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November 22, 2005 > Fire Departments, a model of change

Fire Departments, a model of change

A discussion with Newark's Fire Chief Demetrious Shaffer

Newark's fire service is similar to many others in many respects. It has progressed from a rural volunteer department to a highly trained, state-of-the-art city service that not only prepares for the complex environment within city boundaries, but is an essential component of emergency services for the larger geographical region of southern Alameda County, the greater Bay Area and the State of California.

TCV asked Demetrious Shaffer, who assumed the reins of the Newark Fire Department May 18, 2005, for his comments. Chief Shaffer follows an impressive group of previous fire chiefs including Louis Ruschin (1910-1932); Joseph Pashote (1932-1964); Dean Holzgrafe (1964-1971); Bud Spalding (1972-1986); Dennis Leonesio (1986-1991); Dennis Gleeson (1991-2000) and Michael Preston (2001-2005).

TCV: Were you a kid that always wanted to be a firefighter?

Shaffer: I always did well in school - especially in mathematics and science - gravitating toward law, medicine or engineering. I loved the sciences. A close friend's older brother was a Morgan Hill firefighter. During our junior year of high school, we stopped by the firehouse - I had never been in a firehouse before - and I was impressed by the camaraderie - a group of brothers, working and joking with each other, having a great time. The alarm bell went off and they immediately stopped what they were doing, put on their turnouts, hopped on the truck and were gone - lights flashing and sirens blaring - within seconds. In the wake of this, I started to think of what they were off to do - to help or save someone. At that moment, I decided to be a firefighter.

I reflected on my past interactions with fire personnel. Our next-door neighbor's house burned to the ground on a Christmas Eve. We were evacuated from our house when the Campbell Fire Department responded; hose lines were stretched across our lawn. It was mesmerizing to watch how well the fire personnel worked together. In the early '70's, Campbell was one of the few paramedic transport fire departments. A few months after my mom gave birth to my younger brother, she passed out at home. We had no idea what to do; it was a helpless feeling. Fortunately, my older brother ran next door and our neighbors called 911. When the fire truck arrived, the anxiety, fear and sense of helplessness disappeared. We were able to take a breath and relax a bit since professional help had come to our aid.

TCV: Where did you start your career?

Shaffer: I began as a reserve firefighter in Campbell. After a year, I was hired by Mountain View and spent the next 14 years there.

TCV: How do fire department personnel differ from other protective services?

Shaffer: The mentality of a police officer and that of a firefighter are quite different. It is rare for someone in one of these services to move to the other. Police officers are fearless; although part of a team, you are on your own. It takes a certain individual - strong minded and focused - to do that and deal with the criminal element without internalizing the difficulties. Fire services deal more with emotional and physical pains of society - heart attacks, loss of life and loss of worldly goods (heirlooms, property, etc.) in minutes during a fire. This is a very different and always done as a team. An engine company or truck company will never respond as a single individual. The team of two or three is 'attached at the hip' during their on-call time.

TCV: How have fire departments progressed? What do you see in the future?

Shaffer: The history of the fire service dates back to Benjamin Franklin who is credited with starting the first fire company and being the first chief. The evolution was odd, since they began with insurance companies that formed volunteer fire departments who would often get into fist fights at the scene of a fire to determine whose fire it was. From that beginning we have progressed to mutual aid where there is no competition or profit. It wasn't too many years ago when fire departments would not cross corporate boundaries. We have come a long way but still have work to do.

Regionalization of our business is a key to success. A fire is the same whether in this city or our neighbor's city; similar training is necessary for all fire departments. It is impossible for every fire service to train and staff for every possibility. We train for the most probable occurrences. For instance, it is possible for a 747 to land on Thornton Avenue, but not very probable. It would take hundreds of firefighters to mitigate that incident and we couldn't possibly hire staff for that possibility. We staff for the greatest probability.

Things are changing. Chief Pashote, Newark's first paid fire chief talked about responding to 300 calls per year near the end of his career in 1964. We now respond to over 3,300 calls each year in a tremendously different environment. Newark now has high rise buildings, hotels and many more structures with different industries including hazardous material handling and significant rail traffic. We are now called on for different situations such as EMS (Emergency Medical Service), confined space entry into underground spaces with limited air supply and trench rescue when the possibility of collapse is a major problem. Dealing with hazardous materials is another area of specialized training - dealing with substances that you may not see, feel or touch but can kill you on contact. We don't just fight fires anymore. As a matter of fact, fires are generally less than 3% of most agency calls.

My belief is that we have evolved from a 'fire' department although that is the traditional name. We are really a 'Department of Emergency Services' - a full service organization. Integration with other agencies is an area where we are improving and need to continue. For instance, we may focus on confined space rescue and a neighbor may concentrate on trench work. First responders who arrive in the first 4 - 6 minutes will be trained at an awareness level to stabilize the situation while a specialized unit is en route. The future lies in doing this well since it allows better response to more possibilities.

