Recruiting and training enough firefighters to meet community needs has been a continuing challenge for decades, especially in the case of volunteer firefighters, who make up 70% of the fire service in the United States. In some areas of the country, the problem has reached a critical stage.

A recent report by a commission of lawmakers, city officials and emergency service personnel in Pennsylvania, for example, notes that the population of volunteer firefighters in the state has dwindled from 300,000 in the 1990s to fewer than 38,000. In Pennsylvania, around 90 percent of the state’s 2,400 fire companies are volunteer.

Challenges Faced By Volunteers

There are multiple challenges to supplying adequate personnel to the fire service. One is an aging population. About a third of small-town volunteer firefighters are over 50, and it’s not uncommon for rural firefighters to be in their 60s or 70s.

Furthermore, economic challenges today require many households to have two incomes, and increased job and family responsibilities leave little time for volunteering. Commuting patterns make it less likely volunteers work in the local community, which makes them less available in case of a fire emergency.

Nationwide calls to volunteer fire departments have tripled in the last three decades

Also exacerbating the problem is that fire departments are facing more emergency calls than ever, including a variety of different kinds of calls. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) notes that volunteer firefighters are summoned to a wide array of emergencies across the country every day including fires, emergency medical incidents, terrorist events, natural disasters, hazardous materials incidents, water rescue emergencies, high-angle and confined space emergencies, and other general public service calls.

The shortage of volunteer firefighters is being felt everywhere. Meanwhile, nationwide calls to volunteer fire departments have tripled in the last three decades. The problem is especially serious in small towns and rural areas, which are more likely to depend on volunteer firefighters.

The problem is especially serious in small towns and rural areas, which are more likely to depend on volunteer firefighters
About a third of small-town volunteer firefighters are over 50, and it’s not uncommon for rural firefighters to be in their 60s or 70s

Some Facts Of Interest From The NVFC

  • Most volunteer firefighters (95%) are in departments that protect fewer than 25,000 people
  • Of the estimated 29,727 fire departments in the U.S., 19,762 are all volunteer, and another 5,421 are mostly volunteer
  • Nearly two-thirds (65%) of volunteer firefighters have more than five years of service

Training costs are high, too. The NVFC estimates the cost to train and equip a firefighter at around $27,095. Volunteering can be costly for the volunteers, also, who drive personal cars to and from the station, for example.

Even as the fire service embraces new technologies and approaches, the role of firefighters will remain essential

Various measures are being undertaken to address the shortage of volunteer firefighters, including an increase in recruiting and marketing efforts to make volunteering more attractive.

Given the aging firefighter population, it’s important to make entering the fire service a more desirable option for Millennials. Promotional efforts in Pennsylvania include marketing campaigns, recruitment centers, billboards, commercials in movie theaters and mailers.

Need For Trained Personnel

Incentives to join the fire service might include high school or college credit to volunteers or even free tuition to community colleges and state universities. Some states provide financial incentives such as property tax breaks or local income tax credits to fire volunteers.

Departments are also changing to accommodate the lack of sufficient personnel. Some departments are centralising or consolidating. Others are transitioning to more full-time or paid-on-call firefighters.

Even as the fire service embraces new technologies and approaches, the role of firefighters will remain essential. The role may evolve, but the need for trained personnel is a constant. Fulfilling that need will be an ongoing challenge for departments and local jurisdictions.

Download PDF version

In case you missed it

Optimize Your Firefighter Training Program
Optimize Your Firefighter Training Program

