Suburban Fire Operations: Five Lessons Learned

Some may believe that no two fire departments are the same, but many commonalities exist within fire departments that span geographical areas: urban, suburban, and rural. Urban fire departments cover large cities. Suburban fire departments often cover the areas where many of the city’s workers reside, as well as businesses that prefer not to reside in large cities. Rural fire departments often cover exceptionally large areas with low population numbers. 

Urban fire departments often have many engine and truck companies, as well as staffed emergency medical services (EMS). Some large cities may have a divide between fire and EMS from a time when they were separate city departments or when EMS was provided as a private service. The rural fire departments are often volunteer departments that cover a large expanse of farmland and other rural areas that do not have the needed tax base to afford paid personnel. 

However, suburban fire departments can range from a few paid personnel to completely paid departments. Many have EMS, but some have not yet transitioned into EMS. In some cases, the need for consolidating these services is the only way to afford paid personnel in areas that cover a variety of structures from all single-family residential buildings to mid- and high-rise buildings. For a suburban fire department, the following list is not all-encompassing or identical for all departments, but many of the factors are generalizable to the suburban fire department. 

Lesson 1: A Department Is Either Progressing Forward or Falling Behind 

Most suburban fire departments start in rural areas and, as people move out of the city, the suburban area grows to encompass it. The growth starts with residential neighborhoods to house those who have moved out of the city or the next inner ring of suburbs. Next, commercial areas expand to provide new residents with shopping areas in the same place where they live. Often the governments recognize that the tax dollars provided by the commercial properties allow amenities for the community and continue to invite both commercial properties and even some light industrial facilities and warehouses. The increase in commerce and warehousing can be a good match for a suburban community, as the land in the urban area is often landlocked and building large warehouses in urban areas is not possible. Lastly, as the price of land begins to climb, developers often choose to place apartment buildings and taller buildings on the diminishing amount of land. 

This continual progress in the land use and building types creates a need for the fire department to continually match their services and standards of cover to the ever-changing community risk assessment. Delivering service with two-person fire companies cannot keep up with the needs of a community that has large commercial, apartment, or high-rise buildings. As the tax base grows with the placement of new buildings, fire department administrators must convince the citizens and elected officials that this is not the same community as it was five years ago, and more resources will be required to provide the same level of service and protection. Presenting critical task analysis and standards of cover, as well as benchmarking data are critical to ensure that those making funding decisions have the data to prove the need rather than just stating “we are busy or we are understaffed.” Of course, these are subjective measures for political leadership and no one in an organized department will ever be too slow and overstaffed. 

Lesson 2: Standards Are the Goal, but Creativity May Be Needed 

The NFPA 1710 standard is the gold standard for the United States Fire Service when dealing with standards of cover and staffing. NFPA 1710 not only covers all time segments that are involved in fire and EMS responses but also covers staffing on fire apparatus. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have demonstrated the need for not only the number of firefighters necessary at different types of fire scenes but also the crew size of each company. NFPA 1710 recommends four-person engine and ladder companies unless in a high-risk area, in which case the numbers increase. 

Unique response challenges faced in urban and rural areas converge for fire personnel in the suburbs. Understanding similarities can improve suburban response. 

The amount of tax dollars per square mile is significantly less in the suburbs than in the urban areas, which often sets the pay scales. The most significant way to prevent taxes from being prohibitively high in the suburbs is to have either fewer units in service or fewer personnel to staff each unit, as personnel costs in staffed departments account for up to 85% of the overall budget. Often the suburban departments have an integrated EMS service in the fire department that can either allow for cross-staffing units to increase the number of people leaving on each fire apparatus or matching crews as they arrive on scene. 

Although less than optimal, having an Initial Rapid Intervention Team (IRIC) that arrives in an ambulance and is onsite for the first arriving fire company to provide safety to the firefighters is better than no crew or waiting for another fire company to drive across town to allow safe entry. The drawback is that, unless the ambulance does not make any calls, there is a statistical probability that the ambulance will be unavailable when a fire is dispatched. These are all considerations that need to be evaluated as administrators try to create the best system possible within the allowable budget. 

Lesson 3: Collaboration of Area Departments Is Critical for Success 

The second part of NFPA 1710 is the number of personnel in total that is needed at a fire event. For a single-family residential fire of average size (typically 2,000 sq.ft.), the recommendation is a minimum of 16 personnel or 17 if an aerial is used. However, this calculation in NFPA section fails to mention the need for an incident safety officer separate from the incident commander and does not provide EMS services if one of the firefighters is hurt during the event. Also, no mention of rehab is present. Combining the requirements in the section above with other NFPA standard requirements, such as NFPA 1500 series, and with the knowledge that additional fire companies may be needed for tasks outside those listed or to start rotation of crews on the initial alarm, the more accurate calculation is 25-26 personnel. 

Unless the suburban fire department is seven or more stations, it is unlikely that an organization can provide these numbers. As such, administrators from neighboring organizations must ensure that they are working together. This starts with understanding each other’s capabilities, on-duty staffing numbers and configurations, and typical operating procedures. Moving forward, neighboring organizations can train together, develop policies together, and purchase compatible equipment. 

