A recent survey commissioned by the ISO and conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation focused on the challenges faced by fire departments nationwide, the most predominant finding being that most departments are short-staffed. The survey includes responses from a random sample of 500 chiefs and other ranking fire department officials representing jurisdictions of all sizes across the United States. The margin of error is plus or minus 4%.
According to the study, 54% of chiefs surveyed said their departments always or almost always call on neighboring departments to respond to the initial alarm for a structure fire. Another 28% reported that they sometimes call on neighboring departments.
Among the chiefs who call on neighboring departments on the first alarm, 74% said a very significant reason for doing so is the need for more responders; 29% said a need for specialized apparatus or equipment is very significant; and 25% cited the fact that a neighboring fire station is closer to the response area than any station in their own district as very significant. Fully 33% reported that their response areas have populated sections that are closer to a fire station in a neighboring fire district than to any fire station in their own district. But of those chiefs, 39% said the closer neighboring fire department does not respond on automatic aid to fires in their districts.
“The survey helps ISO — along with property/casualty insurance companies and the firefighting community — gain further insights into key issues in fire departments across the country,” said Mike Waters, ISO’s vice president, Risk Decision Services. “We hope the results of the study will highlight the critical challenges facing fire chiefs as they manage their limited resources.”
Nearly all of the chiefs (98%) indicated that their departments have the capacity to communicate by radio directly with fire departments of neighboring communities. Most said they can also communicate directly with local emergency medical services (95%) and local police (84%), showing local interoperability is on the rise.
The study also reveals that communities with volunteer or combination fire departments are having difficulty attracting and training a sufficient number of firefighters. Among the chiefs of volunteer and combination departments, 93% said that the biggest challenge surrounding recruitment is the time commitment. The chiefs also cited a small volunteer pool (84%) and education and training requirements (83%) as obstacles.
More than 36% said their departments spend less than 10 hours per firefighter per month on training; 42% spend between 10 and 20 hours; and 22% spend more than 20 hours. The average percentage of training hours spent on structure fires (42%) is double that spent on rescue incidents (21%) and also double that spent on EMS or other medical services (21%).
The study raises questions about the adequacy of the water supply in communities across the country. About 4% of the chiefs said that there is no water service for firefighting in their communities, and another 11% said they rely on sources of water other than hydrants, including lakes, ponds, rivers, creeks, wells, tankers and others. In communities that have water service for firefighting, only 52% said that hydrants protect all or almost all of their primary response areas; 23% said that the responsible agency or organization inspects and flow-tests the hydrants less than once a year.
“This survey points out the need to understand the actual situation on the ground when evaluating fire protection at a particular location,” said Waters. “It’s not enough to know there’s a fire station nearby. You also have to know if the station will respond to a possible fire and if there will be enough trained personnel, adequate equipment, and sufficient water for firefighting, among other things.”