Leadership, management, administration, funding and training - topics of importance for most every fire department and the loci of attention in a vast amount of literature and educational opportunities. An ominous question that looms, though, is how are these issues being addressed in small fire...
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Leadership, management, administration, funding and training - topics of importance for most every fire department and the loci of attention in a vast amount of literature and educational opportunities. An ominous question that looms, though, is how are these issues being addressed in small fire department?
That question forms the foundation for a special series of articles appearing in Firehouse® Magazine. And, there's good reason for this special focus, as stated by Randy Novak, bureau chief of the State of Iowa Fire Marshal's Fire Service Training Bureau, who said: "There are more small fire departments out there than any others and a lot of the stuff we have is not geared to their needs."
Given that observation, we must first define "small" fire departments. Often the perspective is that small is synonymous with volunteer fire departments. Undoubtedly it is, but there are communities in the United States with populations of 20,000 or more that receive fire and emergency protection from all-volunteer forces. Some of these departments are multiple-station entities not unlike their paid metropolitan counterparts. In this writer's opinion, and the opinions of others, these are definitely not "small" fire departments.
This series will focus on small fire departments as described in the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2000, a report prepared by Michael J. Karter Jr. of NFPA's Fire Analysis and Research Division. In Karter's paper, fire departments protecting a population of 2,500 or less are the smallest category profiled. To underscore the importance of this fire department domain, consider that Karter found 13,440 of the nation's 26,354 fire departments - more than half - fit this category.
Karter also found that this segment of the U.S. fire and emergency system holds 413,300 of the nation's 1,064,150 firefighters. Karter's data also indicates that these departments provide fire and emergency protection to approximately one-quarter of the country's citizens. Given the fact that most of these departments are rural, this author speculates they provide fire and emergency protection to a larger geographical area of our country than all of the other fire service factions put together.
Thus, small fire departments that protect communities of fewer than 2,500 people are a very big component of the U.S. fire service.
Fire departments fitting this category face the same challenges that any of their larger counterparts do. Because of their size and often severely limited resources small fire departments also face a host of circumstances that warrant special consideration. Management theory, funding options, training perspectives and personnel management issues used in larger fire departments may be applicable in small fire departments, but they need some tweaking in order to make them work.
The spectrum of social, cultural and political influences on small fire departments are more diverse than can be quantified. Some small fire departments are in locales so sparsely populated that even the definition of a community within the confines of their fire district is not exact. Some cover districts so large that response times can run up to a half-hour. Many others are on the fringes of the nation's largest metropolitan centers.
Such variables present the opportunity for an array of small fire department cultures. The character of small fire departments arising from this mix of variables is that some are thriving, some are surviving and some are dying. There are small fire departments that are prime examples of everything a contemporary fire department can be. At the other end of the spectrum are small fire departments staffed with well-intentioned people doing pancake breakfasts just to put gas in antiquated fire trucks. Some appear to operate in the past, appearing to be in a vacuum, oblivious to what goes on in even the nearest mutual aid company (which could be scores of miles away), let alone maintain a consciousness of the influence standards and regulations play in contemporary fire department operations.