The Changing Role and Needs of Local, Rural, and Volunteer Fire Departments in the Wildland-Urban Interface
Issues and Recommended Actions
Wildland Fire Training
Local fire departments perform a critical role in affecting the progress of a wildland fire. These “closest forces” are often first on the scene of a wildland fire start. They have knowledge of local landscapes and fire conditions that helps them operate effectively in the Wildland-Urban Interface. Assisting these key responders in obtaining the training and resources they need results in multiple benefits to the public as well as to all wildland firefighting entities.
Safe and effective initial response requires a basic level of training in wildland fire. An incident in the Wildland-Urban Interface also demands structural firefighting skills. According to the National Wildfire Coordination Group, an introductory-level wildland firefighter should:
The 2002 Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service (developed cooperatively by the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association), reveals that an estimated 41 percent of fire department personnel involved in wildland firefighting lack formal training in the above (listed) duties.  While this need for adequate training impacts communities of all sizes, the need is greater for smaller communities—which are also more likely to provide wildland firefighting as a service. In communities of less than 2,500 people, nearly half of those participating in wildland firefighting have no formal training. More significantly, only 26 percent of fire departments feel they can handle a Wildland-Urban Interface fire affecting 500 acres with trained local personnel. 
Numerous wildland fire training opportunities currently exist at the local, state, and national level, including several state or multi-state fire academies undertaken in recent years. The U.S. Fire Administration has also expanded its wildland fire training opportunities for the rural and volunteer fire community with two new courses focused specifically on wildland fire operations in the urban interface. Unfortunately, most local firefighters—particularly volunteer personnel—still find it difficult to accommodate the costs and time commitment associated with the current range of programs.
In addition, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) training standards lack an adequate system for recognizing the experience and qualifications of local firefighters. This lack of reciprocity in training standards creates a barrier that can inhibit good working relationships between local and federal firefighters.
Issue One – Wildland Fire Training
· Federal wildland fire agencies—including the U.S. Fire Administration—should work with local, state and national fire organizations, including existing state wildfire academies, the National Fire Academy, the National Association of State Fire Training Directors (NASFTD), and the National Fire Protection Association, to develop a performance-based wildland fire training “delivery package” that targets volunteer and rural fire departments. This package should include the following elements:
§ On-site delivery of training.
§ Three-hour training blocks.
§ Evening and weekend training options.
§ Virtual and distance education opportunities.
§ Hands-on training and field exercises.
· Federal and state wildland fire agencies should work cooperatively to identify and establish a sufficient number of skilled wildland fire trainers in each state or region. This effort should consider opportunities for—or the development of—“train-the-trainer” programs that would build a cadre of locally-based training resources.
· States and federal agencies should consider paying a fair stipend to local government trainers to assist in delivering training packages. The level of increased training suggested in this report goes beyond the duties of a volunteer training officer.
· State and federal agencies should expand and promote training opportunities that facilitate the formation of local Type 3 Incident Management Teams. State and federal financial assistance should be offered to help volunteer firefighters attend advanced training, particularly if they agree to participate in the national cadre or are pursuing much needed national qualifications (such as Strike Team Leader and Division Group Supervisor).
· State and federal agencies should study the possibility of establishing a “reserve wildland firefighter” program based on the military model of augmenting regular forces during times of national emergency. Through this program, volunteer firefighters would commit to and be compensated for annual training and participation in a minimum number of wildland fire assignments. The federal government, in cooperation with states, would agree to provide the necessary training opportunities at a time convenient to volunteers and to also compensate them for time spent in training.
(See Appendix A Case Study.)
Efficient Interagency Response
The authors of the 1994 Fire Protection in Rural America report found that: “Rural fire protection in America is provided through a loose-knit, multi-jurisdictional partnership, with each partner representing an essential building block in the system.” The report also notes that significant and unacceptable losses occur when these partners are unable to share their resources and coordinate their response actions. Although the 2002 Needs Assessment report indicates improvement in the number of written interagency and mutual-aid agreements between local, state and federal entities, the concurrent growth in the Wildland-Urban Interface has increased the complexity of responding to a multi-jurisdictional fire.
Confusion continues to exist over who is responsible for protecting structures in the Wildland-Urban Interface and how and when to use local personnel for extended attack on a fire under state or federal jurisdiction. This uncertainty over authorities and jurisdiction can impede the initial response to a wildfire, lead to the inefficient use of all available suppression resources and, ultimately, place firefighter and public lives at risk. Much of this dangerous ambiguity is driven by concerns over qualifications, standards, and even personal liability.
