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U.S. Fire Administration Outlines Key Challenges, Path to Solutions as Nation Faces Increased Fire Threat

"Innovative thinking, the willingness to use all available tools, and, perhaps most importantly, the collaboration of all parties is necessary," Moore-Merrell said.

The U.S. Fire Administration released a summary of key problems and recommended solutions from its recent summit that will lay the groundwork for the Fire Service National Strategy and previews a forthcoming Proceedings Report to delve even deeper into solving these critical fire challenges.

The executive summary follows the U.S. Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control in October, which marked the 75th anniversary of President Truman’s Conference on Fire Prevention and Control in 1947 that launched the “America Burning” report and established the U.S. Fire Administration.

Summit discussions focused on preparing for the impacts of climate change on fire departments, investing in a national apprenticeship program to grow the ranks of the fire service, establishing a comprehensive strategy to address cancer in firefighters, providing behavioral health and suicide prevention initiatives for firefighters, enforcing codes and standards to ensure more housing is better protected from fire, and elevating the fire service in developing federal policy to ensure parity with law enforcement.

A National Roundtable at the summit allowed fire service leaders to hear from and share thoughts with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, DHS Deputy Secretary John Tien, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, and Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Resilience and Response for the National Security Council (NSC) Caitlin Durkovich.

“The summit was only the beginning of a comprehensive and strategic approach to addressing these challenges,” Moore-Merrell wrote in a letter to President Biden at the outset of the executive summary. “Since the summit, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and national fire service organizations have been working together to develop comprehensive and actionable solutions.”

Six work groups were formed at the summit, and will meet this year in preparation for the 2023 Summit on Fire Prevention and Control.

The first issue is the impact of climate change on the fire service and the need to
“prepare all firefighters for the climate-driven increase in wildfires in the wildland urban interface (WUI) by providing them with the proper training and equipment.”

“Advances in command and coordination, especially at large, long-duration wildland and WUI fire events, have improved resource deployment and operations on the ground,” the report notes. “However, these resources often take time to get into place. Therefore, initial response often comes from state and local fire departments, many of which are already dealing with limited and overworked staff.”

Preparing for impacts related to climate change includes ensuring that departments are equipped to handle multiple structures burning simultaneously and confront wildfires as a year-round threat, and making sure that firefighters have proper protective equipment.

“Particularly in the West, water is a limited and often contested resource. Drought conditions elsewhere in the country are causing similar effects to spread eastward,” the report adds. “Scarcity of water has a severe impact on firefighting efforts. Additionally, fire in watershed areas and burn scars following a fire can contaminate water resources as debris and other contaminants affect both availability of potable water and treatment efforts.”

The second area of focus is investing in a national apprenticeship program “to address the shortage of firefighters and to make the fire service more diverse and inclusive.”

“Local communities are facing numerous challenges when it comes to staffing local fire departments,” the report says. “The COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest, active shooter, and mass casualty events have all contributed to recruitment and retention challenges for career and volunteer fire departments. In addition, increasing emergency call volumes, greater time demands, time-consuming training requirements, aging communities, and the physical and behavioral risks of the occupation create further challenges to fire departments struggling to maintain sufficient staffing levels.”

Eleven percent of volunteer firefighters and 5 percent of career firefighters are women, according to 2020 data, and 2019 data revealed that the career fire service was 11.6 Hispanic or Latino, 8.5 percent African-American, and 1.3 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. The creation of a National Fire Service Apprenticeship would be modeled after the Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeship and the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Programs.

The third issue is the impact of cancer on firefighters, with the goal to “establish a comprehensive firefighter cancer strategy that invests in research, provides access to cancer screening for firefighters, and reduces and eliminates PFAS exposure.”

Firefighters currently have a 9 percent greater risk of developing cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general population, and can be exposed to contaminants in the course of the job through inhalation, skin absorption, or ingestion after touching contaminated gear and not properly washing hands.

“Greater investment in research will expand our understanding of the mechanisms between occupational exposures and cancer, why firefighters are at heightened risk from some cancers, and to better understand the cancer risks of our under-studied populations, including women and minorities,” the report states. “…Revised screening guidance can help medical professionals and insurance companies understand the need to screen firefighters based on their higher cancer risk,” while “next-generation PPE” can better protect firefighters from PFAS — chemicals that “are found in a firefighter’s blood, their firehouses, some firefighting foams, and perhaps most concerning, bunker gear.”

The fourth area of focus is behavioral health, with the goal to “provide behavioral health resources and suicide prevention initiatives for all firefighters” as at least 100 firefighters per year take their own lives and “approximately 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics meet the criteria for PTSD at some point during their career.”

“Grant programs funding peer-supported behavioral health and wellness programs within fire departments should be established by Congress. Resources should be available to health care providers highlighting best practices for addressing post-traumatic stress among public safety officers. Accurate data on the prevalence and causes of post-traumatic stress and suicide with the fire service must be collected,” the report continues. “According to evidence-based research, behavioral health awareness campaigns provide effective intervention methods. It is our collective responsibility to provide those who serve with the tools they need to help themselves and each other.”

The fifth issue is implementing and enforcing codes and standards, “especially in the wildland urban interface (WUI) and under-served and vulnerable populations providing affordable and fire-safe housing,” to create safer communities. Housing and Urban Development, for example, “estimates that approximately 570,000 multi-family public housing units are in their inventory that were constructed before the sprinkler requirement.”

“In buildings with automatic fire sprinkler systems, the civilian fire death rate is 89 percent lower than non-sprinklered buildings and the injury rate is 27 percent lower. Furthermore, property damage decreases significantly in buildings protected by fire sprinklers,” the report says. “Investments must be made in retrofitting public housing with fire sprinkler systems. Nearly three out of five home fire deaths are caused by fires in properties without smoke alarms or smoke alarms that failed to operate. HUD must provide resources to public housing authorities to either retrofit housing units with hardwired smoke alarms or require the installation of tamper-resistant long-life battery-powered smoke alarms.”

The sixth goal is to “elevate the fire service in federal policy development to an equal basis with law enforcement.”

“Innovative thinking, the willingness to use all available tools, and, perhaps most importantly, the collaboration of all parties is necessary to meet these challenges,” Moore-Merrell wrote.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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