In September the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) published the article, Can we do more for America’s Rural Volunteer Firefighters? The article asked if rural volunteer fire departments have unique needs, and if so, what S&T’s First Responders Group (FRG) might do to address them. The volunteer firefighter community responded passionately with detailed emails and posts. This article reports what the community told us.
As the research and development component of DHS, S&T is charged with identifying and developing innovative solutions to enhance first responder safety and effectiveness. Success in this mission relies on our listening to all first responders about their technology requirements.
“The feedback we received from rural fire departments across the country is extremely valuable for helping us develop our R&D goals,” said Gregory Price, director of S&T’s First Responder Technologies Division. “A lot of that feedback was about funding, but there were also solid suggestions for needed technologies. In fact, we are already considering developing a smartphone app suggested by a rural fire chief.”
Comments we received also confirm that several technologies we are already developing, for example an affordable means for tracking firefighters indoors, are just as important to rural volunteer firefighters as to larger municipal fire departments.
Recognizing the importance of collaboration, FRG also has contacted organizations such as the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) for their help in addressing rural volunteer fire department issues.
The strongest thread running through the responses was lack of funding. While most rural volunteer fire departments struggle to afford new vehicles and equipment or even repair and maintain old equipment, several are having trouble just keeping the firehouse lights on and their trucks fueled. More than one termed their situation “desperate” and recommended rural utility companies be approached to provide qualifying small community firehouses with free or discounted electricity, water, cable and telephone services. In many cases, the communities these departments serve lack a sufficient tax base to support even a modest fire service. Some states provide no financial assistance to departments in unincorporated areas and are uninclined to levy taxes to support them. FRG is exploring way to make the fire equipment industry, researchers and government agencies more aware of this situation.
Part of the funding solution involves grants, most notably the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program. Among the volunteer fire departments that responded, there is a widespread perception that the bulk of the millions of dollars of AFG funds awarded each year go to metropolitan and suburban fire departments that are already well-equipped and supported by substantial tax bases. In fact, an informal FRG review of the past five years of AFG grant awards shows the bulk of awards go to smaller fire departments; however, the amounts are generally substantially smaller than the grants awarded to large departments.
Many small volunteer fire departments also believe they do not have the time or the expertise to submit competitive grant proposals. They feel that to be successful they need professional grant writing services, which come with a price tag equal to or greater than the cost of a set of badly needed bunker gear. With hundreds or thousands of small fire departments competing for funds, they may decide it is better to invest that money in a sure thing—a relatively small but essential equipment purchase—than risk it on the hit-or-miss proposition of winning a substantial grant.
As an alternative, FRG is exploring resources that rural volunteer fire departments can draw on for free or low-cost grant writing assistance. Local universities and businesses might prove valuable in this regard.
Readers can find detailed information on funding options in the U.S. Fire Administration 2012 publication “Funding Alternatives for Emergency Medical and Fire Services [Link no longer valid, https://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa_331.pdf].”
All of the responding volunteer fire departments reported having inadequate equipment on hand. Emails repeatedly mention apparatus, turnout gear, SCBA and thermal imagers as critical needs, and their departments’ procurement processes as “scrounging,” “renovating” and “making do.” This is a result of their being squeezed between the lack of funding and the high cost of equipment. The bottom line is that many departments are operating 30 or more year-old fire apparatus and ageing equipment that no longer meet National Fire Protection Association standards.
Complicating the situation is the increasing incidence of wildfires, flooding and violent storms in rural areas. In most cases, volunteer fire departments are their communities’ only line of response, and such threats create requirements for specialized and often expensive new equipment.
