Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on May 1, 2017.

Stepping Up

Volunteer fire departments and the challenge of wildfire

In March, a newspaper in Kansas reported on the challenges that the state’s fire service faced as grass fires swept across the region—a challenge that was largely confronted by volunteers. As is the case in many rural states, about 90 percent of Kansas’s fire departments are staffed solely by volunteers.

“It’s always a struggle, all of it, but if volunteers don’t step up and take care of things, who will?” Darren Grow, a volunteer fire chief in Butler County, Kansas, told The Wichita Eagle. “It’s up to us.”

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Like Butler County, many fire departments in the United States have been asked to take on larger roles in responding to wildfires. It is yet another responsibility in a long line of threats that communities rely on their fire departments to confront, further squeezing their already limited time and resources. Despite the challenges, these departments have met the call, extinguishing 98 percent of unwanted wildfires at initial attack.

But they need help. According to NFPA’s recently published “Fourth Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service,” a comprehensive survey of the nation’s fire departments, “the greatest need for training in smaller fire departments protecting populations less than 2,500 is traffic control and wildland firefighting.”

Fighting wildfire safely and effectively requires proper training, specialized equipment, proper personal protective equipment, and an understanding of wildfire science in the wildland/urban interface (WUI). All of that takes time and resources, both in short supply in today’s firehouses. When Grow said “it’s up to us,” he was talking about himself and his fellow volunteer firefighters. In truth, though, tackling this problem should be up to all of us. Not everyone needs to put on gear and go fight a wildfire, but the public does need to ensure that its local fire department has the ability, time, and resources to succeed as new and emerging challenges are placed before it.

The public has stepped up and done this before. In the 1970s, emergency medical services increasingly became an integral part of what the public expected fire departments to deliver. The public’s demand for the fire service to provide medical services drove local departments to change and adapt to meet this new challenge. To aid the effort, local communities paid for the required training and resources. A similar awareness and dynamic needs to take place if the public continues to expect local departments to take on more of the wildland firefighting burden.

States must acknowledge that adequate local fire department response is not a luxury reserved for towns with high tax bases, but a necessity that should be funded for everyone. If states are going to rely on volunteers for response in WUI areas, they also must increase resources to those departments. State laws must also be passed to ensure that volunteer personnel are not punished by their employers or docked pay if they respond to fire calls. At the national level, support for incident management teams and federal wildfire response must also be strengthened. At a hyper-local level, residents need to play their part by making sure their properties are Firewise compliant and safe for responders.

Several current and upcoming resources help frame the issue. The recent needs assessment, as well as the report “Wildland/Urban Interface: Fire Department Wildfire Preparedness Readiness Capabilities Final Report”, both explore the needs of fire departments and their response capabilities to WUI fires. Additionally, the 2017 NFPA Conference & Expo in Boston includes a robust wildfire track illuminating these and other current issues, all of which will be available as audio recordings online following the conference.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.