Saving Community Fire Stations during a Time of Economic Change

By Mike Waters and Robert Cobb

As economic issues continue to reverberate across the country, municipal leaders face tough decisions regarding potential cuts to fire department staff or, in some cases, temporarily or permanently closing a community fire station. Unfortunately, the consequences of such moves can compromise the ability of fire stations to respond efficiently and effectively to emergencies.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that there were 480,000 structure fires in 2009, resulting in 2,695 civilian deaths, 14,740 civilian injuries, and $10.8 billion in property damage. In the last decade, fires have caused direct insured losses of more than $120 billion and countless billions in related costs.

We analyze information from our Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS) to assign Public Protection Classifications (PPCTM) to nearly 47,000 fire protection areas across the country — recognizing the efforts of communities to provide fire protection services in three key areas: emergency fire communications, water supply, and the fire department.

Figure 1
Unrecognized Fire Stations in the United States

market value vs. reconstruction cost

Based on those analyses, we have determined that more than 1,000 fire stations in the United States lack basic response ­capa­bilities for structure fires. That means the fire station may appear to have effective emergency response capabilities but may not, in practice, be able to mitigate structure fires within its area.

The NFPA has found that the nation's fire departments respond to a structure fire on average once every minute. An adequately staffed 911 center equipped with the latest technology can provide responders with crucial minutes. The optimal scenario for a structure fire situation involves a nearby fire department with adequate staff and equipment arriving promptly and having quick access to a water source with sufficient pressure and volume. If resources are too far away — because a closer fire station was shut down or temporarily closed — the likelihood of property damage rises quickly. It can also mean a higher potential for injury or death to building occupants.

Through the FSRS, we have determined that the operational effectiveness of a fire department and its deployable resources is best realized through on-site analysis. Our analysis of responder locations shows that more than 20 percent of the U.S. population is served by a responding fire station that is not necessarily the station closest to the area it is designated to protect. This is sometimes the result of a lack of pre-emergency planning, which leverages automatic aid and reduces travel time and distance to the scene.

So how can a fire department cope with the fiscal challenges posed by the current economic landscape?

Many fire departments are entering into automatic-aid agreements with surrounding communities and merging and consolidating resources in an effort to overcome budgetary shortfalls. Automatic-aid agreements often allow communities access to critical apparatus, additional responders, and specialized hauled-water tenders. Moreover, the agreements can reduce or eliminate response distance issues by relying on a neighboring department that is closer to areas of a given jurisdiction.

For many decades, the federal government refrained from supplying any significant financial support to local fire departments. However, in 2001, that long-standing policy changed considerably when Congress passed legislation that created the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program.

The NFPA reports that there were 480,000 structure fires in 2009, resulting in 2,695 civilian deaths, 14,740 civilian injuries, and $10.8 billion in property damage. In the last decade, fires have caused direct insured losses of more than $120 billion and countless billions in related costs.

Additionally, in 2005, the federal government created another grant program, called the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Program, aimed at helping fund additional career firefighters for local fire departments and support volunteer fire departments with their recruitment and retention efforts. Finally, in 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Congress included $210 million to build new fire stations and construct modifications to existing stations to improve the capabilities of local fire departments. Since inception, each of the fire grant programs has enhanced local fire department capabilities and firefighter safety by supporting apparatus, equipment, staffing, training, and firefighter safety and fitness. To date, more than 50,000 grants have awarded more than $4 billion to local fire departments.

While we may continue to see varying levels of financial stress on fire departments across the country, the effectiveness of local community fire protection hangs in the balance. With that in mind, communities and community leaders need to be cognizant of the unintended consequences of the reduced capability of local responders deployed from individual fire stations. The adequacy and location of apparatus and equipment as well as changes to staffing can affect the capabilities and performance of any fire department. Decisions made by community leaders regarding individual fire stations and staff can help save lives and property. However, when resources are reduced below minimum criteria, such intentions can be compromised and potentially lead to higher future losses.

Mike Waters is vice president of risk decision services at ISO, and Robert Cobb is director of community hazard mitigation at ISO.