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Fire Departments Struggle to Meet New Demands

The job of a firefighter has changed almost beyond recognition. That, combined with lagging pay and personnel problems, is making it difficult to recruit enough of them.

The job of a firefighter isn’t what it used to be. Take Charlottesville, Va., for example, where in just the past 18 months the fire departments in the city and surrounding Albemarle County have searched the wreckage of a plane crash in a hard-to-reach wooded area, performed water rescues after spring floods, responded to the derailment of a passenger train carrying Republican members of Congress and, most memorably, provided medical assistance during white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, including one incident that left three people dead last summer. This was all in addition to dealing with downed power lines, an ammonia leak, frozen pipes and yes, even a few fires.

The workload of fire departments has grown substantially, even as their core mission -- putting out fires -- has dwindled. “Communities tend to lean on the fire service in times of crisis,” says Charlottesville Fire Chief Andrew Baxter. “People are looking to the fire service for leadership and partnership for all aspects of emergency response.”

But that ever-evolving mission has brought new strains. It requires training and planning for new dangers such as civil disturbances or active shooters. With increased call volumes, it requires more personnel at a time when a growing number of agencies are finding it difficult to recruit both career and volunteer firefighters, and to diversify their workforces to include more women and minorities. And it comes as some cash-strapped cities are questioning whether the old system of responding to larger call volumes by deploying more firefighters with bigger equipment at more fire stations is sustainable anymore.

As an affluent city of 47,000 that is home to the University of Virginia, Charlottesville is no backwater. But it’s stuggling with how to meet today’s new demands like everyone else. It alone couldn’t handle the events of  Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017, when white supremacists gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally and thousands of counterprotesters came out to oppose them. The city and county reached out to departments throughout the state to be ready with fire suppression, hazardous material controls and emergency medical teams to respond to events. The Charlottesville Fire Department ultimately helped coordinate a massive emergency response, one of the largest public safety deployments in Virginia history. 

Tensions were high. Local firefighters spent 72 hours in what fire officials describe as a combat environment. Baxter was worried enough about their condition to bring in mental health counselors from around the country who specialized in treating firefighters. That Monday, every Charlottesville firefighter took the day off. Five engine companies, a ladder truck, a battalion chief and four medic units from departments elsewhere in Virginia kept watch over the city. “We turned over fire and rescue duties for Charlottesville for 24 hours,” Baxter recalls. “Nobody said no. It was a special moment.”

And it’s a moment that’s emblematic of firefighters’ changing roles. In 2016, the last year for which data is available, fire departments in the United States responded to 35.3 million calls. That’s more than three times as many as in 1981, even though the U.S. population increased by only 42 percent. The striking thing is that, during that time, the number of fires that these departments responded to actually fell to less than half of the number in 1981. By 2016, fires made up less than 4 percent of all the calls that fire departments responded to. Medical emergencies accounted for 68 percent. 

The growing share of medical emergencies handled by fire departments is a long-developing trend, but departments still struggle to adjust to their changing mission. On the one hand, their new role as “all-risk, all-hazard” response teams makes them indispensable in disaster planning and mitigation. On the other hand, the more their core duties stray from fire suppression and rescues, the more difficult it is to train, recruit and retain the workers they need. “Our recruiting pamphlets for fire departments show people fighting fires in their bunker gear or pulling people out of vehicles,” says Thomas Jenkins, the fire chief in Rogers, Ark. “But the first thousand calls in a firefighter’s career may not involve any of those things. We save exponentially more people in emergency medical care. But we don’t do a good job educating people about what it is.”

There are several other reasons why recruiting and retention have grown more difficult. One is that the financial payoffs don’t look as attractive for salaried firefighters as they once did. Pensions for veteran firefighters have generally remained intact, but retirement benefits for new recruits are less generous than they were before the Great Recession. Salaries have been essentially flat, with national median pay hovering around $49,000 for the past several years. Now that the nation’s unemployment is down to around 4 percent, firefighters are looking at other opportunities earlier in their careers than they once did. Their training in emergency medicine can make them attractive candidates for jobs in  health-care professions, something that was not the case a couple of decades ago.

