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NASF Report

Executive Summary


An Overview of Rural and Volunteer Fire Departments

Issues and Recommended Actions



Appendices – Case Studies

NAPA Report

Title Page



Executive Summary

Enhancing Local Firefighting Capacity

Panel Conclusions and Recommendations




The Changing Role and Needs of Local, Rural, and Volunteer Fire Departments in the Wildland-Urban Interface


The objective of this report is to highlight the changing role and needs of local fire departments with regard to wildland fire, and to recommend actions that will improve their ability to safely and effectively carry out these roles—particularly in the rapidly growing Wildland-Urban Interface. 

Local Fire Departments Perform Critical Role

According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are more than one million active firefighters serving in local [1] fire departments across the nation. A significant portion of this community-based protection is provided by more than 24,000 rural fire departments with over 658,000 volunteer firefighters. This contrasts to the less than 16,000 full-time and seasonal wildland firefighters employed by the federal agencies.

Often completely volunteer, these local resources are frequently the first to respond to a fire start in both wildland and Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) areas. Their ability to quickly take action allows them to efficiently contain or suppress a fire and can prevent the fire from:

·       Exploding out of control.

·       Threatening lives and property.

·       Consuming significant natural and financial resources.

Federal wildland fire organizations estimate that—working cooperatively through initial response—firefighters successfully contain up to 98 percent of wildland fire starts at less than 300 acres.  [2]

The remaining two percent of wildfire incidents:

·       Often become large, extremely damaging events.

·       Account for up to 85 percent of federal suppression expenditures.

·       Incur substantial costs to governments, communities, and homeowners.

National Fire Plan Responds to Dramatic Fire Season

After the dramatic 2000 wildfire season, then-President Clinton directed the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to develop a plan to address the wildland fire and hazardous fuels situation, as well as the need for habitat restoration and rehabilitation across the nation. The resulting documents and associated Congressional language and appropriations (FY 2001 Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act [P.L. 106-291]), are commonly referred to as the National Fire Plan (NFP).

In addition to supporting this national plan, Congress further directed the federal agencies to develop the Ten-Year Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Wildland Fire Risks to Communities and the Environment by working in full partnership with state, tribal, and local governments—in collaboration with citizens and stakeholders at all levels.

To accomplish this, the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) convened a national, geographically diverse group representing all levels of government, tribal interests, conservation and commodity organizations, and community-based restoration groups.

The Ten-Year Comprehensive Strategy, finalized in August 2001, included four primary goals:

·       Improve Fire Prevention and Suppression.

·       Reduce Hazardous Fuels.

·       Restore Fire Adapted Ecosystems.

·       Promote Community Assistance.

To more clearly define these goals and to identify specific actions and performance measures, a subsequent Implementation Plan was developed and released in May 2002.

Local Fire Departments Recognized

The authors of the Ten-Year Comprehensive Strategy and its Implementation Plan recognized the importance of local fire departments in achieving Goal One: Improve Fire Prevention and Suppression. Thus, a specific Implementation Task under this Goal directs federal, state, and local fire organizations to:

Assess the training, equipment, safety awareness and services provided by rural, volunteer, and other firefighters who work in the Wildland-Urban Interface and report to Congress.

The National Association of State Foresters subsequently convened a representative steering group of local, state, and national firefighting interests to respond to this directive—the first step in creating this report. Core Team members included the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), along with the National Association of State Foresters, the National Association of Counties, the USDA Forest Service, and the Department of the Interior (DOI).

Improving the Effectiveness of All Wildland Firefighting Efforts

In developing this report, the Core Team relied on the 1994 Fire Protection in Rural America (FPIRA) report and the 2002 Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service—developed cooperatively by the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association—as a foundation for its recommendations. The team also considered individual state and local fire department assessments and trends in technical and financial assistance programs. [3]

Key questions for the Core Team’s initial review included:

·       What is the current role of rural, volunteer, and other local fire departments in fighting wildland fire?

·       What unique challenges are posed by fire suppression in the Wildland-Urban Interface?

·       Are local fire departments able to safely and effectively fulfill these roles?

·       What programs are in place to help local firefighters improve their preparedness for wildland fire?

·       What changes or improvements are needed to increase the fire departments’ preparedness to respond to wildland fire?

The 2002 Needs Assessment indicates that 84 percent of local fire departments provide some level of wildland fire protection. In communities under 2,500, the percentage rises to nearly 90 percent. [4] The objective of this report to Congress is to highlight the changing role and needs of local fire departments with regard to wildland fire, and to recommend actions that will improve their ability to safely and effectively carry out these roles—particularly in the rapidly growing Wildland-Urban Interface. 

This report’s Core Team found that enhanced firefighting capacity and increased interagency coordination at the local level will ultimately improve the effectiveness of all wildland firefighting efforts by:

·       Moderating risks to firefighters and the public.

·       Increasing the percentage of fires contained through quick and efficient initial response.

·       Reducing the demand for costly suppression and rehabilitation actions necessitated by large, high-intensity wildfires.

·       Increasing the ability of local fire fighters and local governments to collaboratively prevent fires through proactive planning.


[1] Throughout this report “local” refers to entities working under the jurisdiction of a town, city, county, or other level of local government.
National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) 2002 statistics.
Although it could not be completed in time for this report, NASF is also conducting a comprehensive survey of local fire departments in each state, using a recent Texas survey as a model. The results of this nationwide effort are expected in July 2004 and should provide much needed detail to the issues highlighted here.
Page 42 in the 2002 Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service.



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