Not Ready for Prime Time
A new NFPA study finds that local fire departments consider themselves unprepared to tackle the demands of wildfires
BY ANGELO VERZONI
NEWS COVERAGE OF WILDLAND firefighting often gravitates toward extreme events and highly trained experts: air tankers dropping clouds of red flame retardant over roaring mountain blazes, or hotshot crews wielding axes and chainsaws as they trudge up steep burning ridges.
In reality, only a small percentage of brush, grass, and forest fires warrant responses from federal or state agencies. In most instances, local fire departments respond to these fires—the same departments that respond to a host of other calls every day, from kitchen fires and car accidents to heroin overdoses and bomb threats. According to NFPA’s 2013 “Brush, Grass, and Forest Fires” report, local fire departments in the United States responded to an average of 334,200 wildfires per year from 2007 to 2011—more than 900 such fires every day.
Even so, a new NFPA report finds that local departments are generally not prepared for wildland firefighting. The report, “Wildland/Urban Interface: Fire Department Wildfire Preparedness and Readiness Capabilities,” includes interviews with 46 fire chiefs and senior line officers from wildfire-prone areas across the country and identifies deficiencies in firefighter safety, training, and equipment related to wildland firefighting. The report was completed in two phases—the first was published a little over a year ago (and covered in “Local Focus,” our story in the November/December 2015 NFPA Journal), and the latest was released in November.
The problem, in part, stems from a misconception that wildfires primarily affect hot, dry western states like California. In reality, they can happen almost anywhere and at any time, such as the wildfire that ripped through Eastern Tennessee late last year, killing 14 people, injuring hundreds more, and destroying thousands of homes. On average, about 70 percent of the nation’s wildfires occur outside of the Western U.S., according to Michele Steinberg, who heads NFPA’s Wildfire Division. Despite this, the need to better prepare local departments for wildland firefighting remains high. “The level of need is so great,” Steinberg said. “I just don’t think people are aware of that. This is dire.”
The report represents the first-ever comprehensive look at this topic, said Hylton Haynes, a senior research analyst at NFPA and one of the report’s authors. “What we need to do now is try to learn from the fire officials who were interviewed and hear what they’re saying,” he said. “Then we can take a more targeted approach to learning more about the problem.”
Percentages are based on answers to questions posed to fire officials interviewed for NFPA's "Wildland/Urban Interface: Fire Departmenet Wildfire Preparedness and Readiness Capabilities" report.
This approach could involve changes to standards related to wildland firefighting, since complaints about current standards were among the comments made by the fire officials interviewed for the report. Officials also spoke about the challenges related to a lack of training and equipment they’ve had to overcome when battling wildfires.
The following is a selection of quotes from both phases of the report, showing both what works and what doesn’t when it comes to wildland firefighting. The officials have not been identified to protect their privacy.
“What tends to happen is when you have all structural equipment then you don’t have the ability to go off road, you don’t carry all the tools you need for wildland. If you have all wildland engines like we have in State Forestry for the majority, you don’t have the tools you need for structure or for when so many fires are intermingled through these urban interfaced areas.”
—Battalion chief from the rural West
“What do we traditionally do [in wildland firefighting]? We put in a Type-1 municipal city engine that is great for fighting structure fires, but it’s cumbersome, it’s big, and it’s not very agile in a wildland fire.”
—Division chief from the urban West
“A lot of departments are starting to move away from Type 6s and going to a Type 3 [hybrid engine, which is designed to handle both structural and wildland fires], because it’s a more diverse vehicle. It carries a little more water, little bigger pump, little more equipment, typically has a bigger cab and chassis. So with that engine you can either go on a pure grass fire, forest fire, you can work off of two tracks, off [of gravel roads]. Or in a wildland/urban interface setting that vehicle is very, very capable to do structure protection as well because you can carry more hose and more water and a bigger pump.”
—Battalion chief from the urban West
“The people who thought 800[-megahertz radio communication systems] would work lived in Kansas where it was flat. ... 800 megahertz is not a solution. It doesn’t work. We don’t have the infrastructure to put the towers up to get over the bumps and the hills. That 800 megahertz is scary because we’ll have firefighters in areas that will not be able to communicate. ... The higher frequencies don’t work in heavily wooded, heavily hilled areas.”
