The Changing Role and Needs of Local, Rural, and Volunteer Fire Departments in the Wildland-Urban Interface
An Overview of Rural and Volunteer Fire Departments
Rural Departments: First Line of Defense
Rural fire departments represent the first line of defense in responding to wildland fires as well as other emergencies. These departments are typically independently governed and tightly connected to each other through formal operating agreements and procedures as well as personal and professional relationships.
They are primarily trained by a combination of state and local trainers, based on National Fire Protection Association standards, and supported by the states’ fire training systems. These rural departments:
· Provide protection for homes and businesses on private land as well as for natural resources on private, state, and federal land.
· Efficiently suppress structural and wildland fires within their jurisdictions.
· Provide critical support to other local departments as well as state and federal fire response agencies.
· Respond to all types of emergencies including vehicle accidents, emergency medical calls, terrorism incidents, hazardous material spills, and others.
Human Expansion Has Increased Protection Complexity
The rapid expansion of human development into previously wildland areas has increased both the need for and the complexity of rural fire protection. The National Fire Protection Association defines the Wildland-Urban Interface as: “The line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.”
This interface zone is arguably one of the most dangerous and complicated firefighting situations currently faced by firefighters. Previously uninhabited forests and rangelands with limited values-at-risk now contain homes, communities, and associated infrastructure.
Fire suppression in the Wildland-Urban Interface demands training, procedures, and equipment for both structural and wildland fire. Fire suppression here also presents additional challenges, including: community evacuation, hazardous material response, uncertain access, water supply, communication and coordination between multiple jurisdictions, extraordinary values-at-risk, and heightened public and media attention.
In 1992, a consortium of organizations led by the National Association of State Foresters sponsored an initiative to investigate the status of fire protection services in rural America. Through surveys and on-site visits, the group assessed the availability and effectiveness of funding, the levels of interagency cooperation, the roles of government, and the overall needs of the fire departments.
Findings and recommendations from this study were published in the 1994 report to Congress Fire Protection in Rural America: A Challenge for the Future.
Nearly ten years later, a joint U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Protection Association Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service reveals that local fire departments—particularly those in rural communities—continue to face many of the same challenges identified a decade ago.
Personnel and Capabilities
Both the 1994 and 2002 reports highlight the importance of rural and volunteer firefighters in protecting lives, property, and resources. Approximately half of the nation’s fire service continues to be composed of rural fire departments serving communities of less than 2,500. These same small communities are almost completely protected by volunteer departments. 
In the 1994 Fire Protection in Rural America report, departments identified training as their third most pressing problem and their second priority for any federal funding received. Both reports suggest that rural and volunteer firefighters are most impacted by this need. Yet, they continue to be the least able to obtain adequate training.
The 2002 Needs Assessment report also revealed that a significant portion of firefighters in these small, rural communities have received no formal training in either wildland or structural firefighting. Only 26 percent of departments represented in the report felt they could handle a 500-acre Wildland-Urban Interface fire with trained, local personnel. 
Revenues and Funding
Similar to the 1994 Fire Protection in Rural America report, the 2002 Needs Assessment report also found that rural communities were served primarily by volunteer fire departments that receive most of their funding from local revenue or taxing districts. Supplemental dollars are obtained through fundraising and donations. These departments do not typically receive funding from state, federal, or private industry sources. In 1994, the median annual budget for rural fire departments was $18,000 per year. This represents a small sum to meet annual operating expenses while simultaneously training personnel and maintaining or replacing equipment.
Fire departments responding to the 1992 survey identified equipment as their highest priority need. This was further reinforced when they listed as priorities for federal funding: water supply enhancement, radio communications, and protective clothing. The 2002 Needs Assessment report reinforces this need through the finding that nearly half of all communities under 2,500 residents have engines over twenty years old.  Most rural fire departments currently have neither a plan nor a budget for replacing this equipment. They are therefore forced to rely on acquisition of used or converted vehicles and apparatus. 