Want to know an easy way to judge the quality of a fire department? Look at how much they train. Career, volunteer or combination, fire departments become successful through training. Yet all training is not equal. Focus too much on hands-on training (HOT) and you could be missing important legal and compliance updates. Lean heavily on web-based training and you may fail to identify shortcomings in skills proficiencies. Keep students confined to a classroom and you may lose their interest quickly. Not surprisingly, a balance of all three types of training is needed to produce competent, empowered firefighters. For this article, I was challenged to think about what’s missing from our current fire training programs. As I thought about the varied way we approach fire training, three issues jumped out at me. Base training on facts and statistics Take advantage of new technologies Incorporate policy into your training   Your training program should also be strong in the types of calls you respond to most Base Training On Facts And Statistics If your department has a robust training program, outlined by a calendar of various topics and employing a mix of HOT, online and classroom training, you’re ahead of the curve. But even in departments with well-developed training programs, training is often based on preference or habit, not data. Think about the topics in your training program. Do you know why they’re included? Do they match your call make-up? Are they targeting specific skill shortcomings? (And yes, we all have them!)What’s missing from many fire department training programs is a detailed needs assessment What’s missing from many fire department training programs is a detailed needs assessment that in turn establishes a factual basis for the year’s training topics. The needs assessment should include: Surveying the members to determine the types of training they want or feel they need. Measuring firefighter proficiency on basic tasks, such as NFPA 1403 drills, NFPA 1710 drills and EMS patient assessment skills audits, to assess personnel by mandate or by industry best practice. This will identify skills deficiencies to address through training. Incorporating call volume statistics and details. A significant percentage of the calls fire departments respond to are EMS and vehicle extrication But I’d venture to guess the training programs of most departments don’t match those percentages. Yes, you need to train for the high-risk, low-frequency tasks. But your training program should also be strong in the types of calls you respond to most. Incorporating these “facts and stats” into your training program will help you keep it fresh, relevant and interesting. Firefighters can use their phones and tablets to access department training information and complete training assignments Take Advantage Of New Technologies There is something to be said for back-to-the-basics, keep-it-simple firefighter training. But it’s a mistake to ignore technological advances. From teaching safe apparatus backing procedures to practicing hoseline deployment and Vent/Enter/Isolate/Search (VEIS) tactics, instructors have more options than ever before. Some instructors regard simulators as second-rate to “the real thing.” Certainly, simulation and other forms of technology-driven instruction can’t replace the value of hands-on experience. But they can augment it in important ways. Driver simulators, for example, not only save money because apparatus don’t have to be taken out of service or sustain wear and tear; they also provide an environment where firefighters can learn without risk of injury. If sitting behind a computer isn’t your kind of thing, live-burn simulators, vehicle fire simulators and hazmat simulators are available—and they all significantly boost training efficiency.Technology will never replace hands-on instruction, but it can facilitate it But you don’t need fancy simulators to incorporate technology into your fire training program. Learning management systems (LMS) are another important tool that can increase training program efficiency. Although they’ve been around for a long time, LMS continue to improve. The ability to integrate with mobile devices is huge, allowing firefighters to use their phones and tablets to access department training information and complete training assignments. Leveraging this technology can allow you to more efficiently manage information, schedule training and free up valuable time needed for other important tasks. If you’ve attended some of the larger regional or national fire conferences recently, you may have had the opportunity to see audience response technology in action. By capturing the firefighters’ responses to questions in real-time, instructors can adjust the material to reflect students’ knowledge level. Audience response is also simply a great way to keep firefighters engaged. Technology will never replace hands-on instruction, but it can facilitate it. If you’re using training methods that haven’t changed in decades, something’s missing from your training program.   Without incorporating policy into your training, you’re only giving your firefighters half the equation Incorporate Policy Into Your Training I saved the biggest and best for last. When I work with fire departments across the country, I repeatedly discover the failure to incorporate policy into training. Think about it: Training curricula are almost always designed around procedures—the how of doing something. But isn’t the why just as important? And that’s what policy is all about. Without incorporating policy into your training, you’re only giving your firefighters half the equation.Inevitably firefighters will encounter times when following the procedure isn’t possible Inevitably firefighters will encounter times when following the procedure isn’t possible. That’s when policy training kicks in—firefighters understand the fundamental objective, and they can think on their feet about how to achieve it. Training on policy also helps departments address the issues that so often get firefighters into trouble. How many of your firefighters really understand your department’s social media policy? What about the rules surrounding sick time usage? These are things that trip up firefighters time and time again. If you’re not training on policies, it’s unlikely firefighters remember them. How many of your firefighters really understand your department’s social media policy? In addition, normalization of deviance is a risk to every organization. When personnel fail to follow policies and no negative repercussions result, it can quickly establish a new normal. Policy-based training resets the “normal” and makes sure that members of the organization comply with the policy and not what they think the policy says.Most line-of-duty death reports cite failure to comply with policy or lack of adequate policy Fire instructors often avoid training on policy because they regard it as boring or unrelated to what really matters—firefighter safety and survival. Yet most line-of-duty death reports cite failure to comply with policy or lack of adequate policy as contributing factors in the incident. If you’re worried that policy will make your training program dry and uninteresting, link it to real-world events. An online search provides lots of examples of when things went wrong and how adherence to policy might have produced a different outcome. And limit policy training to small chunks. Take out a 10-page policy and go through it line by line, and your students’ eyes will glaze over in seconds. Instead, look for ways to enrich your current training by bringing relevant pieces of policy into it. Your firefighters will be learning the department’s policies without even realizing it! Focus On Continuous Improvement Fire chiefs and fire instructors have a challenging job. Budgets are tight, and training is often one of the first things to be cut. Yet we need firefighters to be proficient in all-hazards response. Every department has a long training wish list. But if we focus on continuous quality improvement, we can get a little better each year. Looking for opportunities to incorporate statistics, technology and policy into our training is a good place to start.

