THE RURAL FIRE SERVICE: ISSUES AND CHALLENGES

THE RURAL FIRE SERVICE: ISSUES AND CHALLENGES

  • The rural fire service is a national asset that too often has been taken for granted. If it is to be the foundation of the fire and emergency response system in rural America in the next century, it must be recognized, supported, coordinated, and enhanced.
  • Local, rural fire departments are important to this country’s rural fire and emergency response system and save the taxpayer a great deal of money. On a national basis, $38,196 per annum per firefighter, for each of the estimated 964,500 volunteer firefighters concurrently serving, represents a national conversion cost of $36.8 billion…to convert volunteer firefighters to paid firefighters.’
  • Historically, the rural fire departments have had an admirable tradition of service to their communities, but they are the first to admit they need assistance in organizing, training, and equipping to become more efficient in dealing with the rural fire problem. There is a critical need to integrate all rural fire and emergency response activities under a common incident management system.

The above are conclusions of the Rural Fire Protection in America (RFPIA) Steering Committee, whose members prepared the Fire Protection in Rural America: A Challenge for the Future report on the American rural fire service, published in January 1994. The project was sponsored by the National Association of State Foresters in Washington, D.C. Congressman Curt Weldon, honorary cochairman of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, endorsed the report, which was submitted to Congress.

RURAL FIRE PROTECTION A MAJOR CONCERN

According to the RFPIA study, rural fire protection affects some 40 percent of the U.S. population. The potential for high losses of property and life, which have been the norm for many rural areas, will increase as more people build homes in rural areas, cities annex wildland, and industry takes over what once was agricultural land, the report predicts.

Among the statistics considered by the RFPIA steering committee members during the preparation of the report are the following:

People in rural communities with populations of fewer than 2,500 are almost twice as likely to die in a fire as people living in communities with populations of 10,000 to 99,999.’

Rural homeowners, per capita, suffer more than twice the property loss from fire each year than city dwellers.’

In 1992, nearly one-fourth of all firefighter deaths at the actual site of a fire occurred at uncontrolled wildland fires—all who died were volunteer firefighters.

AREAS OF STUDY

Based on information submitted by fire departments surveyed for the study (see “Study Methodology” on page 52), the Steering Committee ascertained the following:

  • Rural fire protection in America is provided through a loose-knit, multijurisdictional partnership; each partner represents an essential building block in the system. Significant and unacceptable losses occur when these partners arc unable to share their resources and coordinate their response actions.
  • Prevention of rural fires is a shared responsibility of each homeowner, landowner, fire service unit, and governmental entity-
  • Rural fire losses constitute a direct negative impact on rural communities, but they also drive up the costs of protection and fire insurance for everyone.
  • As fire protection dollars continue to decrease while values protected continue to
  • increase, it is important to maximize the positive effects of the dollars available.
  • Fire protection is absolutely essential to the conservation of America’s natural resources and to rural economic stability.
  • All levels of government must cooperate to help provide rural lire protection by coordinating resource mobilization, training, and equipment.

MOST PRESSING PROBLEMS AND PRIORITIES

Almost four out of 10 (36.8 percent) of the rural fire departments responding (2,593) cited the need for equipment as the most pressing problem (other than funding). Other responses included securing firefighters (23.5 percent), training (17.3 percent), homes in unprotected rural areas (9.5 percent), local support (8.5 percent), building codes (1.4 percent), and other (3.2 percent).

The number of volunteer firelighters in America decreased about 13 percent during the period from 1983 (884.6(H)) to 1991 (771.8(H)).’ During the same period, the number of career firefighters increased by 13 percent. Volunteer firelighters live in the rural communities they protect. They have many demands on their time (work, school, family) and cannot always respond immediately to every fire incident. Large numbers of volunteers must be recruited and trained to ensure an effective response by qualified firefighters to a given emergency.

