Support of SAFER Act June 4 2003

NFPA President testifies in support of SAFER Act
Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives

June 4, 2003 -- Chairman Boehlert, Ranking Member Hall and members of the Committee, I am honored to appear before this Committee today. My name is James M. Shannon, and I am President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Fire Protection Association. NFPA is a non-profit organization, founded more than 100 years ago, with a mission to save lives through fire and life safety education and training, and fire research and analysis. NFPA also develops consensus codes and standards that are adopted by state and local jurisdictions throughout the United States and widely used by the federal government.

I am here to testify in support of your legislation, H.R.1118, the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Firefighters Act of 2003 or SAFER. This proposed grant program will provide needed financial assistance to career, volunteer and combination fire departments to hire firefighters to help meet industry standards and community needs to provide adequate protection from fire and other hazards including acts of terrorism. While legislation for this purpose would be of interest to NFPA at anytime, we are especially pleased to see it and support it now, because it responds to gaps in personnel that we have recently documented. SAFER would go a long way to address those gaps.

I will touch on the changing demographics of fire departments and what those changes mean for the likely personnel shortfall in the future. And I will provide background on relevant NFPA standards and other guidelines that define necessary fire department staffing for safe and effective response.

Much of my testimony is based on troubling findings from the recently published "Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service" (PDF, 1 MB) a study authorized by Congress and conducted by NFPA in cooperation with FEMA. Those findings are bolstered by other studies conducted by NFPA over the past 15 years.

Our research found that the areas of greatest concern are a shortage of fire stations to provide emergency response times that meet the guidelines of the Insurance Services Office (ISO) and NFPA 1710 and insufficient staffing on responding fire apparatus for safe and effective fire-fighting inside a building, in accordance with NFPA Standards 1710 and 1720.

Simply stated, at least 65% of our nation's cities and towns don't have enough fire stations to achieve the widely recognized ISO response-time guidelines. Those guidelines recommend that first-call companies in "built upon" areas of the city  be located to ensure travel distances within 1½ miles. That guidance is consistent with the requirements of NFPA 1710 that firefighters respond within four minutes, 90% of the time. However, arriving on scene in time isn't enough if you arrive without the necessary resources to make a difference.

NFPA Standards 1710 and 1720 define safe and effective response to structure fires in the 21st century. Both standards are developed through the voluntary consensus process, a process that Congress mandated for standards used by federal agencies, with the enactment of the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995. All NFPA standards developed through this process are accredited by the American National Standards Institute.

The needs assessment survey found fire departments protecting communities of at least 1 million citizens had at least four career firefighters assigned to engines. But the numbers break down in smaller communities: Only 60% of departments protecting communities of 250,000 to 1 million had four career firefighters assigned to engines. In departments serving populations of 100,000 to 250,000 only 44% could make that claim. And in communities between 10,000 and 100,000, just 20 to 26% of departments offered that necessary coverage. This is our best information on the level of adoption and implementation of NFPA 1710, as of late 2001.  

With regard to NFPA 1720, most smaller communities protected by an all volunteer or mostly volunteer fire department responded with four or more firefighters to a mid-day house fire, but for many, the total response was only adequate for two functional crews on the scene. What remains unclear and unmeasured is how long it took to assemble those firefighters.

When fewer than four firefighters are on scene, first responders face a cruel choice between initiating an interior attack without proper manpower to secure their own safety during high risk operations, OR delay the interior fire attack until additional forces arrive.Obviously, the latter increases the danger to occupants and overall damage to the property. Both NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Service Occupational Safety and Health, and Federal OSHA regulations require a minimum of two firefighters to back up an initial team of at least two firefighters working in a hazardous environment. This is often referred to as the "two-in-and-two-out rule".

Closing these gaps requires more firefighters.There are no short cuts. Just to staff the number of fire stations required to meet response-time guidelines, we estimate 25,000 to 35,000 more career firefighters are needed. And to address the staffing of existing departments so that firefighters safely and effectively mount an interior attack on a fire, another 50,000 career officers are needed.  

