The Dynamic Landscape of U.S. Fire Protection

By Robert W. Cobb

cover photoFire protection in the United States changes constantly. The current economic downturn has challenged most fire service leaders to make tough decisions regarding staffing, training, equipment purchases, and deployment of vital resources. From rotational closings of fire stations to hiring freezes and layoffs, the mantra "do more with less" is prevalent throughout the fire service. Yet some fire service leaders believe "doing less with less" will be the new normal. The challenge lies in how to continue operating effectively in the face of reduced services.

Every type of department — volunteer, career, combination, urban, or rural — is affected by today's economic conditions. Fire service leaders are concerned about keeping pace with increasing demand for protection. According to the NFPA, in 2010, fire departments responded to a fire every 24 seconds. There were 482,000 structure fires. One home structure fire was reported every 85 seconds.

Despite the economic adversity facing communities nationwide, fire remains the leading cause of property loss in the United States. In 2010, there were 1,331,500 fires reported in the United States. Those fires caused 3,120 civilian deaths, 17,720 civilian injuries, and $11.6 billion in property damage.

The latest data from the Insurance Information Institute also shows that fire remains the leading cause of property losses incurred in the homeowners marketplace. While other devastating perils such as wind, earthquake, and flood events command worldwide attention, building fires represent the "daily drumbeat" of losses across the country. In 2010, the most recent year for available data, the U.S. Fire Administration estimated the dollar loss for residential building fires to have been more than $6.6 billion.

The strain of the present economy on community leaders combined with existing recruitment and retention difficulties has caused communities throughout the country to respond by staffing fewer than the minimum standard number of trained firefighters responding to structure fires. Such a decline can have an adverse effect on a community's efforts not only to save lives and property but to reduce insurance losses.

Fire service and community leaders will likely continue to face financial challenges. Economic experts predict the fiscal condition of U.S. cities will fall into further decline. The City Fiscal Conditions 2011 Report from the National League of Cities reveals that general city revenues are still falling, with a projected 2.3 percent decrease by the end of 2011. This is the fifth consecutive year of declines in revenue, with further deterioration projected for 2012.

ISO's Public Protection Classification (PPCTM) program helps insurance companies measure and evaluate the major elements of a community's fire suppression system, as well as the relative differences in levels of structural fire protection in more than 47,000 communities across the United States. The program can help fire departments identify potential deficiencies in available personnel, equipment, apparatus, and training needed to respond to a structure fire.

A community's investment in fire mitigation is a proven and reliable predictor of future fire losses. Property/casualty insurance companies have long supported the efforts of individual communities to maintain and improve their fire protection services. The PPC program recognizes the efforts of communities to provide fire protection services for citizens and property owners, affording economic benefits (for example, lower insurance premiums) for communities that invest in firefighting services.

The program also helps fire departments and other public officials as they plan, budget, and justify improvements. When insurers use PPC, the classification reflects key detailed variables — sources of water and their viability, automatic-aid agreements, department personnel details, dispatch operations, fire district boundaries, training, and distances to responding fire stations — to achieve more precise underwriting and rating analysis.

Compared with previous years, the number of PPC retrogression cases in progress has risen by more than 20 percent. Such a trend has been attributed to decreases in staffing and equipment, training program deficiencies, and widening gaps in the deployment of apparatus.

While addressing staffing and equipment issues during difficult economic times can be a daunting task, communities can employ inventive strategies that will fit into shrinking budgets. 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 specialized apparatus, additional responders, and dedicated hauled-water tenders. Such arrangements can reduce or eliminate response distance issues by relying on a neighboring department closer to areas of a given jurisdiction.

Another less expensive means of enhancing fire protection is using improved fire hydrant and apparatus testing programs. Apparatus and equipment serviceability is a crucial portion of any community's fire suppression system. Frequent testing can help ensure these critical tools do not fail in the midst of a structure fire, thereby mitigating the risk of life and/or property losses.

Fire departments of all types and sizes across the country will continue to face unparalleled fiscal challenges, forcing many fire chiefs and community leaders to use innovative strategies to maximize already depleted resources. Fire service and community leaders will need to keep a close eye on the economy and continually evaluate how fiscal uncertainty will affect their efforts to protect citizens' lives and property from the danger of fire.

  • Fire losses associated with homeowners insurance claims (including FAIR Plans) accounted for an estimated 57 percent of total fire losses in 2010.
  • Fire losses associated with commercial multiperil claims accounted for an estimated 21 percent of total fire losses in 2010.
  • Fire losses associated with fire insurance claims accounted for the remaining 22 percent.

Source: Insurance Information Institute

Robert W. Cobb is director of Community Mitigation National Programs, Risk Decision Services, at ISO. He has more than 35 years of fire service experience and is a retired deputy chief of the Jersey City (N.J.) Fire Department.