It takes 15 firefighters to respond to a single alarm fire. Trained personnel connect hose lines from the hydrant, set up hand lines, provide building entry, ventilation of the building to prevent back draft and turn off utilities. A team keeps track of where all firefighters are at all times in order to rescue them if things go bad. All this needs to be coordinated just like a symphony. The incident commander, usually the battalion chief or chief officer on scene, makes sure all flows smoothly and immediately. A full search and rescue, room by room, is done to make sure the building is clear. This is a massive effort even for a small home.

As you add complexity in size and contents, the effort grows exponentially. Through all of this, timing is of the essence since the fire isn't getting any smaller. The quicker we dispatch 15 firefighters to that one alarm fire and control the blaze, the less damage and likelihood of injuries to civilians or firefighters. If a fire grows and requires a second alarm or more, additional teams of firefighters are required.

Dropping boundaries is a key to efficiently fighting fires. If, for instance, a fire is reported at Mowry Avenue and Cedar Boulevard, this is in Newark's jurisdiction, although a Fremont unit may be closer at the time. If there are true boundary drops, a computer will be able to see where each unit is, regardless of the name on the side of the rig and dispatch the closest unit. Those who call 911 don't care what it says on the side of the rig. We are definitely moving in that direction.

TCV: How do you plan for different types of fires and emergencies?

Shaffer: All of our firefighters are trained for a variety of fires. An example is wild land firefighting. We have a good amount of grassland in our town. These have light fuels that combined with the high winds that we get through town, can move quickly. We have special turnouts - structured gear of coats, pants and boots - for grass or vegetation fire. In a structure, temperatures can quickly reach 500, 600, 700 and over 1,000 degrees and our gear is designed to protect us. Wild land fires can flash and get hot quickly but we are out in the open and the fire's heat can dissipate in different directions. We can, however, overheat by working in a hot sun and risk heatstroke and dehydration.

In the past, firefighters responded to fires and that was about it. We have morphed into responding to first aid calls and other emergencies such as auto extrications where instead of heavy, steel vehicles we are dealing with lighter, fiberglass car bodies with airbags that can explode into firefighters - many firefighters have been hurt by this. Combine this with structure fires wild land fires, trench rescue, confined space fire and rescue, hazardous materials, high and low angle rescue (window washers, construction on high-rise buildings). To be able to do all those things, a tremendous amount of training is necessary. Training is constant so skills are always sharp and can be done even if groggy at 3 a.m. When rappelling down the side of a building, knots used must be perfect and hold no matter what time of day or night. Our challenge is to keep ourselves at a high level of readiness in all these areas.

As society continues to grow and do new things, so too, will we grow and do new things to keep pace. We will continue to respond to all emergency service requests and that may mean involvement in different types of prevention activities. Right now we do quite a bit in fire prevention such as inspections for hazards and hazardous materials. As time goes by, we may do more on the medical side, possibly with inoculations and flu shots. This will be based on what the community wants. We have the potential to move into more areas including senior services.

Some of our firefighters currently offer special services such as driving the Care-A-Van that provides rides for families who do not have the means to visit their sick children in the hospital. This is in line with our mission statement so I see us moving even more into those types of services to the community.

TCV: Will CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and PEP (Personal Emergency Preparedness) training continue to be a priority?

Shaffer: CERT is one of my main focuses. [Hurricane] Katrina demonstrated that the ability to take care of yourself in a disaster is of paramount importance. Our geographical area is subject to earthquakes and could easily fit into a similar scenario where water supplies are cut and requests for service overwhelm public safety resources. I only have three fire stations to serve the city - 12 firefighters on duty each day. In a major earthquake, there will probably be thousands of calls. Our daily contingent of firefighters on four pieces of equipment will not be able to handle the calls, nor will we be able to call on neighboring cities since in an area-wide disaster, they will probably be overwhelmed too. Calling on off-duty personnel will also be a problem since many of our firefighters do not live in town. Department-wide, I have 50 people. Remember, it takes 15 firefighters to handle one fire.

We cannot staff for a large earthquake although it is a probability for our community. The community will have to be part of the effort and solution. CERT provides the basic tools and knowledge to be self-sustaining during the first few days of a disaster. That will be absolutely crucial to our success as a community.

Many citizens are not familiar with gas shut-off valves and electrical panels. A large percentage of our population has probably never been a large disaster before and preparation isn't high on their radar. They believe emergency preparedness is our [fire department] job. The message we are trying to relay to our community is that there needs to be strong coordination with the community - schools, churches, groups and organizations - for such an event. With good communication, we will have information that allows us to respond to fewer calls for immediate response. Newark takes this very seriously and the mayor has made it clear that this is a high priority.

TCV: Where can citizens get emergency information and CERT training?

Shaffer: There are several places to find information. The American Red Cross ( or 415.427.8000) is a great source. Our website and other city sites on disaster preparedness are also helpful and provide information about CERT classes. We need to find a way to get the information out in other ways too. One way is at schools and sending information home through students. Another is to set up targeted CERT programs such as training for teachers and administrators in public and private schools. Making CERT information available in a variety of languages is also a goal. We need to look at both short term and long term programs to make sure our population knows how to handle emergencies as part of our culture.

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