While the 2002 Needs Assessment report indicates improvement over the last ten years in the area of radio communications between local, state, and federal entities, it continues to suggest that fire departments do not have enough portable radios to equip more than half of the emergency responders on a shift. This need is especially critical for small communities.
The 1994 Fire Protection in Rural America report also found that nearly half of the departments responding had no wildland protective clothing—even though nearly 25 percent of all of their fire runs were on wildland situations in which structural clothing can be unsafe. The 2002 Needs Assessment did not specifically ask about wildland personal protective equipment, but did indicate that an estimated 57,000 firefighters lack protective clothing—including 42,000 in departments protecting communities under 2,500 residents. Furthermore, according to the 2002 Needs Assessment report, nearly half of the personal protective clothing in these departments is at least ten years old. 
Federal and State Assistance
A 1991 U.S. Department of Commerce study estimated that the cost of converting the nation’s volunteer firefighters to paid status would be $37 billion dollars. In 1999, almost a decade later, the National Fire Protection Association estimated that the cost would be $53-74 billion.  Today, it would likely be even more. It is indisputable that volunteer and rural firefighters are a tremendous asset to the nation and deserve support from all levels of government and the public.
Financial support to rural and volunteer fire departments has historically been very limited. The Rural Development Act of 1972 authorized the first federal program to offer meaningful financial assistance to volunteer fire departments. Contained in Title IV of P.L. 92-419, the act authorized up to $7 million to “organize, train, and equip local fire forces to prevent, control and suppress fires in rural areas.” In Fiscal Year 1975, an initial appropriation of $3.5 million was provided to enable State Foresters to administer the financial, technical, and related assistance offered through the volunteer fire program.
The Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-313) repealed the 1972 language, but authorized similar assistance through the new Cooperative Forest Fire Protection (CFFP) programs of the USDA Forest Service. According to this language, the Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to assist in “the prevention and control of rural fires” by working “through and in cooperation with the State Foresters, or equivalent state officials” in implementing the “federal program affecting non-federal forest lands.”
Beginning with the initial appropriation in 1975, the Volunteer Fire Assistance program has provided funds to communities of less than 10,000 residents for organizing, training, and equipping firefighters. These funds are delivered through the State Forester in each state. From 1991 to 1995, an average $3.5 million per year was distributed to the nation’s rural fire service. From 1996 through 2000, annual funding dropped to approximately $2 million annually. These funds are matched dollar-for-dollar by recipients—doubling the value of the federal contribution.
Under the companion Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program, the Forest Service has loaned states and local fire departments federal equipment and other property suitable for meeting fire protection needs. Over 70,000 pieces of FEPP firefighting equipment are currently on loan to states and the rural fire service for rural fire protection. Unfortunately, states and local fire departments are currently so low in the screening priority for this equipment that the program’s potential for significantly improving fire protection has been compromised.
Congressional funding of the National Fire Plan in FY 2001 brought a considerable influx of financial resources to the wildland fire community. Rural fire departments benefited from this increase through the Volunteer Fire Assistance program, which climbed from $2 million to a program high of $13 million. They also benefited from the newly created Rural Fire Assistance program in the Department of the Interior, which received initial funding of $10 million.
The U.S. Fire Administration also began a new grant program in FY 2001 aimed at increasing the safety, training, and response capacity of local fire departments. Known as the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program, this U.S. Fire Administration initiative began with an appropriation of $100 million and has risen to $750 million in FY 2003. Although it is not focused specifically on wildland firefighters, the AFG Program has elicited success stories related to grants for fire prevention, firefighting equipment and vehicles, and firefighter training.
 1997 National Resources Inventory, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
 Page 9 in the 2002 Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service report.
 National Interagency Fire Center statistics.
 Page 9 in the 2002 Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service report.
 Pages 104-106.
 Page 72.
 Pages 10, 13.
 Page 82-83.
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