While there’s been a slight uptick in the number of career firefighters from 2010 to 2015, departments are still having a hard time meeting staffing demands. 

This is especially true in smaller jurisdictions. Industry standards require a minimum of four firefighters assigned to every engine or pumper. More than a third of cities with at least half a million people reported in 2015 that they did not meet that staffing threshold, compared with a fifth in 2010. But among cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000, 80 percent did not meet the four-fighters-per-engine standard. The unavoidable truth, says Jenkins, “is that we have a very legitimate recruitment and retention problem for full-time fire departments. Almost every department is seeing a decrease in people testing and applying to be firefighters.” The situation only promises to get worse as a wave of baby boom firefighters retires over the next several years.

Part of the problem is convincing candidates to sign up for the intense lifestyle of fire service. For career firefighters, for example, that usually means working a 24-hour shift and then getting two days off. “It’s hard to maintain a work-life balance with families and side jobs,” says Jenkins. “If you’ve had two or three calls after midnight, it’s tough to be a good dad, a good husband or to go to a second job.” 

Smaller departments that rely heavily or exclusively on volunteer firefighters have been grappling with this problem for a long time. Dave Finger of the National Volunteer Fire Council says the number of volunteers has remained about the same, but call volumes have increased significantly. Small-town residents who might be interested in volunteer fire work are traveling ever-longer distances to get to their regular jobs, leaving less time for pursuits like volunteering. 

Then there’s the simple matter of figuring out whose job it is to recruit new members when the whole department is made up of volunteers. “How much bandwidth does a volunteer fire chief have to engage in a professional recruitment campaign,” Finger asks, “when he or she also has to make sure everybody is trained, has to make sure that the department’s equipment is maintained, and has to get out there and respond to calls?” 

Many rural fire departments have switched from all volunteers to a mix of volunteers and career firefighters, specifically so they can have a full-time fire chief to take care of all the administrative tasks and paperwork. 

Meanwhile, fire departments are struggling to become more diverse; they are still overwhelmingly white and male. Among career firefighters, only about 5 percent are women. Blacks and Hispanics are also underrepresented. The gap is significantly wider in many major cities. But women and minorities are better represented among paramedics and emergency medical technicians working for fire departments -- 31 percent of paramedics and EMTs are women, 10 percent are black and 9 percent are Latino. Paramedics and EMTs are generally paid less than firefighters.  

In the #MeToo era, sexual harassment, misconduct and discrimination lawsuits against fire departments create serious image problems and recruitment obstacles. In Fairfax County, Va., the fire chief recently stepped down after years of criticism over how the department -- which is widely respected for its urban search-and-rescue team -- handled charges of bullying, favoritism and harassment. The scrutiny came when a 31-year-old firefighter killed herself, following online harassment from her colleagues (it was unclear whether those comments played a role in her suicide). Fire Chief Richard Bowers ultimately retired after the widower of the firefighter called for his resignation.

In Chicago, five women paramedics sued the Chicago Fire Department, charging that they were groped and harassed by their superiors. One veteran field chief, the suit claims, used a special key to unlock the sleeping quarters of a paramedic as she slept. Salt Lake City is fighting allegations of sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation after its fire department demoted and then fired its first female battalion chief. In San Diego, a captain filed a lawsuit in May alleging that her coworkers groped her, unzipped her shirt, shared sexually explicit images, sent suggestive and unwanted text messages, denied her promotions routinely given to her male colleagues, and then made her harassment complaints public, which led to more harassment.


Charlottesville firefighters attend to a protester injured in a skirmish during the “Unite the Right” rally. (AP)

Fire departments are wrestling with these damaging personnel issues as they confront rising demands on their resources and infrastructure. 

State and local governments spend roughly $2 billion a year on construction for fire departments, an amount that’s been slowly inching up in inflation-adjusted terms since the end of the Great Recession. But Jenkins, the Arkansas fire chief and a former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, says getting local officials and voters to support new spending on firehouses has become tougher. “Fire departments had a tendency when they needed resources to make a generic argument: ‘We save lives. If we don’t get what we need, there are dangerous consequences,’” he says. That argument is not working as well in an era when local governments face tighter budgets and a skeptical public that scrutinizes local spending. “People want to make sure local government is accountable,” Jenkins says. “That’s driven fire departments to articulate their need.”