—Fire official from rural Montana
“As with any mountainous region, it stinks and there’s no real good way around it ... The 800-megahertz system is as built out as it can be and it’s still an issue. The VHF system, we stay with it because low tech is the best tech in ways, and it works the best for us. But it’s still not the be-all, end-all solution. There’s got to be a different way around it.”
—Chief from the urban West
“In our county there are probably 400 firefighters. We’ve got three paid departments or combination departments in our county, but some of the volunteers don’t have wildland PPE. A lot of them will try to wear structural PPE out in the wildland, which creates some real issues.”
—Chief from the rural South
“We’re using all of the specifications that our state forestry authority uses for all of our wildland PPE so all of our volunteers and paid firefighters have a full second layer—Nomex, PPE, pants, shirts, helmets, shrouds, goggles, and gloves. And then including wildfire fire shelters.”
—Battalion chief from the rural West
“Training is sorely needed. I feel that we do not train our guys nearly to what they need to be trained to. We’re sitting in front of computers way too much instead of being out in the field doing hands-on [drills]. ... Sitting in front of a computer and clicking the answers is not the way to learn the job.”
—Senior line officer from rural Nevada
“If you’re operating within your jurisdiction, then you can follow your jurisdiction standards. ... Whenever we form these immediate response strike teams and go to somebody else’s jurisdiction ... you are going out there, and you’re tasking people to do things when you don’t understand what their qualifications are. … When you’re the battalion chief in charge of being that strike team leader, it makes me pause because I don’t know what these guys are doing and if I send them somewhere and they make a bad decision, put themselves or someone else in harm’s way, what’s my liability? What’s my organization’s liability?”
—Chief from rural Arizona
“To go on a local wildfire [call], if you’re a firefighter with my jurisdiction and you have no interest in doing wildland firefighting [as part of the statewide mutual aid system], you are not required to take any of that training. There is no minimum standard other than just being a basic state-certified firefighter.”
—Chief from Texas
“We send people off to training quite a bit. We have people with S-590, which is advanced fire behavior analyst. S-215 is a pretty popular class—that’s wildland fire in an urban interface. … Any [training] they want to go to, we’re pretty open to it.”
—Chief from rural Oregon
“You’ll see an engine company sitting on a house, protecting it. You’ll see a finger of fire going behind the backyard getting ready to go into another major canyon and that engine company is not engaging in perimeter control because the mindset is that they’re there to protect the house, not put the fires out. [But] if they would have just put out 300 or 400 feet of hose and taken care of that little piece of fire behind the house, they would have saved hundreds of homes that are downwind of them. That’s where philosophically we’re trying to say there’s a time and place for structure protection groups, but remember aggressive perimeter control. … Perimeter control will eliminate the need for any structure defense.”
—Senior line officer from urban California
Structure protection is often a primary function of local departments in wildfire events, as it is for these firefighters in California. Photograph: © Fred Greaves/Reuters/Getty Images
“We also do special training on weekends, and when there are various training classes in the area, if firefighters are interested in going to those, we will sponsor that. Most of our officers are trained to a much higher level. I’m an ICT3, for instance, and we have firefighters, crew boss levels, squad boss levels, and strike team levels, but those are specific firefighter [positions]. We don’t teach that in our basic training—our basic training is just for the line firefighter and then we do extended training.”
—Chief from rural Colorado
CODES AND STANDARDS
“If you look at the requirements for a Type 3 engine, it’s not required to carry ladders or breathing apparatus ... and it’s not required to have a pump size that I think is sufficient for what they’re going to do. If that package is going to take care of structure protection, you need to be able to put people on the roof. And if they get caught and they have to fight some structure fire you want them to have that breathing apparatus.”
—Chief from rural Oregon
“There is a standard for respiratory protection for wildland firefighting, but it doesn’t say very much. And there are no approved devices for wildland firefighting respiratory protection ... Bandanas don’t work. We make P95 respirators with heat protection available to our personnel, but they may not use them ... That's a considerable concern that we hope NFPA would address quickly.”
—Chief from urban Florida