Local Firefighting Capacity
Conclusions and Recommendations
An Overview of Rural and
Volunteer Fire Departments
Issues and Recommended Actions
Appendices – Case Studies
WILDLAND FIRE COSTS:
UTILIZING LOCAL FIREFIGHTING FORCES
After examining all the factors influencing the costs of wildfire suppression
in its September 2002 report, Wildfire Suppression: Strategies for
Containing Costs, the Academy’s Wildfire Panel found that one
of the few opportunities to reduce suppression costs during a fire was
to make better use of local firefighters. When properly trained, these
forces can be used more fully for initial action and extended attack,
for mop-up and emergency rehabilitation, and for smoothing transitions
between management teams.
Yet the 2002 study revealed that, in more cases than not, local resources
were not being effectively used to fight wildfires when they came under
federal control. It also showed that firefighting could be organized more
effectively and efficiently. All too often, local firefighters were not
federally qualified or recognized, so Type 1 and Type 2 Incident Management
Teams used on large fires rejected them. Some local forces were not willing
to participate in unified commands. Local dispatch centers were not always
linked to state and federal dispatch centers, and communications were
The result was increased suppression costs.
When local forces were federally trained and qualified, as well as willing
and able to operate with and as part of unified commands, wildfire suppression
activities were more effective and efficient.
The result was decreased suppression costs.
The Panel believes that developing dedicated Type 3 teams and using local
firefighters more extensively could reduce costs in a variety of ways:
- They can prevent wildfires from spreading to state or federal jurisdictions
through an effective initial attack.
- Type 3 teams can take command; coordinate an effective initial attack;
order necessary resources; and provide for safety through increased
supervision, command, and control during the initial action. This makes
the wildfire more manageable for Type 1 and/or 2 teams, if they must
be sent to fight the wildfire, by facilitating finance and check-in,
establishing an effective firefighting strategy, and minimizing delays
in resource acquisition—ultimately reducing the costs of fire
- By using local forces and equipment, federal agencies do not have
to bring in more costly outside resources, and federal engines do not
have to be moved long distances.
- Local forces can provide wildfire protection services to small federal
land units that do not have dedicated federal firefighting resources
In recognition of these potential cost savings, and their ability to
increase the safety of fire personnel and affected communities, the Panel
developed a proposal this year to encourage:
- Fully qualified and recognized local firefighting forces to operate
under the National Incident Management System’s unified command
for large wildfires
- Development of at least one fully qualified Type 3 Incident Management
Team in each wildfire-prone community area committed to being available
to manage local fires even during periods of maximum draw-down of national
- Development of a local interagency fire operations plan in each wildfire-prone
community to ensure fully coordinated fire prevention, fire training,
exercises, dispatching, initial action and extended attack, mutual aid,
cost sharing, and other activities.
To receive feedback on this proposal, the Panel held day-and-a-half workshops
in the spring and summer of 2003 in four communities: Flagstaff, Arizona;
Boulder, Colorado; Bend, Oregon; and Palm Coast, Florida. Based on the
workshop findings and additional background research, the Panel makes
the following findings and recommendations on ways to increase the availability
of local firefighting forces for wildfires, integrate local firefighting
resources into wildfire suppression activities, and facilitate federal
aid to local fire departments.
As the Panel completed its workshops, a National Association of State
Foresters (NASF) Steering Group submitted a report to Congress, The
Changing Role of Local, Rural, and Volunteer Fire Departments in the Wildland-Urban
Interface: Recommended Actions for Implementing the 10-Year Comprehensive
Strategy. The Panel believes that its vision and recommendations
are consistent with the NASF Steering Group report.
Increase Availability of Local Firefighting Forces for Wildfires
The Panel believes that developing local Type 3 Incident Management Teams
in wildfire-prone communities not only would enhance firefighting preparedness
and response, but would also reduce the costs of suppressing large wildfires.
In addition, qualifying local firefighters to serve in crew and other
capacities under Type 1 and 2 federal teams would have similar benefits.
However, a significant amount of local resources will be necessary to
establish these Type 3 teams and qualify local firefighters for use on
federally administered fires, and these resources are currently unavailable
in many places. Local firefighters are often unable to qualify because
they do not have access to wildfire training and are unable to meet standards
established by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG). The nation
needs a better way of tapping these local resources without, of course,
compromising firefighter safety or effectiveness.
The urgency of taking such action was highlighted in the fall of 2003
when 125 ignitions caused nine massive wildfires in Southern California
as the Panel was nearing completion of this report. Those fires caused
the loss of 22 lives, over 3,500 buildings, and other properties. No place
in the United States illustrates the introduction of human development
into wildfire-prone landscapes more than Southern California. But this
is a growing challenge throughout the West and in other parts of the nation.
Action to reduce wildfire hazards are addressed in another report by
this Panel, to be released in January 2004, but actions to more fully
utilize local firefighting resources to control wildfires is equally urgent.
