Volunteer firefighters are a vital and sometimes overlooked resource within the communities they protect. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of the United States depend on volunteer fire departments as an integral part of their emergency response framework. The ability to train, respond to, and mitigate structure fires in small and rural areas challenges the departments to effectively prioritize each response. The number of volunteers across our nation is dwindling; therefore, we must understand the importance of planning, training, and firefighter safety when faced with limited resources.
Contrasting Response in 1991 and in 2015
I can recall the first structure fire I responded to as a new volunteer in 1991. The volunteer department was mostly rural, had 59 volunteer firefighters, and served 125 square miles of nonhydranted area. The fire occurred shortly after 1:00 p.m. on a muggy day in southwest Louisiana. I arrived on the first-due engine, and our crew began scene size-up. Volunteer firefighters and equipment began to arrive; each was assigned tasks such as ventilation, search, extinguishment, and exposure protection. Twenty-four well-trained volunteers worked together to mitigate the incident.
Fast forward to 2015. The landscape of my department had changed drastically. The tones dropped at about 6:00 a.m. for a structure fire, and I responded to the station. It was different this time because the radio was extremely quiet. I arrived at the station with the fire chief. We responded with two engines. A second alarm was requested as we responded, and mutual aid from neighboring departments was activated. On our arrival, the house was about 50 percent involved with exposures of a truck and an RV already burning on the B side. One other volunteer arrived shortly after the initial engines, and we began our attempt to protect other exposures and extinguish the fire with three firefighters. This highlights the struggle many rural and small departments face on a daily basis.
A few years ago, we recognized that the number of our active volunteer firefighters had dwindled to 23. The call volume had increased by about 75 percent in our area since 1991 and continues to grow with the growth of nearby industrial complexes and municipal areas. It was time to change the way we traditionally responded to structure fires.
A shortfall in the water supply and limited personnel were crucial factors that led our department to establish new response techniques. We began with a review of our equipment. Replacing older engines with dual-purpose capabilities helped us overcome most of the water-supply issues. We ordered a new engine that fit the dual purpose role of engine operations; it had a 3,000-gallon booster tank. Over time, we purchased two other engines with the same configuration. This allowed us to respond to structural alarms and focus on rescue, exposure protection, fire containment, and starting extinguishment without the need to establish a water supply or tanker operations during the critical first 10 minutes of the incident. Arriving on scene with a minimum of 6,000 gallons of water, or 9,000 gallons if staffing permitted all three engines to respond, delayed the labor-intensive task of securing a water supply and establishing tanker operations.
Personnel were still an issue, so we began to establish relationships with surrounding departments. Sharing resources with other departments is crucial to combat the shortage of volunteers. Inviting those departments to participate with us led to coordinated monthly training among three departments. Over time, the training has benefited all three departments by helping us to understand the capabilities of the personnel and equipment that respond to assist us.
Combined Agency Strike Team
Creating a special Combined Agency Strike Team (CAST) was the next step. Each department identified volunteer members who were willing to serve on the team; combined training was provided to enhance the capabilities and teamwork during a structure fire response. The CAST members are given pagers and radios equipped with pager notifications for all three departments. All team members within the response areas of the three departments receive structural alarms. Available CAST members respond to their assigned station, secure their personal protective equipment, and respond to the scene of the structural alarm in a fire department utility truck. This provides a much quicker response of personnel to the scene. Mutual aid is activated if more personnel or equipment is needed on arrival at the scene.
Inviting the other departments to play in our “sandbox” has created a unity among the departments that had never existed before. Combined monthly training has enhanced the capabilities of each department.
Training was the next issue. Previously, we would go to training, and all members would participate in whatever hands-on training was scheduled. I understand that it is critical for all volunteers to receive training; however, the assumption that all volunteers would arrive on scene at the same time was not realistic. The training scenarios began to change. We developed scenario-based training using minimal resources. Training this way allowed responsibilities on the fireground to become second nature.
Structure fire training was the perfect example of this change in philosophy. The scenario would focus on arriving on scene; and conducting an effective size-up, deploying minimal resources, and fulfilling required tasks with limited personnel led to a more effective response to working structure fires.
The camaraderie among departments and the firefighters has reached an all-time high. Comingling firefighters from multiple departments when assigning tasks provides the incident commander (IC) or operations chief with confidence that the task will be completed in a timely manner. One recent fire at which I was the IC reflected this concept: The ventilation, attack, extinguishment, and rapid intervention crews all contained members from the three departments. The only way to tell the members were from different departments was by the name on the back of the coat.
All departments adopted similar accountability programs, coordinating the equipment of the engines and hands-on scenario-based training that reflected responses in each department’s area. Teamwork and camaraderie have led to enhanced morale in each department. The departments have had more inquiries from prospective volunteers who want to be a part of a cohesive team. Recruitment and retention programs are high priorities for the departments. The ability to find and keep younger volunteers will ensure that the departments will remain an integral part of their communities for years to come.
Many say that personnel shortages can be overcome by creating full-time positions within the fire department; however, most volunteer departments do not have the financial resources to transition to a combination or fully paid department. More volunteer departments should use resident volunteer firefighter programs. The resident volunteer program allows you to staff your department at minimal costs to the community. Adopting a resident volunteer program can also help the department enhance its ISO rating, which may lower insurance premiums for the community.
Volunteer firefighters are important to their communities and provide professional services to assist the citizens within the community. Training, responding, and mitigating emergencies with other communities will enable volunteer departments to continue to provide reliable, professional, and quality fire protection for years to come.
TODD PARKER is a captain in Ward 6 Fire Protection District #1, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. He is the training supervisor at the Calcasieu Emergency Response Training Center.
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