Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 2, 2015.

Local Focus

A groundbreaking NFPA survey sets out to define the challenges departments face and the resources they need to tackle the job.

FUEL MITIGATION IS CRUCIAL for combating the nation’s growing wildfire problem, but culture, politics, and geography can be significant barriers keeping communities from doing the work.

That’s one of the key findings in “Local Wildand/Urban Interface: Fire Department Wildfire Preparedness and Readiness Capabilities,” the new report of an ambitious NFPA project aimed at capturing, for the first time, how municipal fire departments nationwide are adjusting to their increased role in battling wildfire.

Over the course of several months, NFPA researchers interviewed 46 high-ranking fire officials from urban and rural departments on a variety of topics related to wildfire operations. The report relies heavily on the observations of participants, and interviewees were granted anonymity to encourage candor. The first phase of the project, published in November, includes 100-plus pages of insights from 25 interviewees on a range of wildfire preparedness topics, including wildland firefighter training, communication practices, interdepartmental cooperation, mitigation efforts, and more. The second part of the report will be published next summer.

“We attempted to present a clear picture of what departments are currently doing in regards to wildfire, and what the reasons were for the approaches they took,” said Hylton Haynes, the report’s lead author. “A lot of it is anecdotal, but it is important information that provides insight from the fire service that we can use to further understand the problems, shortcomings, and gaps, and how we should address them. This is unique research that hasn’t been done before.”

There’s a common public perception that battling wildfire is the job of highly trained hot shot crews in the Western U.S. In fact, out of more than 63,000 wildland fires reported last year, hot shot crews responded to just 112, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which tracks and manages the national deployment of wildfire suppression resources. In terms of sheer numbers, municipal fire departments—better equipped and trained for structure fires—are handling a larger portion of wildfire duties. That raises questions about training and preparedness; according to NFPA’s 2011 U.S. Needs Assessment Survey of the fire service, 68 percent of the fire departments that perform wildland firefighting reported that their personnel are not formally trained to perform those tasks.

Unlike national wildfire assets, no one has closely tracked what resources municipal departments have or need to suppress wildfires. There is scant information on how assets are deployed, how well municipal firefighters are trained in wildland firefighting tactics, the type of equipment most commonly used, or the ways departments are working with their communities on wildfire mitigation.

Haynes said he hopes this new study can begin to close those gaps. “The interviewees are pragmatic,” he said. “They know that they should and could be doing a better job, and they’re taking steps to achieve that. There is a philosophy behind what they’re doing, and there is also adaptation and continual improvement.”

Mitigation: Different strokes for different folks

Of the many issues addressed in the report, working with residents on wildfire risk reduction seemed to vary the most from region to region, and department to department—it also garnered the most insight and frustration from interviewees. In some parts of the country, residents resent fire departments asking them to clear fuels from private lands. In other regions, residents not only embrace mitigation, they expect the fire department to do the work for them. Some fire departments have robust mitigation and education programs, while others keep the task at arm’s length.

That wildfire mitigation work would illicit such ambivalence is not surprising to Haynes. “Historically, fire departments have focused primarily on fire suppression and control responsibilities,” he said. “This is a time of transition for many departments.”

Virtually all the fire officials interviewed said that reducing fuels in the environment, especially within 100 feet of a house, is critical for protecting homes in the wildland/urban interface (WUI). What seems to be in question is who is responsible for doing the work, and how best to educate the public to the fact that the work needs to be done. In some places, the public gets it; in others not as much. Sometimes it’s the firefighters who need to be educated. Culture, politics, and geography all figure into the discord.

“[Because of] the culture of fire in western states and western communities … people are familiar with fire, they live with it, it's an acceptable and realistic part of their life,” said an urban fire captain in the South. “The culture [in the South] has got to shift to a greater realization of what the [wildfire] problem really is and how to really fix it. Culture is the major barrier.”

A fire brigade chief addresses residents during a wildfire event in California.
​OUT IN FRONT A local fire brigade chief addresses residents during a wildfire event in California. Responders say cultivating partnerships with their communities is critical for maintaining wildfire safety. ​Photograph: Reuters

But even in rural Western communities, where fire is a known threat, other types of cultural challenges to mitigation exist. “A lot of people move out here because they're tired of dealing with their neighbors in the city or something like that,” said a chief in the rural West. “There's just this culture [where] they understand what needs to be done, but they're not necessarily cooperative and working with each other to get it done.”

Resistance and distrust of government agencies and programs is common in many rural areas, making mitigation programs a tough sell, the report found. Conversely, in more urban areas, homeowners sometimes go to the other extreme. “We’ve actually seen in some places that when fire agencies try to do these things, it becomes an entitlement for people,” said Michele Steinberg, manager of NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division. “People think the fire department is supposed to come out and do all of this stuff for them. There is a fuzzy line—what is government supposed to be doing, and what are people supposed to be doing for themselves?”

One urban chief in the Midwest lamented that residents didn’t take ownership of the mitigation effort, despite fire department pleas, because they believe in the end that firefighters will save their homes if anything goes wrong. “But we don't have unlimited resources,” the chief cautioned. “The fire may … burn your house down, lives could be lost, and we may or may not be able to protect it. We’re trying to shift the responsibility from government to the property owner.”

The lax attitude among some property owners toward mitigation can breed resentment or apathy among firefighters, said an urban chief in the West. If residents don’t care, why should firefighters? “I think a lot of the philosophy that drives the firefighters’ resistance to mitigation work is the push back, so to speak, [that] it's an individual homeowner responsibility,” the chief said. “When it comes to clearing brush from Mrs. Smith's yard, it's probably dependent on her to do that. We can give her the recommendations, but I don't know that it's going to be a budgetary item for me to take my guys to go out and clear brush away from her house.”

