Fire service census: Beyond the numbers
A deeper look at the census numbers reveals both where we are and where we may be heading
The U.S. Fire Administration released its 2015 fire service census in mid October that gives us an interesting set of statistics on the state of the fire service in the United States.
On the surface, there is not much change from year to year. But perhaps more important are the analytic trends that we may see over time.
First, we might ask how valid is this information?
With more than 27,000 fire departments reporting, an approximately 90 percent participation rate, any pollster or research marketer would say that this data is highly accurate. In fact, most surveys are considered accurate with a 25 percent to 30 percent return rate for decision-making scenarios.
One of the first things we can deduce from the census is that for all intent, fire protection is still a local issue in the United States.
Eighty-seven percent of all fire departments in the country are volunteer or mostly volunteer — meaning that the fire service is still closely tied to local communities and provide several types of emergency services. Nearly 70 percent of all departments have only a single station.
In addition to fire protection, over 75 percent of all departments provide some sort emergency medical service — from first response to advanced life support. Again 75 percent of departments provide vehicle extrication, while slightly less provide some sort of wildland or brush fire response.
In order to determine trends in the fire service, I looked at some numbers from both 2005 and 2015. Surprisingly, the total number of firefighters reported in both years has held relatively constant, around 1.2 million throughout the entire country.
At first glance, this may seem to be good news. But over those same 10 years, the general population has grown from 296 million to an estimated 325 million — a nearly 10 percent increase.
In part, that is due to the increased life expectancy of our aging population. As more of the baby boomers grow older, they will increase the demand for fire and EMS.
So, the same 1.2 million firefighters are being called for essential emergency and non-emergency responses more times per day, per month and per year than the firefighters of a decade ago. In short, the resources are not increasing at the rate of demand.
The next time a local official says that fires are down and therefore you can get by with fewer firefighters, pull out your response statistics and remind them that we do more than firefighting. Also provide them with the demographics in your area to show that the overall service demand will be increasing, not decreasing, for many years to come.
Migration to paid departments
While some census statistics were not available by states, I can focus on another trend using Ohio as an example over the past decade.
When I left the position of state fire marshal, Ohio had 1,280 individual fire departments. That number has decreased to 1,143 in the current census — a drop of 10 percent. This confirms that in some states, consolidations and regionalization is a growing trend.
At the same time, Ohio's total number of firefighters has increased from approximately 43,500 to 50,000. In that same period, the number of career or mostly career departments has increased from 15 percent to 17 percent.
Without reading too much from the tealeaves, it would appear that some of that increase in the number of firefighters is in predominately career departments. This may also be a consequence of consolidations that now employ more firefighters in the career ranks.
What can we speculate for the future from this data?
As the array of candidates square off for the 2016 presidential election, there are several who have proposed various schemes for free secondary education including free college tuition. If that is an attractive concept to the upcoming generation, I'll add a caveat.
What if that educational benefit were tied to at least a three-year commitment to some sort of universal community service? In order to reap the benefit, a qualified individual seeking a college education would have to choose a service area — something akin to the National Guard, acting as a teacher's assistant, or becoming a firefighter in a local community.
A similar program has been used in Germany for decades and to this day there is no shortage of able-bodied volunteer firefighters in that country.
At one of my previous departments, we actively recruited college students from five colleges within a 25-mile radius of our community to become volunteer firefighters assigned to shifts at the station. We provided these students with the fire and EMS training they needed for state certification, a favorable environment for study, and access to high-speed internet.
At the same time, they were available to staff our initial response unit, providing better service to the community. Our regular compliment of firefighters still responded on all of the dispatches, but the overall response to the community was greatly enhanced.
As a secondary benefit, several of the students settled into the community after college and continued their service as volunteer firefighters or went on to the career ranks with a college degree.
A census such as the one provided by USFA is more than just numbers. Additionally, you need to do the analytical work to better understand the underlying trends behind these numbers and how they can be become a benefit for your department and your community.
Approach the census with an open, unbiased mind and perhaps you will see a new concept or discover a new idea that will help your department be more progressive — and one that will be around to report your progress in the 2025 USFA fire service census.