PRIORITIES FOR FEDERAL ASSISTANCE

Participating departments were asked to identify and prioritize areas they believed needed federal assistance. Their replies were as follows:

  • Water supply. More than 28 percent of the respondents rated “water supply enhancement” as the top priority. In these areas, water sometimes is not available, and existing hydrants are not always reliable. More efficient methods for delivering and using water are needed.
  • Training. Training was the next highest priority listed, followed by radio communication. protective clothing, personnel, and increased pumping capabilities, which received roughly equal ratings.

Personnel and training were cited as the areas most in need of aid by fire departments with populations between 5,000 and 10,000. In the larger communities, the need for trained personnel appeared to be greater than that for equipment. These departments have a higher percentage of their training costs paid by the municipality than do “rural” departments, many of which have insufficient funds to pay for training. Their volunteer firefighters, therefore, commit personal time to meet certification standards set by the state in which they serve; they often have to pay for the training required of them.

Typical “rural” fire departments indicated that while 80 percent of their firefighters had taken “structural” fire training, only 50 percent had “wildfire” training, only 20 percent of the firefighters had taken EMS training, and 15 percent had hazardous-materials training. Departments serving towns with populations of more than 5,000 generally had a slightly higher percentage of trained firefighters in each category.

Urban and rural fire departments have difficulty obtaining training that will help their firefighters meet required standards. Rural firefighters in most states must comply with standards predominately geared to fire suppression in urban areas—not wildland areas.

FIRE CALLS AND ALARMS

In 1991, departments protecting populations of 2,500 or fewer made the following median numbers of runs on each type of incident: five structure, six wildland, eight EMS, zero haz-mat, and six “other.” Onefourth of these departments reported responding to at least 10 structure fires, 12 wildland fires, 36 EMS runs, one haz-mat run, and 17 “other” during 1991. These figures indicate that rural fire departments make more EMS runs than any other kind of run.

SAFETY EQUIPMENT

  • SCBAs. Most of the responding fire departments do not have enough SCBAs to equip the usual number of firefighters reporting to an alarm. The median number of SCBAs reported was six, while the approximate number of active firefighters was 20. This low number of SCBAs often does not make it possible for enough firefighters to enter a building long enough to ensure an adequate measure of safety.
  • Protective clothing. Personal protective clothing is used most often by firefighters in structure and vehicle fires. Most of the responding departments reported that 76 percent to 100 percent of their firefighters had personal protective clothing. The percentages were about the same for departments serving towns with 5,000-plus populations. Nearly half of the departments reported they had no protective clothing for wildfires, and 80 percent of the departments reported that none of their firefighters have proper haz-mat response equipment and clothing.

FIRE DEPARTMENT FUNDING

The median total operating budget for “rural” fire departments was $18,000 per year, lower than 2.5 percent of the $763,000 worth of annual services contributed by a 20-membcr volunteer fire department, as calculated by Meade in the NIST study.6

Responding to the request to “indicate all appropriate sources for funding,” most departments said they are funded by a direct tax levied in the community, followed by county or township funds. Fund-raising activities and donations were the only other funding sources listed. This means that rural fire departments receive only a marginal public investment from municipal funds, state money, insurance industry funds, and federal money, the study points out.

Nearly one-fifth of the departments said they received other financial or operating assistance beyond their operating budgets from local or state government to pay for insurance, apparatus, buildings or structures, maintenance, or other costs. This assistance is not included in the departments’ operational budgets.

MUTUAL AID

Nearly all the fire departments reported mutual-aid agreements with other volunteer fire departments. Fewer than half of the respondents reported having mutual-aid agreements with state forestry or natural resource agencies, and only 10 percent said they had agreements with federal agencies. Thirty-four percent said they have agreements with paid or career fire departments, and three percent have agreements with industrial brigades.

COMMUNICATIONS

While nearly all departments having mutual-aid agreements with other volunteer or paid fire departments use radios to communicate with one another, about one in four departments having agreements with state or federal agencies cannot communicate with these agencies by radio. Not even half of the few departments that have mutual-aid agreements with industrial fire brigades could communicate via radio with those brigades.