In some cases, it’s the fire department’s lack of enthusiasm that stymies the effort, according to a staff chief of an urban department in the West. “We have a lot of community members who are gung-ho and want to be involved in making their communities more fire safe, and we as the fire department have to be at the table with them,” he said. “[But] there's some resistance [among firefighters] because that's not the glamorous, fun stuff that they want to do. I don't believe that most paid employees have fully embraced the prevention concept as part of their paradigm. I think if you were to poll them, and if they were honest, most of them would say, ‘That's somebody else's job.’”

A fire captain in the urban South held a similar view. “There's still some cultural resistance to anything wildfire,” he said. The firefighters “don't see or understand the significance of, say, a public education program here in the suburbs. They say, ‘No, that doesn't affect us.’”

Despite the numerous obstacles impeding risk reduction efforts, the report concluded that the vast majority of fire chiefs “seem steadfast in their belief in the importance of increasing community awareness of wildfire risk and community engagement in mitigation efforts.”

Most of the departments represented in the study have wildfire prevention education and outreach programs that include efforts such as going door-to-door, hosting open houses, handing out information at community events, and more. Most draw on resources from programs such as NFPA’s Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities; the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Ready, Set, Go!; and the Smokey Bear campaign, among others, which stress prevention, preparedness, and proactive fuel reduction.

“I like components of several different programs—I love Ready, Set, Go! I love the Fire Adapted Communities stuff,” said a fire chief in the rural South. “I think you've got to have different tools in your toolbox based on the communities, the demographics of the community, your road infrastructure, the whole nine yards.”

“As a general rule, these programs are exceptionally good at doing what they’re designed to do, and that is to create awareness by everyone,” added one captain in the urban South. “The more the merrier, in my opinion.”

Numerous interviewees shared that sentiment, which is both encouraging and “fascinating,” said Steinberg, who works closely with the Firewise and Fire Adapted Communities programs at NFPA.

“It’s a little surprising, because it seems like we’ve been beaten over the head with the notion that there should be one national program, that having multiple programs is too confusing for people,” she said. “The fact is that every jurisdiction will tailor these programs and come up with its own solutions. Fire chiefs are saying, ‘We like the basic concept, now let’s see how we can integrate it. We don’t care how many programs we have.’”

Particular concerns

Mitigation efforts and challenges weren’t the only issues discussed in the report. The fire chiefs and officers interviewed also offered an intriguing picture of how departments of varying sizes and circumstances use the resources available to confront the wildfire threat.

Nationwide, many departments share the same approaches, regardless of size or region, the report found. For instance, most departments choose to purchase fire apparatus that can be used in both structural and wildfire response. Also, methods of communicating wildfire hazards with the public are similar across departments, with virtually all using a variety of means, such as department websites, social media platforms, and more traditional methods such as press releases and colored flags in front of fire stations. Personal protective equipment (PPE) compliance is also high across the country, according to the interviewees.

However, there were observations in the report that seemed unique to regions or even individual departments. A fire chief in the urban South, for instance, said that firefighters there use structural PPE when battling wildfire blazes, because the local vegetation burns so hot. “We place them in structural gear so they can be more aggressive in fighting the fire,” said the chief. “Wildland fires down here are different from wildland fires out West. The material being burned has an output of a higher BTU than other vegetation.”

In other cases, the challenges seemed universal, but solutions varied. Fifteen of 25 interviewees said communication during a fire event was a significant issue, with the most common problems being radio malfunctions and radio incompatibility with other agencies. One chief in the rural Midwest described a communications failure during a WUI fire incident. “As incident commander, that was probably the time when I was most afraid that [somebody was going to get hurt] in the fire,” he said “Not only did we have people working on the fire already trying to communicate back and forth, we also had a lot of resources that were coming into the incident. All of a sudden, no communications.”

For some departments, the solution has been to reprogram radios when necessary to be compatible with nearby agencies—a big task if you have 800 radios, as one chief in the rural West reported. Another common way to deal with incompatibility is to purchase extra radios and set them on the frequencies of partner agencies. That has its own challenges, “especially when you’re a chief officer and you’re expected to monitor three to four different frequencies and you only have two radios,” said a rural Western battalion chief. Some departments work through dispatchers to relay messages between agencies with incompatible radios, while others have invested in state-of-the-art radio equipment that provides a wide range of systems and frequencies.

A battalion chief in the urban West thought better training is essential to fixing the issue. “Communications should be emphasized at every training that we do with our mutual aid partners—finding out for sure what frequencies they have available,” he said.

The report agrees, recommending further research to “evaluate the best ways of managing radio and related technology, training, dispatch, incident procedures, and command structure.”

Informing research groups such as the Fire Protection Research Foundation about gaps in understanding was one of the aims of the wildfire project, Haynes said. Providing broad information about what is going on in the field will also benefit NFPA technical committees such as those on NFPA 1906, Wildland Fire Apparatus, NFPA 1051, Wildland Firefighter Professional Qualifications, and NFPA 1143, Wildland Fire Management, he said.

The second phase of the project will be published next summer and will include excerpts from all 46 interviews, along with additional topics including precarious situations on the fireground, situational awareness, all-volunteer fire departments, firefighter health and fitness, and a comprehensive look at the differences between how fire departments in the Eastern and Western U.S. approach wildfire.

“There is still a lot of work left because of the sheer amount of information we collected,” Haynes said.

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer for NFPA Journal. He can be reached at Top Photograph: Corbis Images