One way to do that is to stress the challenge to abide by industry standards, particularly one specifying that fire services should arrive at the scene of a call within four minutes of leaving their station. (That’s become an especially important benchmark as open residential floor plans and more combustible household items make fires burn hotter and faster.) Accrediting agencies consider how well fire departments meet that standard of promptness, so it makes sense for cities to plan their infrastructure around achieving those goals. “For a long time, there was just one answer: build a new fire station,” Jenkins explains. “That’s still going to be a solution sometimes.” His own department in Arkansas asked voters in August to fund a new station. “But sometimes improving road infrastructure or moving a fire station to a major arterial can have a small but important impact as well.”

That’s one reason, in fact, that Jenkins was involved in planning not only the fire department projects, but also the road plans in his city’s recent bond question. “Road connectivity will greatly reduce the need to build more fire stations as our city continues to grow,” he says.

It’s another sign that fire agencies are becoming more deeply enmeshed in aspects of local government many of them used to ignore. In the Charlottesville area, fire departments are playing a critical role in the design of new housing developments, especially the creation of walkable areas with narrow, tree-lined streets and houses clustered closely together. Those designs can make it difficult for fire trucks to get through on neighborhood streets, an issue that has generated plenty of conflict in other places. 

But those conflicts can be avoided, says Dan Eggleston, the chief of the Albemarle County Department and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “The fire department likes those [walkable] designs if we get in on the early stages of the planning process. We are not opposed to these designs. We have wonderful designs that blend our need for access with the desire for walkable communities.”

Installing flat curbs at intersections can help fire engines make sharp turns, and parking restrictions help not only fire trucks, but school buses and trash trucks as well, Eggleston says. Recently, he was involved in the planning of a development that had a grass courtyard instead of a street. That might have prevented fire trucks from getting to the residences in case of a fire. So they reached a compromise: The developer installed porous pavers that could hold a 100,000-pound ladder truck but still allow grass to grow through them.

Not all departments have been so accommodating. Firefighters in Baltimore, for example, have fought vehemently against proposed bike lanes that, they argue, will not leave enough room for large equipment, such as tiller trucks with outriggers that anchor the trucks when ladders are in use. To make their point, firefighters filmed a video outside the house of a leading bike activist to show the difficulties of using fire equipment on narrow streets. Adding to tensions, cycling advocates complained to the city council that firefighters threatened them at a hearing on the issue. The cyclists ultimately won a court battle that prevented Baltimore from tearing out a recently installed bike lane. 

San Francisco has taken almost an opposite approach to the growing demand for walkable streetscapes: buying smaller fire engines that are better adapted to operate in tighter spaces. These new trucks are narrower, with fewer protruding parts than the fire engines they replaced. They have a smaller turning radius, and they’re outfitted with cameras that help avoid crashes with vehicles, cyclists or pedestrians. 

In Portland, Ore., Fire Chief Mike Myers makes the case that the fire department ought to be leading the movement toward more walkable neighborhoods. Those environments help improve the health and safety of residents, he says, and they haven’t led to any reduction in the fire department’s response times. 

“Our opinion from the fire service is that vibrant cities don’t burn,” Myers says. “If we change the vibrancy of an area, then that area won’t have a high likelihood of a shooting. That area will not have a high likelihood of a pedestrian accident and will not likely have a fire. That is our goal. And that’s where we’re putting our money and our attention.” 

Myers argues that fire departments need to get involved in those problems earlier, because the city can’t afford to keep hiring more firefighters and buying more equipment to cover the escalating needs of its growing population.

The Portland Fire Department is currently working with researchers at Harvard University to develop predictive analytics that can tell them where fires are most likely to occur. Meanwhile, each of the city’s 31 firehouses is developing plans to address the problems they most commonly face, whether those are wildfires or health problems among homeless people. The idea is to get the fire department to work with other government agencies and nonprofit groups to alleviate those issues. “If we can [do better] at cooperating with multiple bureaus,” Myers says, “I’m doing my job as a fire chief by ultimately making sure the call doesn’t happen in the first place.” 

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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