In an effort to improve firefighter safety and effectiveness, state and federal wildland fire agencies have developed a national, interagency qualification and certification system for use in mobilizing personnel for wildland fire assignments across the country. The purpose of the system is to ensure that mobilized personnel meet specific training and experience requirements for the positions to which they are assigned.
As part of this system, an individual receives classroom training and demonstrates a required knowledge or skill level through the completion of a position task book. These task books often require participation in an actual fire assignment. In some cases, skills can be documented through drills and prescribed fire operations. After successful completion of the classroom instruction and the position task book, an individual is issued a qualifications card, also known as a “red card,” which lists the positions that the individual is qualified for under the national system.
Because the Red Card system was developed initially to serve federal needs, it does not effectively account for the equivalent training and experience of local firefighters. This creates tension during wildfire response. In general, it is the policy of federal wildland fire agencies—and some state agencies—to require that rural fire cooperators meet these standards if they wish to participate in fires under federal (or state) jurisdiction. As a result, federal or state fire managers may believe they are unable to use trained, local fire personnel. They therefore believe they must order “qualified” firefighters from other—often distant—locations.
In Wildland-Urban Interface situations, a decision not to use local forces because of their lack of a Red Card is often erroneous. Furthermore, it can result in delayed action and considerable additional expense. Rural fire departments typically have the jurisdictional authority for structure protection. Thus, they have the legal right to be engaged in the surrounding wildfire suppression actions—regardless of whether or not their personnel meet federal or state qualifications.
In a growing number of states, federal and state wildland fire agencies have developed written mutual aid agreements with local and rural fire departments to clarify jurisdictional responsibilities. It is critical that these agreements be updated and revised to reflect the increasingly complex situations many responders confront within the Wildland-Urban Interface. Of particular concern is the question of how to divide suppression costs between federal, state, and local entities involved in a Wildland-Urban Interface incident.
Issue Two – Efficient Interagency Response
Improve coordination with—and make more effective use of—local and rural fire department personnel as follows:
Improve and expand mutual aid and related agreements that allow for increased integration and use of local resources:
(See Appendix B Case Studies.)
Initial Attack/Emergency Communications Capability
Fire departments represented in the 1994 Fire Protection in Rural America report identified radio communications as one of their top three priorities for federal assistance. The 2000 Needs Assessment shows that this need continues for rural fire departments in which up to 50 percent of emergency responders on shift lack radios, and less than 50 percent of departments can communicate with “most” of their interagency partners on an incident.
The most common radio communications set-ups used by local, state and federal entities are the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems. Within these systems, emergency responders use a wide range of frequency types and strengths. Rural fire departments, as well as state and federal wildland agencies, typically use the VHF High Band (150-174 MHZ). Other frequencies used include VHF Low Band (30-50 MHZ), UHF Low Band (400-512 MHZ), 800 MHZ Band and frequencies up to 3000 MHZ. These LMR systems are used in conventional, analog and digital modes as well as in trunking mode—in which many users share a common pool of radio channels. Channels from a trunking pool are allocated to users on demand and as they become unoccupied. No channels are allocated to specific users or groups of users.
This multitude of communications systems has led to two primary conflicts: frequency interference and lack of interoperability. Frequency interference occurs when a disturbance to any signal in a system causes additional, unwanted signals. Interference may be natural or human caused. Examples include “hum,” crosstalk, and image frequency. Short-term frequency interference issues have been resolved by temporary frequency assignments that are nationally allocated and managed by the National Interagency Incident Communications Division (NIICD) at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).
Improving interoperability and public safety communications will require: improved coordination and partnerships, spectrum management, funding, standards and technology and security.
Issue Three – Initial Attack/Emergency Communications Capability
· Federal and state programs that provide grant funding for local and rural fire departments to purchase equipment should prioritize the acquisition of radio communications technology that will facilitate interoperability between local departments and their state and federal counterparts. Granting agencies should also provide policy direction that radios purchased through federal funding must be narrow-band compatible.
· Local, state, and federal firefighting agencies in each state should develop cooperative agreements or plans for interagency frequency use to mitigate interoperability problems and promote efficient frequency utilization and management. They should then provide training in frequency management and the use of cross-banding/interoperability equipment.