How Targeted Suppression Stops Fires At The Source
How Targeted Suppression Stops Fires At The Source

While whole room protection – sprinklers or gas systems – is a common choice, there is an argument for thinking smaller; taking fire detection and suppression down to the equipment, enclosures and even the components where a fire is most likely to start. Traditional Fire Suppression Methods A traditional water-based sprinkler system is the most common form of fire protection found in commercial and industrial buildings. They offer reasonable cost, large area protection for entire facilities, safeguarding the structure and personnel by limiting the spread and impact of a fire. Every square foot of the protected area is covered equally regardless of the contents of the space, whether it’s an empty floor or an object with an increased risk of fire. Sprinklers aren’t always the most appropriate choice. Not all fires are extinguished by water of course, and in some cases, water damage can be just as harmful or even more so than the fire. They are an impractical choice for instance for facilities housing anything electrical, such as data centres and server rooms. There is also the risk of accidental activation, with an estimated cost of up to $1,000 for every minute they are left running. Water damage can be just as harmful or even more so than any fire, so sprinklers may not be appropriate Targeted Supplementary Fire Suppression An alternative method to protect whole server rooms and data centres is gas fire suppression, which either suppresses the fire by displacing oxygen (inert) or by using a form of cooling mechanism (chemical/synthetic). These aren’t without risk; in the case of inert gas, oxygen is reduced to less than 15% to suffocate the fire, but must be kept above 12% to avoid endangering the lives of personnel. Similarly, clean agent gas can be toxic in high doses. There are smaller, focused systems that give the option of highly targeted supplementary fire suppression within fire risk areas. Installing a system directly into the areas most at risk, means that fires can be put out before they take hold and cause serious damage. Both sprinkler and gas systems can contain a fire, but micro-environment or closed space systems are completely automatic, detecting and suppressing the fire so rapidly that activating a sprinkler or gas total flooding system often isn’t necessary. The most popular enclosure fire suppression systems achieve this though the use of a flexible and durable polymer tubing that is routed easily through the tightest spaces. The tubing is extremely sensitive to heat and, because it can be placed so close to potential failure points, detects it and releases the fire suppression agent up to ten times faster than traditional systems. An airline was forced to cancel over 2,000 flights after a “small fire” in one of its data centers Cost-Effective Fire Protection Highly customizable, small enclosure fire suppression is specifically designed to protect business critical spaces and equipment. It is typically used inside machinery like CNC machines, mobile equipment like forklifts and inside server rooms and electrical cabinetry but is suitable for any hazard that’s considered to have an elevated fire risk. Some may question the need or cost-effectiveness of protecting micro-environments. However, examples abound of where fires that have started at component level have gone on to cause damage of the highest magnitude, and the cost of downtime can be crippling to many time-sensitive facilities and processes. An airline was forced to cancel over 2,000 flights in August 2016 when what was described as a “small fire” in one of its data centers ultimately led to a computer outage. The cost of that small fire, and the domino effect that quickly escalated from it, has since been announced as $150m. Admittedly that number is unusually high - the average cost of a data centre outage today is estimated at a more conservative $730,000 – but this is still an expense businesses can ill afford. Preventing Major Losses Staying with the transport industry, newer metros systems have redundant systems in place to prevent interruptions. However, older metro lines, such as the one in New York City, have experienced electrical fires that started small, but grew to such a magnitude that service was affected for months.Older metro lines, such as New York City's, have experience electrical fires that start small but grew exponentially A wind energy customer experienced a fire in a turbine converter cabinet. The loss of the cabinet was valued at over $200,000 and disabled the turbine for six weeks. Following investment in fire suppression systems inside the electrical cabinet, a subsequent fire was detected and suppressed before major damage could be caused. The cost on this occasion was therefore limited to a $25,000 component and downtime was less than two days.Equally - happily - there are also many instances where the installation of small enclosure fire suppression has prevented disaster. In the manufacturing world, CNC machines are valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars and need to be constantly operational to justify the investment. Oil coolant used in the machines can create a flash fire in an instant due to failed components or programming errors. The fact that many of these facilities are run ‘lights out’ with no personnel present further exacerbates the risk. If a fire is not dealt with immediately, the machine will be destroyed; sprinklers don’t react quickly enough for this scenario and would be ineffective. Ensuring Business Continuity One such flash fire occurred inside a protected CNC machine at a machine shop in Iowa. The polymer tubing ruptured within a fraction of a second, releasing the suppression agent and extinguishing the flames. The machine was undamaged and was operational again with a few hours. Contrast this to a previous fire at the same facility in an unprotected machine; it was out of operation for 4 days, costing the business thousands of dollars in downtime In short, fire protection is an essential element of our industrial and commercial environments to ensure both safety and business continuity. However, the nature of that protection is changing, as capacity increases to cost-effectively protect specific areas where fires are most likely to start. Risk mitigation analysis needs to look beyond what has been accepted in the past and find ways to further limit the impact of a small fire using this next level of protection. The benefits can really have a positive effect on the bottom line in the event of fire.

