Fire departments are under constant pressure to expand or improve their service, and they face many obstacles in doing that job.
In the 20 years from 1983 to 2002, the total number of fire department calls approximately doubled while the number of mutual-aid calls rose by more than 150 percent. Fire departments are depending more and more on their neighboring communities for help in fighting significant fires. In the same period, calls for medical aid more than doubled, reflecting the growing trend to consolidate emergency response within the fire department.
And in 2002 alone, almost a million calls involved hazardous materials and other hazardous conditions.
Of course, call counts don't capture the full range of services fire departments provide for their communities. Perhaps most important, the counts don't include such fire-prevention activities as inspections, plan reviews, and public fire education.
With all those demands, what are fire departments doing to maintain and improve their core firefighting services?
Among respondents to the ORC survey of fire chiefs, 29 percent said they believe their communities will open one or more fire stations over the next three years; 32 percent anticipate changing the response areas of one or more fire stations; and 43 percent foresee new automatic-aid agreements with neighboring communities.
Seventy-six percent of the chiefs expect to increase training requirements for their firefighters. And 65 percent expect further upgrades to communications systems. Seventy-one percent said their communities will install new hydrants in one or more areas, and 32 percent expect to add hauled-water operations.
New fire stations, improved water supplies, increased training, and all the other necessary improvements come at a high cost. In this era of tight municipal budgets, it's not surprising that most of the fire chiefs and other officials — 91 percent — said obtaining the necessary funding will be a significant obstacle to making improvements.
In fact, 11 percent of the respondents said that, over the next three years, they expect to consolidate fire districts to save money. And 7 percent expect their communities to close fire stations.
Funding is the most important obstacle to making improvements in the fire service, but it's not the only one. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents said that recruiting and retaining firefighters is another obstacle. The survey findings also indicate that the personnel issue hits hardest in small-town volunteer departments.
Three-quarters of the chiefs said that identifying the types of improvements they need to make is a significant obstacle, and 69 percent said that accessing adequate water supplies is an ongoing problem. An alarming 46 percent said that getting cooperation from the local water company is an obstacle to making improvements.