In the last four years, since the last evaluation of the needs of America's fire departments, little has changed. Many of America's fire service personnel are still not prepared to handle a major HAZMAT incident, building collapse or a natural disaster such as Katrina; and communications, training and staffing issues continue to plague departments.
Those were some of the findings in the National Fire Protection Association's Four Years Later -- A Second Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service. Firehouse.Com News has obtained a version of the report that has been distributed to some fire officials prior to its public release.
In all, 15,545 fire departments -- just over half of the total in the system, including all departments protecting communities of at least 50,000 population -- were mailed survey forms, and 4,709 responded. These survey numbers are from a smaller sampling compared to the more complete 2001 needs survey. Officials said they felt the response rate "is sufficient for reliable results at the national and state levels, overall and by community size."
Since the 2001 survey, the total number of firefighters has increased by 1 percent (1,101,250), the number of career firefighters has increased by 11 percent (294,100) and the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased by 2 percent (807,150). The study shows that more departments' initial complement of personnel still falls short of the minimum of four to launch an interior attack.
Running in conjunction with the second needs assessment was an effort to determine if money from the FIRE Act, or now The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program, had made any difference in solving department needs problems and resources requested and granted to the same fire departments in 2001-2004. To date about $2.5 billion has gone directly to fire departments in grants for their specific needs. It was determined that "this analysis can only be taken as a rough indicator of the match between needs and resources." But some needs were substantially reduced during this period such as the percentage of departments without enough SCBA to equip a shift, a decline from 36 percent to 28 percent. And the percentage without enough personal protective clothing declined by 32 percent.
They did discover that fire departments do not have enough portable radios to equip more the 64 percent of everyone on a shift. But this was an increase from the 2001 survey when they could equip only 55 percent. And the use of thermal imaging cameras increased by 31 percentage points from 24 percent to 55 percent of departments. And, while more departments use or are planning to purchase cameras, they have no plans to buy mobile data terminals. Only one in 31 departments have advanced personnel location equipment, and only one in 18 has tools to collect chemical or biological samples for remote testing.
There was another interesting determination that "none of the homeland security related needs (i.e., ability to handle any of four unusually challenging situations with local specialized equipment) showed marked improvement nor did any of the personnel needs related to those situations."
Although the assessment, along with a companion report matching FIRE Act grants to the reported needs of the fire service, is completed, it has not been officially released or presented to Congress. NFPA Project Manager John R. Hall Jr., Ph.D. who also managed the 2001 survey, said, "It's been finished. It's up to the USFA to decide when and how to release it." Hall said he heard that USFA officials are discussing options about its release. "Until it's made public, I can't comment on it."
Fire service officials thought the documents would be unveiled earlier this month during the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI) events on Capitol Hill. At one point, the reports were available briefly on the USFA website, sources said.
Officials at the USFA and Department of Homeland Security are wrestling to decide just how, when and who will release the needs report, said Tom Harrington, a program specialist in the FIRE Act grants office. He said it hasn't been decided whether it will be released on the secretarial or directorate levels or whether it will be a joint or separate press release.
The survey, requested by Congress, was funded by a FIRE Act grant.
Sources say it's imperative that elected officials know the situation before they pass the President's budget which includes eliminating the SAFER grant and drastic cuts to the Assistance to Firefighters Grants.
President Bush's spending plan for FY2007 includes just $293 million for the FIRE Act, half of FY2006 allocation, while no money has been set aside for SAFER or fire prevention initiatives.
Authors said every department, from the smallest to the largest, need to have some familiarity with every type of fire and emergency. "If not as part of protecting their own community, then at least in their role as a source of mutual aid...In any community, fire burns the same way in an open or in enclosed space..."
Among the survey's findings:
It must be pointed out those deficiencies in such things as training fall mostly within the smaller and volunteer departments. For instance, it was found that only 3000 firefighter were found to lack structural firefighting training in departments serving populations over 50,000. The 214,000 needing training come from departments serving populations smaller then 50,000. The lack of personal protective clothing was hardly a problem in departments serving populations greater then 10,000. But seven percent of the firefighters in departments serving populations under 2,500 were fighting fires unprotected.
The NFPA 2001, A Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service, PDF Document