a single incident may be.  Fire departments should not operate on a first-come, first serve basis where citizens unlucky enough to have an emergency at the same time as someone else are denied an adequate response.  
This does not mean that on every corner should sit a fire engine or medic unit at all times, assigned to one particular address—“just in case”.  But it does mean that departments have a duty to balance their resources in the best way possible to ensure that each and every emergency receives a response in as timely a manner as they are able.   

The most common event that effects availability and response times is a working fire or other large scale emergency that involves “tying-up” resources in an area for a significant period of time—generally an hour or longer.  When this occurs, dispatchers should be empowered (and required) to relocate or redeploy existing resources to ensure an adequate response time for subsequent emergencies.  An additional method of solving this challenge is the recall of off-duty personnel to staff reserve apparatus—an approach that might be more effective in areas where coverage is already limited or a department is not able to relocate resources from another agency for coverage.
 In tandem with the redeployment of resources as a tool to manage reduced availability, many agencies also reduce response levels during such periods.  Departments should look at this tool, especially for minor emergencies, fire alarms, and likely minor events such as outside odors of smoke or gas as a critical method to preserve response times, but it will be addressed in detail in a future post. 

One reason why some agencies find resource management efforts, such as relocations, a hard concept to grasp is because it goes against the mindset of “it comes it, it goes out” or “we can only handle one event at a time”.  This is an understandable point of view for response personnel who have to focus on one thing at time—at one incident.  But for dispatchers and the department management and the city itself—there is a moral and legal obligation to meet the needs of the public at all times and in all instances.  Allowing one side of the city to be stripped clean of fire apparatus for a working fire and taking no steps to maintain at least basic coverage is a shortsighted and dangerous course of action that exposes the department and the local government to liability and undermines department effectiveness.
The City of Columbus is a good example of a department that should consider utilizing relocations more frequently to ensure adequate coverage. By virtue of the city’s layout, there are large areas covered by only one firehouse, and where activity levels are significant.

 Note: In terms of making relocations, there are several rules that should apply:

1.      Covering firehouses (making relocations) should be done whenever the impact is going to be medium to long term and/or an incident is rapidly escalating.

2.      There are several software solutions that can assist with maintaining coverage—but these software solutions still require dispatch personnel to have a concept of relocations—when to do them and why.  

3.      Relocations can take several forms, but generally units should be moved from areas of high coverage to areas of lower coverage. 

4.      Call volume is not the predominate factor to consider when making a relocation—it is time.  An engine in an area that can be covered with minimal time impact makes a better choice to relocate to a diminished area than a company who may not be that active but who’s second due coverage comes from a significant distance away.

5.      Also, you should avoid if at all possible relocating all of the units in a firehouse.  Take the engine from one house, the ladder from another, and the medic from a third. Otherwise you simply rob Peter to pay Paul and may create an even bigger response coverage problem than the one you were trying to fix in the first place.

6.      Units relocated to ensure coverage should not be used (generally) to respond to the incident that created the problem in the first place.  This only recreates the coverage problem and results in the units moved to fill the updated coverage gap coming from an even further distance—increasing the negative impact on response times.  

To use Columbus as an example, there are two types of coverage holes than can exist, either due to a working incident or a company going out of service long term.  In the first case, even certain single units can be so critical to coverage that they should be covered.  In the second case, a group of units can be considered and when all three of them are out of service relocation can be made.  In either case, a potential goal could be:

Engine Company arrives in seven minutes or less, no matter how busy.

 Ladder Company arrives in ten minutes or less, no matter how busy. 

Medic Unit arrives in eight minutes or less no matter how busy.

These goals are actually not very stringent and represent a considerable credit over the NFPA standards for response time of apparatus.  However, it is recognized that activity level will impact availability; it just should not have such an impact as to significantly impact response times in a negative manner.

Back to Columbus, what follows are some suggestions about relocation rules and their explanation:

Engine Companies:
Battalion One:            

Two of the Four Downtown Engines should be available between 0800-2000hrs, Monday to Friday.  Due to population downtown, traffic concerns, etc, it is too active for more than two of the engines downtown (E1,2,3,9) to be out of service, relocated, or unavailable at the same time.

Engines 26, 29, 32, and 33:    

Should always be covered when out for more than one hour.  Their response areas are too large and too active and second due engines are too far away.  

In all other cases: 

When three engines that normally respond together are all out of service (daytime) or four engines that normally respond together are out of service (night time) a relocation of at least one engine should be made to ensure adequate coverage.  Examples include: 

Engines 23, 21, 151, and 5 are operating at a working fire and will be tied up for an extended period.  An Engine Company should be relocated to Engine-23.  (Engine-1, 2, 3, or 9 would be a good choice since they are doubled up. 

Ladder Companies:
Columbus has one Ladder Company that should always be covered due to the guidelines mentioned above: Ladder-13.  It has too large a response area to be uncovered for a significant period, especially given it being first due to the Ohio State Campus. 

Otherwise, Ladder Coverage can be maintained using the “One in three rule” mentioned above.  If three adjacent ladders are out, relocate a ladder from an area with decent coverage to fill the Gap.  For example, a serious working fire on the north end ties up Ladders 24, 28, and 111.  A Ladder Should be relocated to Ladder-24.  (Ladder 1, 2, 10, or 15 would be a good choice)

For Rescue and battalion relocations, a simpler rule could apply:
Battalions:      

o   If only one battalion is in service, it should respond from Bn-1.

o   If only two Battalions are available, they should respond from Bn-1 and Bn-3.

o   If only three battalions are available, they should respond from Bn 1, 2, and 3.
Rescues:         

o   If only one rescue is available, it should respond from Station-2.

o   If two rescues are available, they should respond from Stations 2, and 16.

o   If only three will be available long term, they should respond from Sta’s 2, 4, and 16. .

 Medics:          

Although more challenging, medic relocations can be based on similar factors but are more effective during mass casualty incidents that have a long term impact on availability.  In the CFD example, there are few instances where normal operations may require medic relocation. 

However, in large scale incidents, a one-in-three rule may be effective.  For example: A bus accident downtown results in ten medics operating long term: medics-1,2,8,14,15,10, 7, 18, 25 and 21.  Slower medics should be moved into the gap of coverage (if not used directly to the incident).  Medic-34 could relocate to Medic-1; Medic-28 to Medic-2; Medic-5 to medic-15, and Medic-31 to Medic-14. 

Clearly, rules and policies regarding relocations are dynamic.  However, dispatchers must be given the tools, training, and technology to ensure adequate coverage for their areas of responsibility—no matter how busy things may be.  The public expects a level of service from their fire department and will not accept an excessive delay in 911 responses because of a single incident having too great an impact on the availability of resources in the community.

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