The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) develops technologies and knowledge products for all first responders. S&T draws most of its information about capability gaps and requirements from urban and suburban agencies, however. This makes sense, since urban and suburban first responders serve the most densely populated regions. In recent years, however, as the incidence of floods, wildfires, and violent storms in rural areas has increased, volunteer firefighters have played a larger and more prominent role, and they are doing so without many of the resources of larger agencies.
Therefore, S&T is looking for answers to two questions: Do rural volunteer fire departments have unique needs? If so, what can S&T do to address them?
A Portrait of the Rural Volunteer Fire Service
The National Fire Protection Association U.S. Fire Department Profile – 2014, issued in January 2016, points to a little appreciated fact: the vast majority of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers serving small communities. The profile estimates that in 2014 there were approximately 1,134,400 firefighters in the U.S. Of these, 788,250 (69 percent) were active volunteer firefighters. Although 70 percent of career firefighters protect communities of 25,000 or more people, 95 percent of volunteer firefighters serve communities of fewer than 25,000 people, and more than half of those serve communities of fewer than 2,500.
Of the estimated 29,980 fire departments in the U.S. in 2014, 19,915 (66.4 percent) were all-volunteer. Mostly volunteer and all-volunteer fire departments protect 35.4 percent of the U.S. population, about 115 million people.
These statistics underscore findings from the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), which show that thousands of communities rely on volunteers as a first line of response to everything from fires, emergency medical incidents, and natural disasters to hazardous materials spills and terrorist events. NVFC estimates that time donated by volunteer firefighters saves localities an estimated $139.8 billion per year.
What Rural Volunteer Fire Departments Face
Although purchasing and maintaining equipment are huge challenges for small fire departments, many face a more severe dilemma. The NVFC’s Volunteer Fire Service Fact Sheet states that while the number of calls to fire departments has increased by 166 percent since the mid-1980s, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has declined by 12 percent, and the volunteer firefighter corps is aging. In fact, recruitment and retention of young firefighters are key issues for NVFC and the U.S. Fire Administration. Their 246-page joint report, Retention and Recruitment for the Volunteer Emergency Services: Challenges and Solutions, admits that “the emergency services are the most demanding of volunteer activities today. The physical and time demands associated with training; responding to incidents; maintaining facilities, apparatus, and equipment; fundraising; and administering a nonprofit corporation are grueling if not managed properly.” The report cites several factors behind the decline in the number of younger volunteer responders, among them:
- Economic realities: Economic conditions make it more necessary than ever for families to have more than one income. This is especially true in rural communities that have lost businesses and jobs. Many who would volunteer must instead work long hours or multiple jobs. Employers, also squeezed financially, are less tolerant of employees taking time off to volunteer.
- Training requirements: The days of on-the-job firefighting training are long gone. Volunteers must meet stringent qualification standards and federal requirements. At the same time, the public expects a broad range of response services (emergency medical, hazmat, technical rescue, etc.) from their fire departments, each of which requires extensive additional training.
- Increasing call volume: False alarms (due in part to the propagation of automatic alarm systems) and the public’s increased reliance on (and sometimes abuse of) response services, especially emergency medical services, mean that volunteer responders are busier than ever, and often overwhelmed.
- Sociological changes: Even in many rural communities, community coherence and pride are waning, and volunteerism is less valued. Younger people are seeking education and employment away from home and are less focused on community involvement.
What Can S&T Do?
At first glance, the challenges many volunteer fire departments face seem outside S&T’s mission. Although S&T has developed technologies tailored to responders in small communities, such as the Firefighter Accountability and Proximity System, it can do little about economic or sociological factors. With its focus on technology and knowledge products, however, new efforts in the areas of innovation and training might help small fire departments mitigate the impact of those factors. For example:
- Could faster more efficient screening of calls for fire department assistance weed out false alarms and medical non-emergencies?
- Might virtual training streamline training efforts?
- Can improved designs or procedures simplify or eliminate certain equipment maintenance tasks?
- Could enhanced outreach and education efforts better educate volunteer fire departments about available technologies, knowledge products and resources such as grant programs?
- Might S&T outreach efforts help raise the profile of and increase interest in volunteering?
These ideas are only a starting point. Suggestions and information from rural volunteer firefighters and their departments are essential to move the discussion forward.
A Call to Action
S&T invites volunteer firefighters and their agencies to look at their capability gaps and requirements today, think about their needs and requirements in the future, and share their ideas for technologies that might meet those requirements. S&T already has a consulting group of 140 first responders — the First Responder Resource Group — and will be tapping it for guidance. But most FRRG members serve in urban and suburban agencies, and we most want to hear from rural volunteer firefighters who are dealing daily with the challenges of protecting their communities.
If you have suggestions for how S&T can help your volunteer fire department, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are eager to hear from you.
 Reported fire department calls in U.S. in 1986: 11,890,000; in 2013: 31,644,500. NVFC Volunteer Fire Service