These departments are not looking for top-of-the-line apparatus or equipment. They simply want what they need to do their job. Among the suggestions they offer to achieve this are for federal and state governments and organizations representing the fire service to:
- Work with vendors to develop basic, affordable equipment, such as turnout gear in standard off-the-shelf sizes and “plain Jane” fire trucks that suit the needs of small volunteer departments;
- Negotiate reduced equipment and apparatus pricing for communities with smaller populations;
- Develop a tier of NFPA standards and requirements that match the operational environment of small volunteer departments, and enable those departments to purchase and deploy older, used equipment;
- Make full grants and zero-percent interest loans available to small volunteer departments for the most essential equipment;
- Establish grants for refurbishing and maintaining older apparatus;
- Set up a competitive grant system open only to rural volunteer fire departments;
- Develop an “Apparatus and Equipment Exchange” through which small volunteer departments can obtain surplus equipment, particularly equipment shed by larger fire departments, at little or no cost in trade for waiving liability; and
- Improve publicity for programs such as DOD’s Firefighter Property Program.
Volunteer fire departments deeply appreciate the importance of training for doing their jobs effectively and safely. Most note that plenty of training opportunities are available during the work week; however, volunteer firefighters have full-time jobs, and the slow economic recovery has forced many to take second jobs on weekends, as well. Some departments reported they are lucky to be able to train one or two weekend days a month, let alone send their firefighters to several weeks of fire academy training.
While there is no substitute for hands-on training, volunteer departments voiced disappointment at the lack of available online training courses. Individual and group interactive courses could be very useful for familiarizing trainees with basic firefighting and safety concepts and demonstrating proper procedures and use of equipment, so that when they do hands-on training they already have a basic understanding to build skills upon.
Some states require volunteer firefighters to complete all or several steps of certification training before they can respond to an incident. Several fire departments recommended that requirements be modified so that, for example, a volunteer who has completed CPR training can at least drive a truck and respond to a CPR incident. As things stand now, partially trained firefighters are often prohibited from participating in an incident response in any way.
Recruitment and Retention
Several firefighters reported that recruitment and retention rates within their departments have deteriorated significantly, especially over the past 10-15 years. Among the causes are ageing populations in many small towns and economic factors that force more men and women to work multiple jobs or longer hours. Equally important are three other factors:
- Many volunteers and potential recruits are discouraged by having to work with outdated apparatus and equipment that require continual maintenance and pose a safety hazard. Newer, safer equipment would attract and retain more recruits.
- Volunteers are often required to participate in multiple fund-raising campaigns each year, which is an additional burden on their time.
- In some rural areas, the population swells by several factors during vacation seasons, putting greater demand on first responders. One fire chief wrote that his department protects “a small, rural-resort community of 100 full-time residents that swells during the various vacation and outdoor recreation seasons to include over 140,000 annual visitor days. While these visitors do add to the local economy, they do not add to the emergency response volunteer base. …Due to the ever increasing call volume needed to protect these visitors, the remaining volunteers get pretty stressed and over worked. There are no breaks or days off.”
FRG was particularly interested to hear recommendations for new technologies. Among the suggestions received were:
- A smartphone application that enables volunteers to receive not only a text message from a 911 communications center but also directions to the incident, based on the volunteer’s location. The application would also allow the volunteer to reply with a single key stroke to inform the 911 center and the fire chief whether or not he or she can respond to the incident.
- Free online fire department management software that would allow even the smallest departments to keep track of inventory, maintenance and training. While commercial software packages are available, their cost is well beyond what small rural fire departments can afford.
- Free user accounts and training to first responders for the National Guard's Geospatial Information Interoperability Exploitation-Portable platform (GIIEP) system, which supplies unclassified and commercial aerial imagery to support domestic disaster and law enforcement activities. Laptops, tablets and even smartphones can be used as GIIEP user terminals to give rural volunteer firefighters historic and current data, imagery and live video.
Watch the Rural Volunteer Firefighters Video
Clearly, there is a powerful need throughout rural America for increased support of local volunteer fire departments. FRG has taken the first steps to meet some of those needs, and we want to continue to engage the fire community, R&D organizations, innovators and partners to assist. If you have comments, ideas or recommendations, we invite you to share them at First.Responder@hq.dhs.gov.