Commentary: How many firefighters does it take to save your life?

The City of Edmonds has been protected by 12 firefighters on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the last 13 years, including two paramedics per day from the former Medic 7. Prior to 2003, the city had 10 people on duty ranking among firefighter, captain and battalion chief.

Edmonds has three fire stations staffed with members from Snohomish County Fire District One. The city has had a contract for service with Fire District 1 since 2010. The contract requires the same number of firefighters on duty — 12. However, this year, your fire service contract is being renegotiated by the City of Edmonds and Fire District 1 with the specific interest to cut costs, which will delay our response to your emergencies.

Why does your city need 12 firefighters on duty 24 hours a day?

Responding to a Fire

It is important to know how many firefighters are required to respond to a call to allow for the best possible outcome for you and your loved ones, and provide the high level of care Snohomish County Fire District 1 delivers.

Four firefighters are required to be on-scene prior to entering a structure on fire. The first arriving fire engine (staffed with three people) has to wait for the second arriving unit to arrive on-scene prior to entering a structure to look for trapped people. Washington State Administrative Code 296.305.05002 requires that in order for firefighters to operate in a hazardous environment, firefighters must be in place outside the hazard to rescue them, unless signs of immediate threat to life are present.

National Firefighting Standards

The industry standard used by the State of Washington that requires four firefighters on a scene before entering a structure was set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The NFPA creates standards of operation codes for fire departments throughout the country using scientific research on fires and independent studies performed by groups like the American Heart Association also help the NFPA in writing emergency medical response codes. You can see those standards here.

The NFPA calls for 15 firefighters to be initially dispatched to a house fire to best protect lives and property. Theses firefighters are performing three tasks: (1) search and rescue of survivors inside the burning structure; (2) work involving ladder, forcible entry and ventilation of the structure; and (3) applying water to the fire, all of which is being done at the exact same time. For a commercial or high-rise building, the number of firefighters needed jumps up to 28 and 43, respectively.

In 2006, the City of Edmonds adopted standards for the number of firefighters necessary to respond to a structure fire, as required by the Washington State Legislature. The city set the standards by utilizing the NFPA industry standards, experts in the field and the recommendations of the fire chief. The city requires that 15 firefighters be on-scene of a single family residence in seven minutes and forty-five seconds (7:45). Unfortunately, last year we did not meet the city’s standard. The city requires 19 firefighters on-scene of a commercial structure fire within nine minutes (9:00). Again, in 2015, we did not meet the city’s standard.

Standards are missed for several reasons, one of the main reasons is there are multiple simultaneous calls for service or not enough resources on-duty in the region.

(You can see the Fire District I 2015 annual report to the City of Edmonds here.)

Responding to Medical Emergencies

Medical calls are the majority of responses in today’s fire service. A critical medical response, known as a “Med X,” requires a minimum of 10 people: an aid crew of three firefighters; a medic crew with two firefighter paramedics; an engine crew with three firefighters; one medical services officer with a paramedic supervisor; and, finally, a battalion chief with one firefighter supervisor. Everyone is needed and utilized during a medical emergency to provide care in timely manner. Snohomish County has one of the highest cardiac arrest survival rates in the world with our average annual save rate of 60 perecent, more than 40 percent higher than the national average. That high survival rate is based on a system of survival, with early citizen recognition, 9-1-1 assisted CPR instructions, fast response times by the firefighters and having the right number of people on-scene to provide high-quality, high-performance CPR. Studies have shown that a person can only provide effective CPR for a short period of time before needing to rest and allow someone else to compress the chest. Emergencies are dynamic, and can sometimes have multiple patients. In a motor vehicle crash, crews are needed to attend to the patients while others are needed to stabilize the vehicles, and run the equipment for extrication.

New Danger of Structure Fires

The number of fires may be going down, but the fire danger is dramatically increasing. Materials in today’s homes are more likely to ignite faster and hotter than ever before. The time to get out of your house in the event of a fire has been reduced by both the energy efficient and high-tech construction materials and the furniture we use in our homes. What used to take a home 30 minutes to fully engulf in flames, now takes just under four minutes. Fighting fires has not gotten easier, in fact it has gotten much harder with modern materials and the close proximity of homes next to each other.

More Firefighters = Faster Response

By responding quickly to a fire, we keep a small incident small. When our response takes more than a few minutes, losses escalate substantially, resulting in a greater loss of life and property.

It is important to take emergency medical and fire responses into account before any decision is made to reduce the number of firefighters at our Edmonds fire stations.

Any reduction in 24-hour firefighter staffing will reduce our ability to save lives and meet the minimum standards set by your city and used nationwide.

Make sure to tell your city council and your mayor not to cut costs to your fire services.

Lives depend on it.

— By Tim Hoover

Tim Hoover is a firefighter for Snohomish County Fire District 1. He is a past executive board member of International Association of Firefighters Local 1828 and is current 3rd District Representative for the Washington State Council of Firefighters.

  1. Well written article. Especially appreciated the explanation regarding number of required people dispatched and how it relates to NFPA standards…something most of us are unaware of. I work in an industry impacted by NFPA and know they are diligent and very thorough in setting their standards.

  2. Another relevant point is that population and density has increased in Edmonds
    during the past ten years while the number of firefighters has been at 12…. If
    12 was the right number 10 years ago, why would a smaller number of firefighters be the right number for our larger (and still growing) population?

  3. Good article and good comments. I have (unfortunately) had the opportunity to have both medics (my husband is a heart patient) and firemen (an explosion and fire in our condo caused by some workmen) come to our aid. They were caring, efficient and very polite. We are lucky to have such fine people serving our community.

  4. Well written article Tim. Thank you. Vivian, good observation on the effects of population growth to call volume. I would add that surrounding districts depend more and more on each other for assistance in covering their responses. This means the risk your closest engine or medic unit might be on another call is heightened. To have anything less than 12 firefighters is putting ourselves at more risk, putting our firefighters at more risk and putting citizens/firefighters in a really tough position when that risk is realized. General descriptive statistical data does not capture the significant impact fires and medical emergencies reap on specific families, businesses and communities; nor does it capture the frequent and successful efforts firefighters make to do everything they can to respond promptly to a 911 call despite extenuating circumstances.

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