Small Fire Departments Confront Big Issues - Part 1

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.

So what innovations are being used by small fire departments to cope with the daunting task of maintaining a professionally competent and responsive service in the light of contemporary fiscal, political and legal pressures?

In this forthcoming series we will seek answers to that question we will explore issues relative to recruitment and retention of volunteers, funding, discipline, training, leadership and administration, policies and procedures, apathy and complacency, cultural influences, the role of information, and others that are sure to come up along the way - all specifically focused on the small fire department. Case history studies of success stories and failures as well as an examination of pertinent literature and management theory will be used in these articles.

We will lean heavily upon the research of George Oster. Oster, past executive officer of the Iowa Fire Service Institute, put the Iowa fire service under a microscope and conducted extensive research into the demographics of Iowa fire departments as well as the issues they faced over the past decade. He unearthed a treasure trove of valuable information concerning small fire departments that in Oster's opinion are indicative of conditions found nationally. The plethora of research findings from National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) papers will also be mined in these articles.

Most important, we will rely heavily on the experiences of those "who have been there and done that" - the people actually making certain the nation's small fire departments remain a viable and responsive element of fire protection in the United States. By the end of this series, this author hopes that small fire department leadership will have a box full of new tools and ideas they can apply to their own unique situation.

One of the great things about the fire service is that we all learn from each other - no one of us is as good as all of us. As a final note to this introductory article of the series, I would appreciate hearing from anyone in a small fire department that has a particular program or innovation that has helped your department achieve success or overcome some obstacle. I can be contacted by telephone at 319-477-5041 or e-mail at

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.