Investigations by NFPA and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have shown that a lack of adequate staffing has contributed to several firefighter fatalities in recent years. Increasing firefighter staffing to meet NFPA standards will help to protect the lives of our firefighters and our citizens.

The Needs Assessment Survey also pointed to shortfalls in training, certification, equipment, and apparatus. While the existing FIRE Act has started to address these needs, the funding level has been only a fraction of the full cost.

Add to this backdrop, the new challenges of global terrorism and the long list of training and equipment needs for the modern fire service grows even longer. A recent NFPA analysis estimates that training and equipment needs for terrorism preparedness would run to tens-of-billions of dollars in initial costs and billions more each subsequent year to maintain proficiency. Those estimates presume there will be a sufficient number of first responders to perform assigned jobs, which is what the SAFER bill rightly addresses.

Firefighter demographics have changed substantially in the last 15 years. There are more career firefighters but fewer volunteers, and the average age of firefighters is rising rapidly.

Between 1986 and 2001, the total number of active firefighters increased by 3%. While career firefighter numbers increased by 23%, the number of volunteer firefighters decreased by 3%. Much of the shift is due to the addition of career firefighters – or more career firefighters – to departments that were once all-or mostly-volunteer. On top of that shift, the average size of career departments has grown slightly, while the average size of volunteer departments has remained unchanged.

 In 1986, 30% of U.S.firefighters were under 30 years of age and 36% were at least 40 years old. In 2001, 25% of U.S. firefighters were under 30 years of age and 44% were at least 40 years old.

The shift in the age make up of our departments, suggests a severe recruitment problem that has been temporarily offset by delayed retirements and/or better retention. 

Collectively, these findings suggest several courses of action: 

Career fire departments need more firefighters, even as they've experienced some success in adding firefighters to meet new assignments, standards, and guidelines over the past 15 years. There is nothing to suggest recruiting qualified firefighters would be an obstacle if departments were properly authorized and funded to do so.

Volunteer fire departments also need more firefighters. While many communities have dealt with the recruitment decline by retaining older firefighters, they have, as a result, increased the percentage of firefighters who are at the highest risk of on-duty fatal injury. The rate of on-duty firefighter fatalities per 100,000 firefighters rises sharply after age 40, due primarily to the increased risk of heart attack.

As Congress looks to address the staffing problem through your legislation, something must also be done to help our volunteer fire departments with recruitment and retention.  Volunteer fire departments struggle to keep their members and to recruit new members to replace retiring firefighters.

Chairman Boehlert, your legislation is designed to help both volunteer and career fire departments. The legislation would provide greater assistance if the definition of a firefighter would include those involved in fire prevention, public education, and code enforcement. Fire departments could then use these funds to hire personnel to do training activities, fire prevention, public education, or fire fighting. This would dramatically improve some departments' response capabilities but, equally important, could prevent some tragedies from occurring in the first place. 

Mr. Chairman, when the Needs Assessment Survey was released, I was asked what I thought it all meant, and I described it as a Call to Action. The SAFER Bill is an outstanding piece of legislation that defines, clearly and practically, what actions we are called to take and must take.

We cannot continue to ask our fire departments to protect our communities without adequate resources. We would not expect our armed services to defend our nation without adequate staffing and we should expect no less from our first responders here at home. But as the country braces for the unknown at home, our nation's fire departments, which are nearly always the first to respond in any crisis, are woefully understaffed to fully protect our citizenry or themselves. The need is urgent and long overdue.

We all recognize the increased demands that have been placed on our nation's firefighters since September 11th. We can no longer ask our fire departments to survive entirely on local tax revenue, or in some cases fundraisers such as potluck dinners and auctions. The federal government must provide adequate resources and support to our firefighters to meet the many challenges – whether natural, unintentional or deliberate – as they protect the public and secure our homeland.

Your legislation would begin to address these urgent needs, and NFPA not only enthusiastically endorses SAFER, we urge its passage.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I will be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the Committee may have.