· The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should dedicate a significant portion of the VHF high-band frequency range to common and mutual aid frequencies for fire fighting.
(See Case Studies Appendix C.)
Coordinated Federal and State Assistance
The 2002 Needs Assessment reveals that, within the U.S. fire service, rural fire departments are often poorly funded for the breadth of their responsibilities.
This recent survey data indicate that rural fire departments serving populations of fewer than 5,000 are dependent on local revenue and taxing districts for most of their funding. For communities of less than 2,500 residents, volunteer departments commonly listed donations and fund raisers as an important source of funds.  This situation has remained virtually unchanged since publication of the 1994 report.
In an attempt to address this problem, Congress has authorized and funded several grant programs. There are currently four national programs that make technical and financial assistance available to rural fire departments. The programs are administered by different federal agencies with a variety of application and qualification requirements.
The multitude of administrative requirements and differences involved in these programs creates a number of challenges for qualifying departments. For example, rural fire departments must fill out separate applications for each grant program at different times of the year. Each application process requires much of the same information, but is organized differently. This makes the overall process excessively difficult, confusing, and time consuming for department personnel.
In addition, each federal agency typically uses different criteria to evaluate grant applications and reviews them using separate processes. While it is true that in some states, the Rural Fire Assistance and Volunteer Fire Assistance program applications are reviewed using a single, interagency process, it is not uniform across all granting agencies. The U.S. Fire Administration uses a national on-line process that has been very well received by fire departments, while the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior use a state-by-state process. The existence of uncoordinated granting systems is confusing. It also allows for the distinct possibility that the same, well-written grant application could be funded by more than one agency for the same purpose.
In an attempt to address these problems, the U.S. Fire Administration, the USDA Forest Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Association of State Foresters recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that took a first step toward better coordination among the three grant programs (Volunteer Fire Assistance, Rural Fire Assistance, and Assistance to Firefighters) and seven primary organizations. Although helpful, this MOU only provides for general cooperation and coordination in reviewing applications, as well as for the sharing of information about pending grant awards. While this will help reduce duplicate grant awards, it does not resolve the issue of multiple applications and the administrative workload this places on small, volunteer and rural departments.
An additional coordination concern is the lack of a uniform and integrated national fire occurrence reporting system. The absence of such a system inhibits multi-agency efforts to accurately determine the scope and extent of our nation’s wildland fire problem. Currently, many (but not all) rural fire departments report wildland fires through the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), managed by the U.S. Fire Administration. Some state agencies also report through NFIRS, but most continue to use stand-alone state systems. Federal wildland fire agencies also use separate, independent systems for compiling wildland fire statistics.
The NWCG has recognized this reporting problem and is currently initiating an effort to develop a national, integrated system for reporting state and federal fire occurrence. At this time, it is still uncertain if this effort will result in a common system and how—or if—local government’s wildland fires will be included.
Issue Four – Coordinated Federal and State Assistance
· Federal and state entities that provide financial assistance to local fire departments should establish a coordination mechanism that reduces or eliminates duplicate applications and awards between the programs.
· Federal, state, and local entities should seek to establish and maintain an effective level of funding and an equitable matching requirement for all firefighter assistance programs and work to increase funding focused specifically on the needs of rural and volunteer firefighters in the Wildland-Urban Interface.
· The USDA Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior should establish—in cooperation with the National Association of State Foresters—a single application process for available Volunteer Fire Assistance and Rural Fire Assistance program funds in each state. In addition, it should be required that the state and federal agencies administering these programs work cooperatively to set funding priorities, select grant recipients, and avoid duplication.
· Federal agencies should work cooperatively with state and local firefighting entities to develop an improved reporting system for tracking accomplishments made through grant and cost-share programs.
· States, federal wildland agencies, and the U.S. Fire Administration should work with local fire departments to jointly pursue the development of a uniform, national fire reporting system that integrates wildland fire occurrence data from all federal, state, and local government sources.
· The U.S. Fire Administration should develop a web-based “short form” for the reporting of fires. This form, designed for local departments that respond to less than 100 calls per year, should be easy to use and quick to fill out.
· Federal, state, and local agencies should actively support efforts to raise the screening priority for state and local governments with regard to Federal Excess Personal Property.
(See Case Study Appendix D.)
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