Underfunded, Understaffed, and Undertrained
NFPA study shows greater need for homeland security resources for U.S. fire service
by Ann Freestone
"We have first-class fire services in this country that are underfunded, understaffed, and undertrained to meet emergencies (including homeland security) we're asking them to respond to," says Jim Shannon, NFPA president and chief executive officer.
Shannon's remark is based on conclusions drawn in NFPA's groundbreaking report, "A Needs Assessment Study of the U.S. Fire Service," (PDF*, 1 MB) the first study ever undertaken to thoroughly document the U.S. fire service's capabilities and resources. Released last December, the 135-page study accurately depicts U.S. fire departments' needs, officials believe, and it's not a comforting picture.
Not only do fire departments of all sizes have significant unmet needs relating to their traditional firefighting responsibilities, but their need for resources to help them shoulder their new homeland security responsibilities are even greater, says report author John Hall, assistant vice president of NFPA's Fire Analysis and Research Department.
According to Dr. Hall, homeland security, even before September 11, was among concerns that led to the funding of the study.
"Along the way, Congress said, ‘To keep going, we'd like hard evidence on needs and how great the needs are,'" says Dr. Hall. In response, U.S. Public Law 106-398 authorized the needs assessment study.
"It's the most significant document developed on fire services and, hopefully, one that will bring to the Federal government's attention the plight of fire services, as well as continuing the current grant program and providing funding for our new mission (responding to terrorism attacks). We can't approach our new mission as we've approached the basic services because of the new challenges, such as biological agents and radiological agents," says Alameda, California, Fire Chief Bill McCammon,
No written plan
Most U.S. fire departments don't have the resources locally to handle a homeland security issue, such as technical rescue or emergency medical services for large numbers of people, and most have no written plan to bring such resources in from elsewhere, Dr. Hall says.
Because of the increasing importance of fire departments as first responders, the survey asked fire departments what type of unusually severe and challenging incidents they could handle with local trained personnel. Eleven percent of departments said they could handle a technical rescue with EMS at a structural collapse of a building with 50 occupants. Thirteen percent can handle a hazmat and EMS incident involving chemical or biological agents and 10 injuries, 26 percent can handle a wildland/urban interface fire affecting 500 acres (202 hectares), and 12 percent can deal with the effects of a developing major flood. Similar percentages also said their local equipment was sufficient to handle these emergencies.
Insufficient local resources and the lack of written plans are compounded by other critical needs. Nearly half of all U.S. fire departments have no map coordinate system, and most of the rest have only a local system. It will probably be impossible under these conditions for the multiple jurisdictions – that must participate to provide sufficient specialized personnel and equipment to address these incidents – to coordinate the movement, deployment, and use of their resources.
What's more, even though most communities reported they can communicate with their federal, state, and local partners, it was also true that most said they couldn't communicate with all their partners. Any gap in communication could be devastating to the safe and effective execution of a complex response.
As if all these gaps in readiness weren't troubling enough, the expert in chemical and biological agent incidents who advised the study pointed out that the 10-injury incident severity used for reference isn't unusually severe by the standard of incident severity that experts plan for. Casualty counts of 100 to 1,000 aren't unusual. And the assumption of 50 occupants in a collapsed building wouldn't be considered high, even in a one-story office building.
"Crying out for the resources"
"The small number of fire departments across the board that are fully prepared to deal with these events is chilling," says Shannon. "It's not the fault of the fire departments. They're crying out for the resources."
"The risks firefighters are expected to respond to have outgrown city government's ability to equip firefighters to do what we're asking them to do. It strongly justifies the need for federal funding to assist local government," says Kelvin Cochran, Fire Chief, Shreveport, Louisiana, fire department.
"The reality we face with acts of terrorism, especially large-scale ones such as weapons of mass destruction, is that there's no way we can respond without losing firefighters."
There are slightly more than one million active firefighters in the United States, three-quarters of whom are volunteers. Communities with fewer than 2,500 people, average only one career firefighter per fire department, and 21 percent of these departments can generally deliver only four or fewer volunteer firefighters to a mid-day house fire. These departments often fail to deliver the four needed to safely initiate an interior attack. In communities with populations greater than 50,000, an estimated 73,000 firefighters serve in departments with fewer than four career firefighters assigned to first-due engine companies.
According to the report, three-fifths to three-quarters of U.S. fire departments don't have enough fire stations to meet the response distance guidelines of the Insurance Services Office. Roughly 32 percent of fire stations are estimated to be at least 40 years old, and roughly 57 percent have no backup power. Some 78 percent aren't equipped with exhaust emission control. Half of the engines in service are at least 15 years old. And at least 10 percent of departments serving communities with populations under 10,000 don't have ladder trucks or aerial apparatus, but do have at least one building in town four stories high or higher.
"The points the report makes about inadequate number of stations in each community will strengthen my relocation plans and the plan to add two new fire stations. It will prove to city leaders that our needs are not only a local need, but a need that's nationwide," says Chief Cochran.
Even more distressing is the lack of essential equipment. An estimated one-third of U.S. firefighters per shift have no self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), nearly half have no personal alert system (PASS) devices, and an estimated 57,000 firefighters, mostly in departments protecting communities with populations under 2,500, have no personal protective clothing. Fifty-one percent of emergency responders on a shift in such small communities don't even have radios.
Two-thirds of communities have enhanced 911. Another communication tool—the Internet—is accessible to 58 percent of departments, though the numbers are much lower for departments protecting fewer than 5,000.
Small communities do have one advantage over larger ones in one respect, however. Four-fifths of departments in communities with fewer than 5,000 people can communicate with their federal, state, and local partners. In communities with populations greater than 1,000,000, the number is three-fifths. In communities with populations between 100,000 to 499,999, two-thirds of departments can communicate with their partner agencies. And in communities with populations between 5,000 to 99,999, three-quarters of departments can.