For example, West Chester (OH) Fire Department is surrounded on all four sides by different dispatch centers, three counties, and even different hose threads. To overcome these issues, they have started with their dispatch center to connect Active 911 accounts and purchased Tellus, which can connect the computer-aided dispatches (CADs). Next, they worked together to create model policies. While each organization can tweak the policies, there is a base of understanding for the operational policies. Lastly, they identified common equipment and adaptors needed by each organization to overcome some of the barriers. 

Lesson 4: Personnel Hiring and Development Are Critical for Success 

Many urban departments have been in existence for more than 100 years, suburban departments often have not been around for nearly as long and, if so, they often started as volunteer departments. Consideration when hiring personnel should not be focused on hiring to fill the current vacancy but rather on hiring the future fire chief, assistant chief, battalion chief, or captain. Since the fire service typically does not hire from the outside – except for at the entry level – a person hired today is the future leader of the organization. 

Failure to use this mentality will cause problems in 5 to 10 years because the values and skills of the person will not be able to transition to the management and leadership positions within the department. Valuable time and resources are wasted when there is a need to stop, go to the outside, and then get the outsider up to speed on the culture and inner workings of the department. This can be done, but it takes time and is not a guaranteed fit. 

If this must be done a few times, there forms a belief inside the organization that no one can promote. With the more commonly employed lateral transfer due to low applicant numbers, personnel with 10 years of experience and thousands of dollars in training are leaving their departments. Ultimately, the community is the one that loses in this situation. Hire with the future in mind and start an officer development program early. Otherwise, incapable officers will be promoted, or current talent will walk out the door due to no internal promotions. 

Lesson 5: Culture Is Key but Difficult to Establish or Change 

Because of the continual need to hire as well as the disappearance of many who were in the department as a volunteer organization, the culture may be easier to modify, but even more difficult to establish. Whether it is a new chief and officers or new firefighters due to expansion, most suburban departments will undergo many cultural shifts. The longer the culture was in place, the harder the change will be. 

For example, the West Chester Fire Department hired career personnel to transition to a staffed department on a 24-hour basis. Because the hazards had not translated to fires and some of the leaders had not been exposed to other organizations or areas of the county, a culture was created that said only limited amounts of equipment needed to be sent to events. Because the buildings were new and equipped with sprinklers, there was a high probability that the sprinklers would extinguish the fire, and mopping up would be the primary task for the personnel. 

Personnel encountered a few large-scale fires but, because of the infrequency, they only increased the response numbers some while maintaining the culture of “It’s likely not on fire.” As the operations chief of that department, I knew we must change this culture, and this could only occur through data. There were two keys to creating change: 

  • The first was to involve members of the department at all levels. No matter how great an idea looks in an office, it may not translate well to the streets. 

  • The second is to make decisions based on data. As mentioned, moving from 16-17 personnel for every type of building to 25-26 personnel on the first alarm single-family residential and 51 on a high-rise fire first alarm was a significant change. This drastic change could only occur through proof of data as to why the change is needed. 


The suburban department can be a very rewarding department to work for. Change can occur almost daily, but failure to keep the lessons presented in mind can make the transition not proceed as desired. Some of the initiatives that can aid an organization in ensuring that they are meeting today’s demands and tomorrow’s needs include: 

  1. Working as a region. No fire department including the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) is excluded from mutual aid. Knowing that you will use mutual aid means you should talk to the other agencies leaders before the event. Having common terminology, command practices, and common policies can ensure that the mutual and automatic aid work seamlessly. While no two agencies will have the exact same policies, a common understanding is key. 

  1. Succession management will become highly important as an organization grows and the leaders change. By developing tomorrow’s leaders today, we can ensure that the promotion isn’t the day the person has to start all of over. The International Association of Fire Chiefs produced a Succession Management Document and the findings of the over 700 surveyed related to being prepared for the promotion involved experience in completing the daily tasks of the new position. Acting officer programs and mentoring programs can help with these transitions, as well as setting training and education minimums needed for the promoted position. None of us are here forever, practice Level 5 Leadership, and ensure that your replacement is better than you. 

  1. Strategic Planning will allow you to receive buy in and show a path forward to all involved in the organization’s success. Whether this is the newest person to the most senior elected official, you will need buy in for the change. Often those involved in the area can see the change in the community, but may not be good at seeing the need for change in the fire department. By having a systematic plan that allows expansion of personnel, facilities, and equipment, all tied to standards will inform all of the stakeholders of the needs and path forward Because they had a hand in creating the plan, there is less chance of derailing the plan. 

While there is no exact plan to grow a suburban fire department, utilizing the strategic plan to ensure that personnel, facilities, equipment, and most importantly policies and procedures are in place will allow measurable results in growth of the organization to ensure the community receives the service they deserve. 

Randall Hanifen
Randall W. Hanifen

Randall W. Hanifen, Ph.D., CFO, FIFireE, is the Assistant Chief of Operations for West Chester Fire, an Associate Professor at American Public University, and a public safety consultant. He has a Ph.D. in Homeland Security Leadership and Policy. He is the associate author of the book “Disaster Planning and Control” (2009). He served as a task force leader for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue Team, responding to presidentially declared disasters. He also serves in the planning section of a Type 3 Incident Management Team. He frequently writes and teaches on a variety of fire service executive development topics. He can be reached at



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