NFPA Network August 2021


We Can Do Better in Capturing Today's Fire Department Needs 


Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, we all witnessed the remarkable selflessness and bravery of thousands of first responders who put their lives on the line to protect and save others. In the aftermath of that unspeakable tragedy, emergency workers’ heroic efforts highlighted the breadth and enormity of crises and catastrophes firefighters are called upon to face, and the critical importance of ensuring that U.S. fire departments have the resources needed to adequately protect them.

This heightened awareness contributed to the launch of the first U.S. Needs Assessment survey in December 2001, which helped identify where U.S. fire departments were experiencing gaps in equipment, staffing, and training, among other resources. With nearly half of all U.S. fire departments responding, the results of the survey were published in a report that helped federal organizations, as well as programs created in the wake of September 11 – such as the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) - determine how to best allocate funding to fire departments. It has become a crucial document for policy-makers on every level.

Since then, a Needs Assessment survey has been conducted every five years with the continued goal of highlighting the current challenges of U.S. fire departments, and ultimately delivering a published resource that helps them get their needs better met.

Findings from the latest survey, which will be released soon, show that while some fire department needs have declined, some unmet needs have remained constant, and many areas showed an increase. This includes aging facilities and apparatus that needs to be replaced, a lack of behavioral health and safety programs, and challenges in conducting effective community risk assessments, to name just a few areas of concern.

Furthermore, the report underscored that the roles and responsibilities of fire departments continue to expand with no sign of stopping. In many cases, however, fire department personnel have not been formally trained or certified in handing emerging issues, such as active shooter incidents and wildland urban interface (WUI) fires.

This information and feedback is critically important for NFPA, along with other fire service organizations and decision-makers collectively working to better understand where issues exist among fire departments serving all sizes, populations, and demographics, and to make decisions based on those realities. Unfortunately, participation in the survey has continued to fall, with a little over one-tenth of U.S. fire departments responding to the most recent survey. On its current trajectory, the response rate will make it more challenging to provide an accurate reflection of fire service needs moving forward.

We fully recognize that completing the survey is difficult at best for the vast majority of fire departments – many of which are already stretched to the max as they work to meet the ongoing needs of their communities, not to mention the unprecedented challenges presented by the pandemic over the past year and a half.

With that understanding, NFPA is actively working to improve our data collection methods so that we can more efficiently align our research with the fire service’s current needs and goals. As U.S. fire departments evolve, so must we in how we help and support them.

Our charge is to collaboratively promote the current Needs Assessment while continually working to improve participation and the process for future versions. Despite some of the challenges we face in collecting the data needed to sustain the Needs Assessment survey moving forward, I’m confident that with the right adjustments and fine-tuning, this initiative can continue to play a uniquely valuable role in shining a light on all that fire departments do and need.


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