As for other new technologies, one-fourth of fire departments own thermal imaging cameras, while one in 28 has mobile data terminals. Only one department in 50 has advanced personnel location equipment. And only one department in 23 has equipment that allows them to collect chemical or biological samples for remote analysis, although most departments protecting communities with populations greater than 250,000 have such equipment.
Most of the departments that don't already own these new technologies don't plan to acquire them.
Lack of training and certification is also prevalent. Overall, 21 percent of structural firefighters, 27 percent of EMS personnel, 40 percent of hazardous material response personnel, 41 percent of wildland firefighting personnel, and 53 percent of technical rescue service personnel lack formal training in the activities they're charged with performing. And only one-fifth of fire departments have a fitness and health program.
"I think the most useful application for this document would be at the federal level to indicate to decision makers how exposed and how unprepared different parts of the country are for terrorist attacks. We'll put it this way--in most areas there's a general area of lack of training and equipment, especially when it comes to weapons of mass destruction," says San Francisco, California, Fire Chief Mario Trevino.
The prevention and training needs of volunteer departments are particularly crucial. For example, the study reveals that an estimated 231,000 firefighters, 151.000 most of them in rural communities with populations under 2,500, are involved in structural firefighting but have never had any formal training in fighting a structural fire. And 153,000 lack certification in those duties, 111,000 of them in rural communities.
"The rural communities, which means the volunteer fire departments, consistently have more needs," says Dr. Hall.
Most of the revenue for all- or mostly volunteer fire departments comes from special fire district taxes or some other type of tax. Other government payments contribute an average of 13 percent of the revenues of communities with fewer than 5,000 people and an average of 9 percent for those with of 25,000 to 49,999 residents. In communities with populations under 2,500, fundraising accounts for 19 percent of revenues.
Among the most valuable services the U.S. fire service delivers are those that prevent fires and other emergencies. However, an estimated 29 percent of the U.S. population is protected by departments that do not provide plans review, and 45 percent is protected by departments that don't provide permit approvals. Departments protecting 49 percent of the population don't routinely test active fire suppression systems, such as sprinkler systems, while departments protection 42 percent have no program to distribute free home smoke alarms to needy households. Another 48 percent of the U.S. population is protected by departments with no juvenile firesetter program, and 27 percent by departments with no school fire safety education program based on a national model curriculum.
Of particular concern is the 7 percent of the population, living mostly in rural communities, protected by roughly 7,200 fire departments that reported conducting no fire-code inspections.
Using the data from the report, USFA will work with fire service organizations to help federal, state, and local authorities identify and provide the resources the fire service needs to address these shortfalls. Says R. David Paulison, administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), which oversaw the report, "this study is critical to…our decisions to address the nation's fire problem," providing the "understanding necessary to implement efficient and effective programs in support of the nation's fire departments."
Shannon says the report gives Paulison "important ammunition as he goes to Capitol Hill and deals with the administration to ensure resources are committed to the fire service."
According to Shannon, "the nation has just got to make it a priority."
In a sense, the study is a byproduct of the FIRE Act for FY 2001, which created the Assistance to Fire Fighters Grant Program.
With NFPA's history of research and data collection from the U.S. fire service, Congress wrote into the bill that NFPA would conduct the capabilities study under USFA supervision. To write the questions used in the survey, NFPA worked with a technical advisory group that included representatives from all national fire service organizations and experts in other specialty areas such as counter-terrorism. The group scrutinized all possible questions and provided input on the way they should be asked. Not only did the group want to get the most precise and accurate results possible, but it also wanted to respond to "the enormous desire on the part of every fire department in the country to tell its own story," says Dr. Hall.
"With their considerable help, we boiled it all down to a four-page questionnaire," says Dr. Hall. NFPA mailed the questionnaire to 26,354 fire departments, and got back 12,240, which translates into a 46 percent response rate.
A copy to every member of Congress
The USFA has already delivered a copy of the report to every member of Congress, and Dr. Hall expects that some members will want to hear about the study's key findings and implications directly from the study's participants.
"The basic statement of need is no longer a matter of dispute," says Dr. Hall. "Fire service organizations can go back to Congress and say, ‘You asked for a better definition of the need. Here it is. Here's what we think is required to respond to that need, and we're calling on you to step up and do that.'"
According to Russ Sanders, NFPA regional manager and executive secretary for the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Section, fire chiefs can use this information to help identify their departments' shortcomings, then formally adopt standards to close the gaps.
"The standards provide a blueprint to bring them up to an acceptable level in training and equipment," he says.
Although the report will not directly influence the NFPA's standards and codes, it will indirectly shape them, says Shannon, by providing background information the NFPA technical committees will find helpful in setting their priorities.
"The breadth and depth of the study is unprecedented to the best of my knowledge in the fire service. I'm expecting people will pore over it for some time to come in identifying priorities for getting the fire service to the level where it can be as safe and as effective as everyone wants it to be," says Dr. Hall. "This puts a detailed face on the need."
To make sure the problems pointed out in the report are addressed, NFPA will continue to publicize the report's findings.
"The key is to sound the alarm while we still have time before more attacks," says Shannon. "Even if there are no attacks, we need to deal with the pressing problem of providing better resources. We hope this report will push that along."
"We're very proud we could play this role, gathering data that will affect public policy decisions," says Shannon.
Ann Freestone is a freelance writer based in Omaha, Nebraska, who specializes in safety, health, business and high-tech issues.
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Underfunded, Understaffed, and Undertrained: NFPA study shows greater need for homeland security resources for U.S. fire service. FREE ACCESS