The Needs of the Fire Service
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2011
In June, NFPA released the third needs assessment of the U.S. fire service, following up on previous needs assessments we completed and released in 2001 and 2005. After the terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda in 2001, there was, at all levels of government, a new focus on improving the capabilities of America’s emergency responders. By the time of the attacks, NFPA had already undertaken the first needs assessment with funding from the U.S. Fire Administration. So the conclusions of that study were timely for policy makers looking for benchmarks for fire departments in the immediate wake of 9/11. Since then, the federal government has instituted the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program to help departments meet some of their most pressing needs.
In recent years, significant progress has been made in several key areas. Much of the federal money has been used to help departments purchase personal protective and firefighting equipment. And there’s been an increased use of technology, including wider use of thermal imaging and greater Internet access by fire departments.
In other key areas, however, progress has been very slow. For example, the 2001 needs assessment found that 55 percent of fire departments had not trained all their personnel in structural firefighting. That number had been reduced to 53 percent by 2005, and in the latest assessment was still 46 percent. Seventy percent of fire departments still do not have basic firefighter fitness and health programs. That number is better than it was 10 years ago but is still disappointing when we consider that most on-duty firefighter deaths are due to heart attacks. Almost half of all engines and pumpers are at least 15 years old, and gaps still exist in training for personnel responsible for emergency medical service, hazardous material response, and technical rescue. Staffing levels are falling far below those called for in NFPA standards, particularly in smaller communities, where 71 percent of departments protecting communities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 people operate below the minimum staffing levels called for by NFPA standards.
We have heard a lot of talk over the last decade about the need to shore up emergency response capabilities. Some might suggest that the need to persist in that effort is less urgent because the terrorist threat appears to have subsided, but it is not only because of terrorist attacks that we need better trained, staffed, and equipped fire departments. We need them to respond to all sorts of events that threaten public safety. When tornadoes ripped through the Midwest this spring, fire departments throughout the region were stretched to the limits in their rescue efforts. Natural disasters can occur anywhere, and when they do, fire departments rise to the occasion. We owe it to them to ensure that they can do their jobs safely with all the tools they need.
This is a time for everyone to step up efforts to provide federal assistance to fire departments, but the national deficit poses the most serious threat yet to continuing the progress we have made. At NFPA, we will continue to do all we can, along with our allies from the fire service, to make sure Congress and the executive branch understand how important it is to keep federal assistance flowing to the nation’s fire departments. The third Fire Service Needs Assessment Survey makes clear that we still have a big job ahead of us.