5 critical issues facing volunteer firefighters

Addressing these five broad issues should be a high priority for the volunteer fire service in the coming year

By Philip C. Stittleburg, Chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council

As 2013 ends and we head into a new year, it is a good opportunity for the fire service to take stock of where we currently stand and where we are heading. Here's a look at a five critical issues that should be dominating the dialogue as we enter 2014.

Recruit and retain
One of the most significant challenges facing the volunteer fire service is retention and recruitment.

We often focus on fire service-specific issues like a lack of leadership or increased training and certification standards. But the fact of the matter is that the population of communities served by volunteers is both shrinking and aging.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, between April 2010 and July 2012 the estimated population of non-metro counties fell for the first time in recorded history. In other words, the pool of potential recruits that volunteer departments have to draw from is smaller than it used to be.

Volunteers remain a crucial part of the nation's fire service, comprising 69 percent of firefighters. However, the model for volunteer fire departments is changing by necessity. Agencies should be honest with the communities they serve about the challenges they face and what their response capabilities are.

More emphasis needs to be made on prevention, public education and code adoption to reduce the number and severity of fires. Rural agencies in particular need to maximize their use of the human capital available to them by doing a better job of recruiting women and minorities and making them feel welcome.

Federal government
A new issue that emerged in 2013 was implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) and how it could impact volunteers. The NVFC asked the IRS to clarify that volunteers will not be treated as employees under the PPACA, but to this point we have received no feedback as to how they will proceed.

Without clarification, starting in 2015 some volunteer agencies could end up facing penalties for not offering insurance to their members. Most congressional offices we have talked to recognize that this would be a problem. However, because the PPACA is such a partisan lightning rod, getting Congress or the administration to act has proven to be extremely difficult.

Congress and the president are having a difficult time working together. Although most of the issues the fire service advocates for have broad, bi-partisan support, it is hard to get legislation passed when Congress is nearly paralyzed from partisan bickering.

For example, FY2014 funding levels for the AFG and SAFER programs were approved by the House of Representatives last June. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved similar funding levels in July. The House and Senate numbers differ slightly but meet or exceed the amount requested by the NVFC and other national fire service organizations.

AFG/SAFER funding hasn't moved forward since then, however, and Congress has yet to enact a single FY2014 appropriations bill because of disagreements about overall spending that contributed to a 16-day federal government shutdown in October.

It would be nice if the parties put aside their differences and worked together for the sake of the nation. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening any time soon.

Until the logjam is broken, it is important to recognize the downstream effects that the two parties' inability to compromise have on the volunteer fire service and to hold our federal elected officials responsible.

Wildland fire
Wildland fire is a growing problem for the nation and the volunteer fire service. The costs of suppressing wildland fire are increasing as development pushes into wilderness areas.

This puts pressure on the volunteer fire service as volunteers serve many of the jurisdictions under threat from wildland fire. Agencies must be adequately trained and equipped to respond to wildland fire.

This is difficult for departments that also have to worry about training and equipping personnel for response to structure fires, hazardous materials spills, EMS calls and other types of emergencies. The National Volunteer Fire Council advocates for restoration of funding for the Volunteer Fire Assistance program to help volunteer agencies prepare to respond to wildland fire.

Volunteer fire departments also can be a catalyst for helping the communities they serve become better prepared to withstand wildland fire. The NVFC is part of the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition, a group of partners committed to helping communities in the wildland-urban interface adapt to living with wildlfire and reduce their risk for damage.

The NVFC has also partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to establish the Wildland Fire Assessment Program to provide the volunteer fire service with training on how to properly conduct assessments for homes located in the wildland-urban interface.

Health and safety
Health and safety are ongoing concerns for the fire and emergency services, and the NVFC has released many resources to help departments make these a priority. These include the B.E.S.T. Practices for Firefighter Health and Safety, the Heart-Healthy Firefighter Program, vehicle safety initiatives, and health and safety training.

In recent years it has become very clear that behavioral health is just as important as physical health and safety and needs to be just as much a focus in fire and EMS departments. Firefighters deal with intense pressures and traumas on a daily basis, and this can have a significant impact on their mental well-being. 

PTSD, chronic stress and anxiety, sleep disorders and other behavioral-health issues impact not only the affected firefighter, but also the rest of the department and the family. Not addressing the behavioral-health needs of a firefighter or EMS provider could lead to significant emotional distress, addiction, unsafe behaviors at incident scenes, shattered familial and personal relationships, and even suicide.

It is critical that we as the fire service community understand how important behavioral health is and provide the necessary training and resources to our personnel to help them through any issue they may be facing. 

Reputation management
Fire departments typically have a respected and honorable place in the community, but actions by a few individuals can tarnish this reputation. One disturbing example of this is the firefighter arson problem.

While most firefighters would never dream of setting an unauthorized fire, there are about 100 reported cases of firefighter arson every year. Many departments never fully recover their reputation after a firefighter arsonist investigation or arrest. These cases also bring the entire fire service into question in many people's eyes.

To prevent cases of firefighter arson and help departments through mitigation in the event an incident does happen, the NVFC has released several resources including a prevention and recovery toolkit, a prevention video and poster, and training for both leadership and personnel.

Social media brings a new reputation-management challenge to departments. As social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have gained prominence, departments need to understand the importance of managing what is posted to these sites by personnel, either on behalf of the department or on their own time.

Inappropriate, reckless, illegal, or compromising posts by just one member of the department can damage the reputation of the entire department. Some posts could also have legal ramifications, such as if a department member provides information about an incident that compromises a victim's privacy.

Having clear and enforced social media policies in place is critical for departments to maintain the integrity and reputation they have spent years building in the community.

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