Man Down: Follow the paper trail

Much of the information in this week's feature, "Man Down," comes from fire reports, national studies, statistics maintained by the city, and various other documents. Sure, some of the paperwork is kinda of boring. It also takes forever to scan. So instead of bogging you with the whole file, here are PDFs of and excerpts from some of the more interesting documents, as well as some other info that didn't fit in the story:

The death of Pearl Gallagher

In 2003, Minneapolis resident Pearl Gallagher died due to injuries sustained in a house fire. Even seven years later, many fire fighters still talk about it. Some wonder whether or not the rescue would have been more successful if they could have gotten to her sooner. Up until just one month earlier, a Ladder rig had been stationed three miles away from Gallagher's house. It was shut down due to budget cuts, leaving the closest rig the day of the fire a 10-minute drive away.

The fire report illustrates the hectic scene as firefighters tried to find Gallagher. Ladder 5 is the rig that had to come from 10-minutes away. From the report (PDF here):

Chief 2 arrived and found the house with heavy smoke coming from the front door. Engine 28 had arrived and laid a tankline to the front door. Captain Erickson told me that the son of the victim met them a[nd] said that his mother was just inside the door. Captain Erickson immediately made a quick search and found no one...

Then the son of the victim pointed to the basement and told Captain Erickson that his other was down there...Ladder 5 and Rescue 1 arrived and continued the primary search. The fire was located in the basement. Engine 22 proceeded to the basement and extinguished the fire. Ladder 5 found the victim in a rear bedroom on the first floor...

After conversing with MFD personnel on scene it appears that the heavy smoke and large amount of storage in the house may have led to the victim being unable to exit the building. The heavy amount of storage also contributed to the difficult of locating the fire and overhauling the basement and first floor. No smoke alarms were heard by anyone on scene.

Engine rigs manned below industry-standard

As noted in the feature, it's become more common in the past decade for Engine rigs -- the trucks that carry the hoses -- to be manned by only three firefighters, one fewer than what national standards define as the minimum. Here's the National Fire Protection Agency standard citation: Fire companies whose primary functions are to pump and deliver water and perform basic fire fighting at fires, including search and rescue, shall be known as engine companies. These companies shall be staffed with a minimum of four on-duty personnel.

The minimum is, of course, there for a reason. In April 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released the results of a study that tested the performance of varying fire crew sizes. The study found that everything -- from arrival, to hooking up the hose, to searching for victims, to departure -- takes longer for three-person crews. On average, four-person crews spent 15:44 on scene, according to the study. Three-person crews spent 20:30 on scene.

Click here for more information on the performance problems of smaller crews, straight from the study. Here's a chilling excerpt:

"As defined in NFPA 1710, the 'industry standard achieved' time started from the first engine arrival at the hydrant and ended when 15 firefighters were assembled by the five-person crews three minutes faster than the four-person crews. An effective response force was assembled by the five-person crews three minutes faster than the four-person crews. Based on the study protocols, modeled after a typical fire department apparatus deployment strategy, the total number of firefighters on scene in the two- and three-person crew scenarios never equaled 15 and therefore the two- and three-person crews were unable to assemble enough personnel to meet this standard."
Let's take a quick intermission from reading and admire this picture of a fire truck. As of Jan. 1, this rig -- called Rescue 1 -- will be unmanned due to budget cuts. It's the only rig that carries certain specialized search-and-rescue tools, some of which you can see here. Now, click "Next Page."
Let's take a quick intermission from reading and admire this picture of a fire truck. As of Jan. 1, this rig -- called Rescue 1 -- will be unmanned due to budget cuts. It's the only rig that carries certain specialized search-and-rescue tools, some of which you can see here. Now, click "Next Page."


Daily staffing

A few years ago, the City Council passed a mandate requiring the Minneapolis Fire Department's daily staffing to be at least 96. That's 21 fewer than St. Paul's fire department staffs daily, on average.

The proposed budget cuts to the fire department will likely bring daily staffing levels below 96, says City Councilmember Don Samuels, meaning they will have to lower the mandate.

"I think we're dangerously flirting with that number," says Samuels, also the Chair of the Public Safety & Health Committee. "I think if we lose the firefighters we're going to, that we would be below."

According to a draft of the mayor's 211 recommended budget, daily staffing could get down to 92. The proposal lists a few "detrimental impacts:"

-Specialized apparatus available only on a special call basis

-Average daily staffing reduced to 92; does not meet Standard of Coverage

-Injury levels and workers' compensation costs increase

-Both large scale incidents and multiple alarm fires would require use of overtime to re-hire or call back enough staff to adequately respond with the proper number and ratio of personnel

-The number of multiple alarm fires may increase as fewer resources are available limiting the ability to effectively confine fires to the room of origin, resulting in increased property losses

-Increased apparatus 'unavailable' when personnel are needed for non-emergency activities, i.e. boarding up vacant buildings, firewatch

Firefighter injuries

In interviews with City Pages, many firefighters said they felt like their jobs had become increasingly more dangerous after years of cuts to rigs and personnel. A quote from one:

"Nothing bad has happened to us yet, but the city keeps stacking the deck higher and higher...They're setting the [department] up for something really bad to happen, and I don't think they care."

It's a pretty alarming accusation, but one that was echoed by many other firefighters in separate interviews. The statistics seem to support the claim.

Since 2003 -- a year many say cuts started to noticeably impact operations -- injuries to fire fighters have staggered some, but stayed relatively the same. However, the amount of fires the department responds to annually has dropped significantly. As noted in the story, Minneapolis firefighters reported 31 more on-the-job injuries in 2009 compared to 2003, even though they responded to 793 fewer total fires in 2009.

Click here for a list of injuries reported by firefighters since 2002. Click here to see how the amount of fires has declined over the same period of time. Both PDFs come from a report by the City of Minneapolis.

In the story, Minneapolis Fire Capt. Pat Swaggert -- a 32-year veteran of the department -- says it has become less common for firefighters to ventilate the roof a burning structure, a safety precaution that was once the norm. Swaggert attributes this to a decrease in firefighter personnel.

Here's why ventilating the roof of a building is important, via Fire Engineering:

Studies have shown that modern day fires burn hotter, produce more smoke, and reach flashover conditions much faster than the fires of the past. This is mainly the result of the proliferation of polycarbonate-based furnishings and finishes in occupancies of all types. As such, it is extremely important that you conduct the roof operations described herein properly and in a timely fashion to make the conditions less punishing for the firefighters operating inside a structure and to assist them in conducting a safe and effective fire attack.

Asst. Fire Chief of Operations Dave DeWall agrees that cuts to personnel have been a contributor in it becoming less common for firefighters to ventilate the roof a burning structure. However, DeWall suggests that there are other factors that play into this as well.

Not every fire requires ventilation, explains DeWall. If the fire is "contained by one room or area of origin" in a structure, ventilation may not be necessary. For this reason, the call is made on a case-by-case basis.

"There's never two fires that are the same," says DeWall.

Modern building materials don't burn as quickly as they used to. And due to advances in technology that notify the department of an emergency -- i.e. fire alarms that send a 911 call -- firefighters can get to a fire before it has spread to multiple rooms more often than they could 40 years ago, says DeWall.

As the department continues to lose firefighter positions to budget cuts, Minneapolis Police Alex Jackson says protocol will likely change with it. Says Jackson:

"Right now, we have the luxury of being a very aggressive fire department, but as you get smaller, you will lose that. You're going to have to be wiser about decisions that you would make as far as aggressiveness goes."

For more on cuts to the fire department, check out our Q & A with Mayor R.T. Rybak.

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