By Randall Hanifen
As more hurricanes occur and communities experience a greater need for assistance, it is necessary to once again examine how aid is provided, especially by fire and emergency services.
There are the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) and the Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) system of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These systems provide more long-term assets and personnel to enable communities to cope with larger disasters. Both systems have their benefits and drawbacks, but generally provide what is needed to affected areas.
Fulfilling Organizational Needs and Preventing Deployments That Are Not Beneficial
In the fire and emergency services, we have two key parts of any assistance request: personnel and the assets that those personnel utilize. One example is a Type 1 Engine Strike Team, which is five Type 1 Engines (four people on each fire engine and a full-size fire engine, in layman’s terms), and a Strike Team Leader (one person in an SUV).
Depending on the number of organizations filling an assistance request, the additional aid could be 21 people and six apparatus. While the FEMA rate sheet will ensure that organizations can charge for use of their apparatus, using personnel involves more variables.
For instance, first responders in 24/7 emergency service organizations have a few key components to their pay and replacements. The people deployed on the EMAC request need compensation and must also have their benefits paid to them.
Those benefits could be 90% of what comprises their usual pay. Since first responders typically work 24 hours on and 48 hours off (note that there are variations to this schedule), they often work side jobs due to the low salaries that some fire department personnel make.
For instance, if I send a person for a week to fulfill an EMAC request, he or she may lose income from their side job for a week, which makes for an undesirable deployment. If someone has children that require paid care in the firefighter’s absence, deployment will be a financial punishment to the firefighter.
The only way to make deployments enticing and possibly prevent financial punishment is to pay overtime for work that does not involve a firefighter’s normal 24-hour shift. This strategy equates to 48 hours of overtime for every three days of work.
First Responder Positions Need to Be Backfilled to Maintain the Right Level of Community Service
Another component of fulfilling organizational needs is to ensure that there is a backfill, so that first responder organizations may continue to offer the same level of service to their community. Because first responders do not have daily monies to overstaff their organization, they do not have extra personnel to send on deployments.
The position of each person deployed to help with disaster relief efforts must be backfilled. That involves asking other personnel to put in overtime and sacrifice their off days to fill that spot.
The funds needed for this effort are known as backfill monies. Depending on who is brought back to help a first responder organization (the choice is often controlled by a collective bargaining agreement), the cost of using that substitute can exceed the cost of the person who is deployed.
Deployment Also Involves Travel Costs
The deployment of first responders involves several travel costs, including fuel, hotels and food. Travel of the team to a disaster requires the use of restaurants and hotels to ensure that the drivers receive proper rest for the next day’s driving, as most fire apparatus were not designed for either long-distance travel or sleeping.
Cost Often Dictates the Choice of Response Teams and Assets
With an EMAC request, the team or assets that are chosen are often the cheapest. While you could argue that the training and experience gained by deployed personnel is worth the expense, it is a steep cost to swallow for the organization supplying first responders and the necessary equipment.
The solution is to create the same system that the FEMA US&R teams have had in place for decades. That system pays first responders from portal to portal, ensuring they are paid for the entire time of the deployment and that the cost of the backfill is also covered.
Additionally, the team/asset selection should involve who is physically the closest to the disaster site. Many times, states choose a cheaper team, even though that team is farther away.
While some will argue that choosing teams based on the lowest cost is wrong, do you really want the “cheapest” rescue response? In the end, local taxpayers and their communities may end up paying the true price.