Incident Safety in the Rural Environment:

What is the "rural environment?" Many people have definitions for the term "rural," but seldom are these rural definitions in agreement. For some inhabitants, rural can't be defined, but they know it when they see it. Seventy-five percent of the U.S...


What is the "rural environment?" Many people have definitions for the term "rural," but seldom are these rural definitions in agreement. For some inhabitants, rural can't be defined, but they know it when they see it. Seventy-five percent of the U.S. population lives in cities and suburbs, but...


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What is the "rural environment?" Many people have definitions for the term "rural," but seldom are these rural definitions in agreement. For some inhabitants, rural can't be defined, but they know it when they see it.

Seventy-five percent of the U.S. population lives in cities and suburbs, but cities occupy only 2% of the country. Rural areas occupy the remaining 98%. Fire protection in these areas is generally provided by volunteer or combination departments that face different challenges than their counterparts in larger and more developed communities.

One of the items that served as the impetus for this article was my move from a career municipal fire department to a combination rural fire district. Making the transition from protecting a population of 45,000 within a 30-square-mile area to a 325-square-mile district inhabited by 8,000 citizens was, to say the least, an eye opener.

Gone were the days of fire hydrants spaced every 500 feet and knowing that my on-duty staffing was sufficient to mount an interior fire attack. Welcome to the world of rural firefighting. I did realize, however, that the greatest common denominator in rural and more urbanized settings is the need to provide the safest working environment as possible while our members provide service to the community.

While I was doing research for this article, I read a news story that I found a little disturbing. It was about a double-fatality fire in a rural community. The story contained comments from the local fire chief and included information that I would have expected to see. Limited resources, lack of a fixed water supply and the home's location all contributed to the fire department's challenges at this incident. The chief went on to speak of the risk from fire that is incurred in rural areas. To me, the story presented a realistic picture of rural fire protection in the United States.

Expectations Vs. Reality

What disturbed me greatly was the blog that followed the article on the newspaper's website. Comments from the readers were what I would describe as "less than kind." This led me to think about the rural community's expectation of its fire department, and a notion came to mind. The attraction of country living has increased the number of folks relocating to rural America. Imagine moving from a city with an Insurance Services Office (ISO) Protection Class perhaps ranging from a 2 to a 4 and now living in a Class 10 area and expecting the same level of fire protection. Our attempts to balance the level of service our resources allow with fireground activities that make an effort to meet the wishes of our constituents, truly require the incident safety officer to maintain a high level of situational awareness relating to rural fire protection challenges and preventing firefighter injuries and deaths.

Whether working in a rural, suburban or urban area, all incident safety officers share common responsibilities. The most important function consists of monitoring the safety of responders. Incident safety officers are members of the incident commander's command staff and have the authority to alter, suspend or terminate operations and may bypass the chain of command if the situation warrants it. They need to be clearly identified and monitor actions at the incident scene to ensure that members are operating within the risk-management plan. These individuals should also maintain personnel accountability, monitor radio traffic and provide situation reports to the incident commander. The person operating in this position should have knowledge of the Incident Action Plan and consider the establishment of safety or collapse zones if needed. The formation of rapid intervention teams and the monitoring of vehicle traffic when companies are operating in or near the roadway are also part of their responsibilities. Other duties may include rehab, infection control, tracking injured members and providing post-incident analysis assistance.

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