Fourth NFPA Fire Service Needs Assessment Report Shows Progress, but Significant Challenges Remain

By Dave Finger, NVFC Chief of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs

In November the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released the Fourth Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service. The report was based on responses to a survey that the NFPA circulated to the entire fire service in 2015. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), along with other major national fire service organizations, collaborated with the NFPA in developing the survey questions and encouraging fire departments to respond. NFPA previously conducted surveys in 2001, 2005, and 2010 in order to compile information for the three previous U.S. Fire Service Needs Assessments.

The new report shows that all- and mostly-volunteer fire departments protect 87 percent of communities in the United States and 37 percent of the population. This is the same as the percentages from 2010, although there has been a small shift from all- to mostly-volunteer departments. Since 2001, there has been a noticeable decrease in the percentage of fire departments staffed by only volunteers, as well as the percentage of the population protected by all-volunteer agencies. However, due to population growth the total number of people protected by all- and mostly-volunteer fire departments is roughly the same today as it was in 2001.

Source: NFPA

Source: NFPA

The report shows that significant progress has been made since 2001 in departments protecting small communities pursuing state certification for their members. In 2001, 14 percent of the fire service overall and nearly 30 percent of fire departments serving communities with populations of 2,500 or fewer residents were involved with structural firefighting despite having no firefighters certified. Today the number of firefighters overall and in the smallest communities in fire departments where no one involved in structural firefighting is certified has shrunk by approximately two-thirds.

2001

Source: NFPA

2015

Source: NFPA

Still, challenges remain. While the overwhelming majority of fire departments today have at least some personnel certified, the number of departments where at least some personnel involved in structural firefighting are not certified is only down six percent since 2001, and has actually increased since the 2010 survey.

Source: NFPA

One likely reason for this, particularly in fire departments protecting smaller communities, is a lack of resources. Although progress is being made, the Needs Assessment report continues to show a significant gap in training and equipment needs in small fire departments compared to large fire departments. This is due to the fact that communities with smaller tax bases struggle to afford all of the tools that modern fire departments need.

Source: NFPA

Overall, the number of volunteer firefighters in the United States is down somewhat since 2001 but little changed from the 2005 and 2010 surveys.

Source: NFPA

Although the topline number of volunteer firefighters has been relatively stable, there have been several significant shifts in volunteer staffing trends that suggest significant underlying challenges. First, based on data provided in NFPA’s annual U.S. Fire Department Profile reports we know that at least in communities with populations of 2,500 or fewer residents, where volunteers make up more than 95 percent of all firefighters, the number of older firefighters has been steadily increasing for years. The percentage of firefighters over the age of 50 serving in these communities has increased from 18 in 2000 to more than 33 today. Because the number of younger firefighters serving in very small communities today is much lower than in the past, it appears unlikely that continued increases in older firefighter numbers are sustainable.

Additionally, the survey for the Fourth Needs Assessment asked fire departments for the first time about use of support staff and exterior-only firefighters. For years the NVFC has been hearing anecdotally from our members that they are increasingly deploying partial-duty personnel to help cover staffing gaps. Unsurprisingly, the report found that use of partial-duty staff is more prevalent in smaller communities that rely on volunteer firefighters.

Source: NFPA

Source: NFPA

Overall, the Fourth Needs Assessment report provides a wealth of information about the U.S. Fire Service that will help fire chiefs and policy makers at all levels of government make decisions. The NVFC thanks the thousands of fire departments that took the time to participate in the survey that was used in developing this critical report.

View the full report of the Fourth Needs Assessment here.