STEERING COMMITTEE FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Following are the findings and recommendations of the RFPIA Steering Committee:

• Assessment: The rural fire service is a national asset that needs national support. Rural fire departments are the first line of defense in coping with rural fires and a broad spectrum of other rural emergencies. They are delivering these essential services but are increasingly unable to continue donating the time needed to serve, get required training, or generate the kinds of financial and material support needed to continue being safe and effective.

Recommendations:

—Develop local, state, and federal strategies to provide a fair and consistent means of public and private support and funding for the rural fire service.

—Give high national priority to developing nontraditional incentives to encourage citizens to join their local fire department and employers to permit and support their employees’ commitment.

—Congress should continue to authorize and give a high priority to the USDA Forest Service’s delivery of federal excess personal property to rural communities through state forestry organizations.

—Continue and strengthen other local, state, and federal programs that benefit fire protection in rural communities.

  • Assessment: Formal coordination and use of rural fire resources are essential to reducing fire losses and suppression costs in rural America. Only isolated examples of formal coordination between rural fire departments and local, state, and federal agencies and organizations with fire and emergency management responsibilities exist. No universal incident management system is in current use by all emergency response agencies.

Recommendations:

—In each state, the state forester, the state fire marshal, the emergency management coordinator, and each rural fire department should develop a formal, cooperative relationship to ensure effective training, planning, and coordination of all resources at all levels.

—All emergency response agencies should adopt the Incident Command System of the National Interagency Incident Management System (NIIMS), and each firefighter and emergency responder should receive ICS training as part of the certification process.

  • Assessment: Most rural communities and state fire service agencies do not have contingency financial support to cover costs before a fire or other emergency is declared a disaster. (Most property is lost, and most lives are threatened just prior to a disaster declaration.)

Recommendation:

—Each state should establish a fire contingency fund for use when emergencies are increasing in complexity, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency should simplify its guidelines for providing fire suppression assistance.

  • Assessment: Modern, reliable radio communications are essential to quick, effective, and coordinated action for all fire organizations and departments within a
  • jurisdictional boundary.

Recommendations:

—Emergency management organizations should give high priority to developing and installing modern radio communication networks and systems to ensure effective coordination at each incident.

—The Federal Communications Commission should allocate, protect, and safeguard a band of radio frequencies solely for fire and emergency response.

—The fire community should increase its cooperative effort to work toward better management of the radio frequency.

  • Assessment: The shortand long-term impacts of rural fires on natural resource values, rural investments, and the quality of life in rural America are not well understood.

Recommendations:

—Establish as a national goal to develop in each citizen a consciousness of the dangers of unwanted fires and a commitment to prevent them.

—Fire prevention should be a major priority of every fire and emergency response organization.

—Track and quantify the economic and social impacts of rural fires on rural communities and the costs of organizing rural fire protection services.

—Broaden the National Fire Incident Reporting System to include collecting accurate rural fire data and redesign the system so that it is easier to use and includes user feedback.

The changes recommended in the report require new ways of planning for and delivering rural fire protection. A copy of the report is available from Rural Fire Protection in America, USDA, Forest Service, attention Bill Terry, NA S&PF, Fire Protection, PO Box 6775, Radnor. PA 19087-8775.

Endnotes

  1. Meade, W.P. 1991. A first pass at computing the cost of fire safety in a modem society’. Rep. NIST-GCR91-592. Gaithersburg, MD: U.S.Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology.
  2. Karter. Jr., M.J. 1992. “NFPA reports on 1991 U.S. fire loss.” NFPA Journal’, 86(5):34-43.
  3. Karter, Jr. 1992. Fire Loss in the United States During 1991. Quincy. MA: National Fire Protection Association. Fire Analysis and Research Division.
  4. Washburn. A.E., P R. LeBlanc. R.F. Fahy. 1993. “NFPA reports on firefighter fatalities in 1992,” NFPA Journal: 87(4 ):44-53.68-70.
  5. Karter. Jr. 1993. “NFPA Surveys U.S. Fire Departments.” NFPA Journal: 87(4): 59-62.
  6. Meade.

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