Johnson City Press: Fire department changes bring higher safety to citizens, Johnson City fire chief says

Fire department changes bring higher safety to citizens, Johnson City fire chief says

Becky Campbell • Aug 19, 2018 at 12:00 AM

In the year since he took command of the department, Johnson City Fire Chief Jim Stables has made changes he feels stabilizes operations and provides more accountability at the city’s nine fire stations.

In addition to filling officer positions that were open when he took over in early September 2017, he rearranged supervisory positions for better efficiency.

“Everything we’ve done is a direct reflection of how good the Johnson City Fire Department is in the first place,”  Stables said. “The City of Johnson City has been very thoughtful how they’ve gone about paying attention to the details and building an organization that is responsive to the community.”

One of the first things Stables did was have  the Metropolitan Technical Advisory Service, an agency that provides technical assistance to Tennessee municipal governments, conduct a staffing survey. 

“I had MTAS come in and do the staffing station study to make sure our stations are in the right place and meeting the community’s needs, make sure we have enough people on them,” Stables said.

“One of the things that struck me as a challenge when I first came in the door is we had a lack of supervision in stations by ranked officers,” he said. “What I mean by that is the drivers were called sergeants back in the day, because it was a public safety model. The driver was expected to be the station officer and operate the truck safely to a scene and pump water out of the truck.”

Stables said the complexity of a driver/engineer position and the responsibility of being the on-scene officer is too much to place on one person.

“Those are very complex, technical positions. In most agencies, you have a driver/operator, an officer and then two firefighters on the truck, or one firefighter on the truck, depending on the size of the agency,” he said.  “So being able to pull up in front of a burning building and immediately go to work is one of the challenges.”

Stables said the National Fire Protection Association, which publishes recommendations on fire staffing and other fire-related needs, promotes the “two in, two out” rule.” That’s a rule that two firefighters can go into a burning structure as long as there are two firefighters who remain outside the structure.

“So we pull up in front of a burning building, and if there's an immediate life issue we feel we need to address we have the ability to deviate from that. But it’s for a finite period of time until we secure the rescue victim and things like that. All of this staffing build is about that. It’s about accountability at all levels,” he said.

The JCFD work load is divided into three shifts — A, B and C. Each shift is staffed with firefighters and driver/engineers at each of the nine stations. Before Stables’ hiring, the fire department had one captain in charge of all nine fire stations and 12 response units.

“That span of control is unacceptable,” Stables said. “In a high hazard combat situation we look at a span of control of three to five” per supervisor.

“Through our conversation we were able to reassign some people out of headquarters,” he said. “Everything we do is about supporting the operation of response to the public and making sure the public gets what they need. That is the underlying tone for everything that I try to do here. I reassigned three positions out of office staff to be district chiefs out in the field with the three that were already there.

“I split the city into halves and I have five stations under one district chief and four stations under the other. That helps with the span of control being a responsible one, plus during an emergency those two folks can respond to the emergency and co-manage and be assigned to divisions and groups and things like that which we break the incident into for purposeful management.”

Stables took the same approach to firefighters.

Before the reorganization, there were four lieutenants per shift who rode on the trucks with the firefighters, which meant five stations had no lieutenant. In the stations where there was not a lieutenant, JCFD had a sergeant position, which Stables said was a hold-over from the Public Safety Officer program Johnson City once operated under.

“I’ve taken the sergeant title out, because they’re not supervisors. They’re technical (operators). The next step for them is to take the officer's test to become a lieutenant,” Stable said.

“You can become (overwhelmed) when you have too many things to do, and people can die if we make poor choices because we overburdened somebody with too many things to think about. It’s better to allow the folks that are are in highly technical responsibility (positions) to focus on those without being distracted with other ancillary duties which are just as important on an emergency scene,” he said.

Stables said the former fire chief had two positions in the 2017-18 budget that weren’t filled when he came on board, and he was able to put two more lieutenants on the roster. It doesn’t get every station covered with an officer, but that’s what Stables is working toward.

“As it stands now, we have three fire stations that do not have a company officer on the engines. All of our trucks do not. Eventually I want officers (lieutenants) on each piece of equipment because it will make for better accountability and better decision making,” he said. “It’s not to say that the driver’s aren’t capable and competent, (but) it’s a burden on them that’s unfair to place on somebody.”

Engineers, who drive the fire trucks, are responsible for a long list of technical things that keep the fire scene running smoothly.

“They’re trying to get safely to the scene and then pump from the engine. A lot of people think firefighting is just about putting water on the red stuff. That’s not how its. When you have to do hydraulic calculations and figure out, ‘Ok I’m going into a standpipe situation, so I’ve got to pump pressure to it and I’ve got to make sure we’re getting enough pressure on the floor they’re tied into. That’s a huge deal, in addition I’m to trying to supply the sprinkler system, I’m trying to make sure I’m getting appropriate water out of the water system.

“So they’re highly technical in their craft and responsible for many things, and now they’re also worried about accountability for the firefighters that are inside the building and determining overall strategy for the fire fight. That’s not a good practice to be in.”

Just in the past few weeks, the fire department has been through a hiring regime for new firefighters.

Stables said 107 people applied for eight positions available, 79 showed up for the physical fitness test and 61 of those showed up for the written test. He hopes to have the new positions filled soon, which would take the fire department’s roster to 130 firefighters on staff.

The department had already hired 16 firefighters in the 2017-18 fiscal budget year as well.

Stables has more plans for improvement at the fire department, including a new training facility, a media academy and reviving the citizens fire academy.

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