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The Rural Fire Situation

Photo of Missouri wildland/urban interface which is clearly demonstrated.  Photo taken at the Lake of the Ozarks.  For a larger picture click on photo.More than 1.5 billion acres in the United States are privatelyowned or owned by State and local governments. Basic fire protection on these lands is the responsibility of State and local entities. Loss of human lives, natural resources, crops, homes and facilities such as sawmills, pulp and paper mills, farm buildings and other rural businesses by fires can throw many people out of work, reduce community tax bases and have other disastrous consequences. The VFA Program helps to enhance stability of rural areas by reducing these losses. Where little or no fire protection is available, the VFA Program can assist in organizing, training, and equipping communities to provide for their basic protection. Federal, State, and local cooperation has a significant effect in reducing losses. During the last 70 years this cooperation has resulted in a level of fire protection that reduced the average annual burned area of wildland fires from 40 million acres to less than five million acres.

There are more than 28,000 rural fire departments (RFDs) nationwide (1990 survey). Most are completely or predominately volunteer departments. Nearly one million volunteers serve in fire departments across the nation. A 1991 study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology, estimated that the cost of converting the nation's volunteer firefighters to paid status would cost about 37 billion dollars (Meade 1991). It is clear that volunteer firefighters are a tremendous asset to the nation and deserve support at all levels of government and from the general public.

The Volunteer Fire Assistance Program assists volunteer rural fire departments by providing cost-share grants for training, equipping and organizing. Rural Fire Departments represent the first line of defense in coping with fires and other emergencies in rural areas and rural communities. They provide nearly 80% of initial attack on wildland fires in the United States. These departments are charged with the protection of lives, homes and business investments in rural America. Their presence enhances rural development opportunities and economic vitality, thereby improving standards of living in rural areas. Rural fire departments also provide major assistance to State forestry agencies in the suppression of wildland fires and in some States RFD's suppress all such fires. They save taxpayers an estimated $37 billion annually by providing fire protection services at little to no cost. See information about the Wildland/Urban Interface (W/UI).

Rural fire departments also play a major role in suppressing wildfires on Federal lands. The USDA Forest Service and various U.S. Department of the Interior land management agencies have entered into cooperative agreements with many rural fire departments. These agreements enhance the protection of both communities and natural resources. A level of fire protection is attained which would be impossible without such cooperation. Interagency agreements provide a cost-effective means of enhancing fire protection.

Rural firefighters are facing increased hazards with the proliferation of hazardous materials (flammable, explosive, reactive and toxic), increased traffic congestion and increased Photo of the wildland/urban interface.  For a larger picture click on photo.numbers of fire alarms associated with increased populations in rural and wildland/urban interface areas. Recent surveys also show there are fewer citizen volunteers available or willing to serve in volunteer fire departments and personnel turnover is often high in these departments. Volunteer firefighters often lack adequate personal protective equipment such as self-contained breathing apparatus, turnout gear, fire apparatus, water application equipment (hose, nozzles, etc.) and communications equipment. Water supplies are often limited to the water that is carried in the tanks of responding apparatus. Firefighters are deployed on all-risk incidents. They respond to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, accidents, hazmat and other incidents in addition to fire. Improved equipment and adequate training of firefighters in all aspects of their responsibilities is a must.

Volunteer firefighters are encouraged to meet personnel, operational, equipment, safety and training standards which are promulgated in national and State standards-making processes. The rural fire community is encouraged to participate in the development of such standards in order to achieve a reasonable level of firefighter training and personal protection in relation to the hazards they must face. Since these standards usually require the expenditure of time and money, rural firefighters should be involved in their development. National Fire Protection Association, (NFPA) statistical reports indicate that emphasis is needed on medical examination, physical fitness and improved driver training programs for volunteer firefighters, which will significantly reduce fatalities.

Photo of Lake of the Ozarks.  Click photo for a larger picture.In Fiscal Year 1995, 7,713 applications for VFA financial assistance requesting $30,009,487 were received from RFD's and fire academies nationwide; 3,085 of these applications were approved for $3,361,000. The VFA Program, although small, provides much-needed assistance to rural communities. The effectiveness of the VFA Program can often be enhanced by utilization of the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) Program to obtain vehicles, which can then be converted to fire apparatus using VFA funding.


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