How Fire Departments Use Drones To Save Lives
How Fire Departments Use Drones To Save Lives

Drones are an important new tool for the fire service and have already proven their ability to save lives. Willingness to embrace drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs]) for fire applications varies widely by department, and it’s not just larger departments that are making the investment. Some smaller departments are investing in drones in a big way, even as some larger departments are reticent. Firefighting Drone Programs Departments may start with a small drone just to “try it out” and to prove its usefulness to upper management. Other departments start with a budgeted amount for their drone program and go from there. According to Matt Sloane, CEO of Skyfire Consulting, the average drone program is around $35,000 to $40,000, which provides drones, thermal imaging, cameras, operation costs – all of it. Drone programs are not covered by Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) grants, however. As little as $1,500 can buy an “eye in the sky” drone (without thermal functionality).  Sloane says the top question he used to get asked by potential customers was “How do I use this thing?” Now the top question is “How do I sell it to my chief?” Sloane has done hundreds of demonstrations of drone technology to fire departments and has never heard anyone say “I don’t see how that would be useful.” In fact, cost justification of drones is easy if you compare the cost with operating a helicopter, the closest alternative to provide comparable information. Sloane says implementing a drone program is equivalent in cost to “between 40 and 50 hours” of operating a helicopter.  “There is still a misperception that drones are toys,” says Sloane. “But people’s lives are being saved so we’re past that stage.” He compares the reception to drones in the fire service to initial resistance to the use of thermal cameras. “Now everyone has one,” he says. A drone can provide a 360-degree view of a single-family house fire within seconds Effectiveness Of Drones In Fire Applications Education is an important element in spreading the word about the effectiveness of drones for fire applications, says Sloane. A fire department might choose to implement a drone program after they experience a situation in which a drone would have been a useful asset. Drones can be helpful for hazardous materials protection, search-and-rescue, and wildfire applications. The value of a drone boils down to providing better information for decision-making. In the case of a hazardous material spill, for example, a drone can provide information much faster than it would take personnel to don hazmat garments to approach an area safely; there is also no risk to life. A drone can provide a 360-degree view of a single-family house fire within seconds. A thermal imaging camera mounted on a drone can provide instant feedback on hot spots and where the fire is moving. Some drones can drop payloads; for example, they can drop a life jacket to a swimmer or a radio to someone who is trapped. Drones can also be helpful in training, providing high-level views to document activity for evaluation after the fact.  Communication with a drone is localized between the drone and the remote control. A smart phone or tablet can be plugged into the drone’s remote to communicate images across the Internet. The remote’s HDMI output also allows a drone’s image to be displayed on a TV monitor. How To Start A Drone Program Skyfire Consulting provides a “one-stop shop” for fire and police departments seeking to start a drone program. The company helps with choosing the right equipment, performs on-site training, guides the department to obtain the needed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorizations, and aids with developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) and policies. Implementation of the average drone program takes three to six months. FAA authorization to fly drones comes in two varieties. Drones can be flown under Part 107 rules for commercial use and for video production. The authorization merely requires passing a 60-question written test with a 70 percent score. The certification is good for two years and allows an operator to fly drones up to 400 feet in line-of-site, and within Class G (uncontrolled) air space. A downside is that the permit assigns liability to the operator (and a waiver may or may not be granted). Departments are buying a variety of drones in combinations of large and small Obtaining A Certificate Of Authorization The second variety of FAA authorization is a COA (Certificate of Authorization), which assigns liability to the department operating the drones. It also allows the department to self-certify their operators, perform training, and operate in some controlled air space if a waiver is granted. Earning a COA is more complicated, but offers benefits, including the ability to train new operators in a department that has turnover. Line-of-site operation is a requirement for flying any drones. Line-of-site is typically three-fourths of a mile, and drones are equipped with bright lights and anti-collision lights (visible for three nautical miles). Sloane says the FAA is generally very positive about public safety uses of drones and works with departments to get their drone programs in place. Choosing Between Small And Large Drones A popular drone manufacturer is DJI Technology, which has a dominant share of the consumer drone market. A popular model is the DJI Phantom drones, which provide 35 minutes of flight time and a good camera. For other sensors, something larger is needed. Departments are buying a variety of drones in combinations of large and small. Small drones perform tactical missions and can fly through a window, while larger drones can be equipped with thermal and/or zoom cameras. The price tags on individual drones range from $500 to $30,000 or more. Larry Anderson Editor