In order to increase the availability of local firefighting forces,
the Panel recommends that the Wildland Fire Leadership Council (WFLC):
- Establish an intergovernmental task force representing the
National Wildfire Coordinating Group, National Association of State
Foresters (NASF), the International Association of Fire Chiefs, International
Association of Firefighters, National Volunteer Fire Council, and National
Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to make specific proposals on how
to more fully qualify and utilize local resources. The task
- Determine how local firefighters could receive “transfer credit”
for the overlap between the fire curriculums of NWCG and NFPA
- Recommend ways to make training more easily and inexpensively available
to paid and volunteer local firefighters through such options as community
colleges, Internet courses, video conferencing, evening and weekend
training options, repackaging NWCG courses into three- and four-hour
blocks, and hands-on training and field exercises
- Develop a strategy for identifying and developing instructors at
the state and local level who could provide wildland fire training
- Recommend national standards that allow more local resources to
be used on Type 3 teams and in support of wildfires led by federal
teams, perhaps through some variant of NFPA standards, such as the
recognition of NFPA 1051 Standard positions as equivalent to NWCG
wildland fire positions
- Incorporate the information gathered by the Wildland Fire Lessons
Learned Center regarding past firefighter deaths, injuries, and close
calls in order to ensure that firefighter safety is fully protected
- Recommend a section to the Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation
Operations (ISFAO) and the Bureau of Indian Affair’s ISFAO that
(1) addresses the use of local fire departments for mutual aid and large
fire support and (2) clarifies qualification, fitness, and medical standards
- Work through the budget and appropriations processes to ensure
that adequate resources are provided for supporting wildfire training
for local firefighters. The Panel believes that a relatively
small investment in training—sustained from year to year—would
yield immense returns in containing wildfire suppression costs.
- Work with appropriate officials at the Department of Homeland
Security to ensure that money available for upgrading communications
technologies for first responders includes all federal, state and local
firefighters responsible for suppressing wildfires. The Panel
urges that these funds be used to purchase equipment that allows wildland
firefighters to fully communicate with one another and other first responders
through interoperable systems.
In addition, the Panel recommends that elected officials and
senior administrators in local governments be actively engaged in increasing
training opportunities and promoting the development of local Type 3 teams.
Without strong local leadership at these high levels, the needed utilization
of local forces will be much less likely to occur.
Integrate Local Firefighting Forces into Wildfire Response
Making greater use of properly trained and equipped local fire departments
can save money. An effective local department should be prepared to act
alone and in cooperation with others to suppress fires before they spread
to state or federal jurisdictions; attack and contain fires on adjacent
state and federal land, often before state and federal forces arrive;
and provide much needed assistance on large state and federal wildfires.
Too often, local fire engines sit idle—because of lack of training,
qualification, and coordination—while federal agencies bring in
more costly resources such as contract engines and crews, firefighters
from other states and nations, National Guard resources, and active duty
military battalions. At the same time, federal engines are frequently
moved long distances—with considerable delays and costs—when
local engines could respond much faster and less expensively. Even utilizing
the more costly resources mentioned above, the nation has a critical shortage
of resources during severe fire seasons.
In order to integrate local forces into wildfire fighting more
fully, the Panel recommends that the Wildland Fire Leadership Council
establish specific guidance for more fully utilizing local firefighting
resources. The guidance should address local, state, and federal
mutual-aid agreements to obtain as much consistency as statutory requirements
allow; provide sample annual operating plans that are comprehensive and
complete; resolve the pay issues currently causing problems in the field;
establish equitable cost-share arrangements that share suppression costs
proportionately based on jurisdictional responsibilities and values protected;
require federal fire managers in the field to fully coordinate with state
and local fire departments on all phases of wildland fire suppression;
and establish a schedule for sponsoring at least one workshop on federal-local
cooperation each year in each of the 11 Geographic Area Coordinating Group
In addition, the Panel recommends that the Council develop a
comprehensive strategy to provide incentives for local firefighters to
become qualified to participate in federally managed wildfires. The
Panel believes that increasing access to wildland fire training by reducing
current barriers, as recommended in this report, would provide a significant
Facilitate Federal Aid to Local Wildfire Response Forces
Federal fire grants have been a vital source of support for local fire
departments, but significant difficulties have arisen with grant administration.
The level of federal aid they receive is unpredictable from year to year;
small departments are especially hard-pressed to access and utilize the
grant system; and program guidance is often too rigid, resulting in a
lack of flexibility for grant recipients.
The Panel believes that the current federal-aid system supporting wildfire
programs—not just grants to local fire departments, but all the
grants available for fuels reduction, fire planning, communities-at-risk,
training, equipment, and so on—needs significant improvement in
order to become more accessible and helpful to states and communities.
The Panel’s recommendation to respond to those needs will be published
in the January 2004 report, Containing Wildland Fire Costs: Enhancing
Hazard Mitigation Capacity. Among other things, the strategy will
promote the development of one-stop shops and wide use of electronic grants,
while still permitting access by low-income rural communities. At the
same time, provisions will be included for alternative means of access
to federal aid by applicants unable to use electronic means.