Since the early days of the Republic, volunteer firefighters have played a key role in providing fire protection in communities across the U.S. The last several decades, however, the number of active volunteer firefighters has continued to decline as older members retire and are not replaced by younger members.
According to the most recent NFPA estimates, of the approximately 1,056,200 local firefighters in the US in 2017, volunteer firefighters numbered 682,600 (65%).
Figure 1. National Fire Protection Association. U.S. Fire Department Profile. March 2019. https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/News-and
The recruitment of new volunteer firefighters and the retention of incumbent members has been a source of much discussion and numerous articles have been authored including A New Paradigm for Volunteer Fire Department Recruitment which appeared in this space in 2017.
And while volunteer fire departments continue those efforts to attract new members and keep their existing members, those fire departments should not lose sight of their mission: protect people in their community from fires.
To continue to meet such a mission, volunteer fire departments must change their paradigm of what it is they can do for the communities they serve. Today that paradigm is a suppression-centric focus of responding to fires after they’ve started. But with reduced available staffing, those same departments must shift more towards a prevention-centric focus, that is, preventing fires before they start (And we’re not talking about more station tours with plastic fire helmets and stickers and coloring books. We’re talking about…just keep reading to get to the “good stuff!”).
The volunteer fire department, particularly in the U.S., has traditionally been one of the hub organizations in a community. Those same fire departments can leverage that position to become the pivot point for fire and life safety education programs. Programs delivered by people from across the community’s demographics to help their fellow citizens learn how to avoid becoming a victim of a preventable fire.
A community where it’s Fire Prevention Week 52 weeks a year, not just one week in October. Where preventable fires become a thing of the past and where calls for service for fires to the local volunteer fire department steadily decrease. What a powerful vision, right?
Here are four steps that a volunteer fire department must take to change their mission focus if they are to survive and continue to serve their community.
1. Change your department’s culture. The fire service culture is predominantly one where fire suppression “rules” when it comes to the budget, equipment, and people. And that’s all well and good, but what good is all that equipment if there’s nobody to respond with it?
That culture is also very parochial, especially when it comes to fire prevention education: Nobody can teach fire safety unless they’re a firefighter or employee of the fire department. With the right tools and some guidance, anyone with the motivation can teach fire and life safety classes. Don’t believe it? Just wait until you get to Step #3 below!
(For more about #1, check out this past post of mine, Fire Prevention and Suppression: The Fire Service’s Identity Crisis, http://www.fireemsleaderpro.org/2015/06/16/fire-prevention-suppression/).
2. Conduct a Community Risk Reduction Assessment
A Community Risk Reduction (CRR) program should consist of identifying and seeking solutions for all the emergencies for which a department has a high probability for a response. Notice I said probability and not possibility in that last sentence.
While the possibilities for emergency response by a department may be limitless, engaging in true Community Risk Reduction activities can “narrow” those possibilities to a more manageable list of probabilities. Doing so can enable a fire department AND its community to better match resources to those high probability problems.
A great resource for helping you and your department to conduct an effective CRR assessment and do so efficiently with your limited resources is Virtual Community Risk Reduction (Virtual CRR). Developed by a firefighter, VCRR is an Internet-based program designed to help fire departments and the communities that they serve in conducting a CRR assessment.
The program then gives you and your department the data needed to make decisions that maximize community resources to reduce those risks. To learn more, check out this introductory video.
3. Increase your cadre of people who can teach fire and life safety programs in the community.
One does not have to be a trained and certified firefighter to be capable of communicating vital fire and life safety information to members of the community. Imagine, if you will, a program facilitated by the local volunteer fire department where:
- Stay-at-home moms and dads can teach their own children and facilitate their on-line learning;
- School teachers have the tools and knowledge to incorporate fire and life safety learning throughout the school year (Imagine September being “Check Your Smoke Alarm Month” or December being “Holiday Fire Safety Month”).
- Other community organizations (e.g., libraries, recreational centers, after-school programs) and community service organizations (e.g., Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Lions Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, and such) can deliver programs and conduct activities that help develop people in the community, young and old, how to be more fire savvy.
And here’s the good part: The research and development for such a tool has already been done. The FireED Community can help volunteer fire departments thrive by offering the FireED Interactive System, including an out-of-the box teaching tool with a detailed instructional guide—developed and tested by professional fire and life safety educators. This gives any capable adult the ability to deliver a meaningful fire and life safety program to a group of children as young as 3-years-old.
But beyond that, the FireED Community offers an extensive number of on-line tools to help you and your fire department to create community-based solutions to those fire problems identified in you CRR assessment.
Paradigm change is certainly not for the faint of heart, but I believe you’ll get the point from the late Henry Ford who said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”