The latest NFPA fire service needs assessment is a valuable tool for our fire service and gives us measurements of our service’s response to the challenges that we face. (Photo by author.)
A fundamental element of public safety, fire departments have continued to see an ever-increasing scope of responsibility, including a broadening of services and needs demanded by their communities. Fire departments in our modern era do much more than simply fight fire; they also provide emergency medical services, perform complex rescues, and assist the public with a wide variety of emergency responses. The training and resources provided to firefighters are important, as they must match the demands, skills, and abilities required to perform these all-hazards responses and conduct dangerous work.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has conducted needs assessments to evaluate and assess the requirements of fire departments, identify trends over time, and allow aid programs to focus on areas identified by research. Recently, results from a survey conducted by the NFPA in 2015 were released. This is a continuation of a study involving three prior surveys in 2001, 2005, and 2010. These surveys were initially conducted under grants from the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and are tied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency grant programs, including the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants programs.
The true goal of this effort is to identify the biggest needs of the fire service in the United States and compare what departments actually have or do to requirements from the national consensus standards or other government and national guidance. Essentially, it is comparing current practice to recognized standards and identifying real-world gaps.
The study was undertaken as a census, which means that it was sent to the broadest possible population by the NFPA, including 26,322 fire departments in the survey. Of these, 5,106 responded, for a 19 percent response rate. Of these respondents, 11 percent were from departments with populations of less than 2,500, and 82 percent were from departments serving populations of greater than 500,000.
The report was organized into seven groups of needs: personnel and their capabilities, facilities and apparatus, personal protective equipment (PPE), community risk reduction, fire prevention and code enforcement, ability to handle unusually challenging incidents, and communications and advanced technology.
Key findings from the report include the following1:
- More than two thirds (72 percent) of departments have PPE that is at least 10 years old.
- Forty-nine percent of all fire departments have not formally trained all their personnel who are involved in structural firefighting. This was an increase from 46 percent in the 2010 survey.
- Sixty-nine percent of departments have self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that is at least 10 years old, an increase from 55 percent in 2010.
- Forty-three percent of fire stations are at least 40 years old, an increase of eight percent from 2001’s initial needs assessment.
- Forty-three percent of all fire department engines and pumpers are at least 15 years old, a decrease of eight percent from 2001.
- Only 27 percent of fire departments have a basic fitness and health program, down from 30 percent in 2010.
This needs assessment also identified a change toward less frequent assignment of at least four career firefighters to an engine or pumper. This trend in the assessment indicates the possibility of the beginning of a trend toward reduced compliance with NFPA 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, specifically the four-person staffing standard.
An exception was noted for cities protecting populations of at least 500,000. It’s also important to note that a department that is mostly career responding with some volunteers would not have its numbers reflected in these results. Although the data cannot confirm this, it is possible that this could be reflective of a change in management of SAFER grant program funding since the last study, allowing for a reduced period of employment and removing a mandate for continued employment after the grant funds are completed.
NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, calls for a minimum of four firefighters on scene before an interior attack can commence. The assessment shows that across communities from under 2,500 to as high as 49,999 in population, more than 79 percent of departments respond with an average of four or more volunteer firefighters during daytime weekday responses. The response is even better for volunteers during evenings and on weekends, but the survey question is more specific in 2015’s assessment than it was previously, preventing a trend-line comparison. In this area, it’s also possible that SAFER is making an impact, as $1.287 billion in SAFER funds was focused on hiring, recruitment, and retention from 2011-2014.
Areas of Need
The most recent needs assessment has noted an increase in several training needs since the last needs assessment survey in 2010. Key areas defined as needs include structural firefighting, where 49 percent of all departments have not formally trained all of their personnel in structural firefighting; hazmat training, where 60 percent of departments provide hazmat but have not formally trained all personnel; wildland firefighting training, where 63 percent of all departments provide wildland training but have not trained all personnel; and technical rescue training, where 40 percent of all departments provide this service but have not formally trained their personnel, a reduction from 48 percent in the last survey compared to needs in the aforementioned key areas - where all saw increases. This study also identified differences in needs depending on the size of populations covered. Departments protecting populations of 500,000 or more had top training needs in the areas of fire prevention, code enforcement, hazmat, and technical rescue. In departments protecting populations of under 2,500, the top training needs were traffic control, wildland firefighting, and hazmat.
Stations and facilities were surveyed, and needs related to the age and number of fire stations have been an upward trend. The average age of fire stations increased, as two out of five (43 percent) stations are at least 40 years old, which is an increase from 32 percent in the last survey. Also, 35 percent of fire stations do not have backup power, and 59 percent of fire stations are not equipped with exhaust emission control. As a contrast to the 2001 survey, 78 percent of fire stations were lacking emission control, which shows a notable improvement in the latest review. It’s interesting to note that AFG funding for facility modification was about two percent of total funds from 2011-2014, which means that facility improvements were likely conducted by other funding.
The largest amount of AFG funding from 2011-2014 was focused on providing PPE. Nearly 37 percent of AFG funding was for PPE and nearly 33 percent for general equipment. The needs assessment showed that almost 72 percent of departments had PPE at least 10 years old and 69 percent of departments had SCBA at least 10 years old. This is an increase in both areas and indicates that the need for PPE is growing faster than the AFG grants can sustain. Also facing similar needs gaps are SCBAs, radios, and other equipment.
In terms of community risk reduction, almost all departments had at least one educational program for fire prevention, and the population protected without any program was less than one percent. The top needs in this area were wildfire safety programs, with 84 percent of the United States population without a program; home fire sprinkler education, with 74 percent of the population without a program; car seat installation, with 70 percent of the population without a program; and a fire safety program focused on older adults, with 67 percent of the population lacking a program.
The communications and advanced technology sections of the study were expanded in the latest version to include new questions and reflect technology changes. This area also showed a disparity between large and small communities, where computer-aided dispatch (CAD) was used by more than 95 percent of departments having a community size of 50,000 or greater, but only 39 percent of departments in communities of less than 2,500 used CAD. Mobile geographic information systems and tablet software also faced similar gaps, with much less use in communities of smaller populations. Of special note, half of the departments serving populations of less than 2,500 had none of the advanced technologies. More than 85 percent of departments in communities of 10,000 or more had access to a thermal imaging camera, while this percentage was lower, 57 percent, for departments in communities under 2,500.
The latest NFPA fire service needs assessment is a valuable tool for our fire service and gives us measurements of our service’s response to the challenges that we face. While some needs have declined, many critical needs have either remained steady or shown an increase. This is especially true in smaller communities, where fire service needs are almost universally more extensive in relationship to the size of the community. The expectations of the public and role of the fire service are expanding rapidly at the same time that resources are becoming scarce and sometimes are even being cut. As examples, active shooter response, enhanced technical rescue, and wildland urban interface firefighting are new challenges many departments face.
As we look to the future and we consider the role that AFG and SAFER play in targeting areas of need in the fire service, these funding streams become even more crucial when other streams shrink or disappear. To truly meet the needs measured in the current fire service, these programs would need to grow or expand.
One thing is for certain, the fire service in the United States must continue to seek new and creative ways to meet needs and bridge gaps where possible. This comes through innovations in process, technology, and creativity.
1. The National Fire Protection Association, “Fourth Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service: Conducted in 2015 and Including Comparisons to the 2001, 2005, and 2010 Needs Assessment Surveys,” November 2016, www.nfpa.org/news-and-research/fire-statistics-and-reports/fire-statistics/the-fire-service/administration/needs-assessment.