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Fire services today face tremendous challenges, and fire chiefs must be incredibly resourceful to keep their firefighters ready, response times down and communities safe.
Many fire departments — particularly in smaller communities — are short-staffed as a result of reduced budgets and diminishing funds. In some cases, this has led to the partial or complete closure of fire stations.
Budget cuts and retention challenges have flow-on effects for many other aspects of fire service operations, including compliance, training, the upkeep of equipment and, most worryingly, the safety of responding firefighters and the communities they serve.
For fire services, the transition from legacy communications technology to mobile apps and cloud-based platforms represents both a challenge and an opportunity. Firefighters rely on accurate information to help them make split-second decisions, and commanders are often inundated with a constant stream of information that can be difficult to process. Harnessed effectively, mobile platforms can be a force multiplier, enabling fire chiefs and personnel to win back ground against these other operational challenges.
However, navigating this fast-changing technology environment and choosing the right platforms and apps can be complex. Here is an in-depth look at four critical issues affecting fire services across the United States in 2019.
1. Securing funding and retention
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, there are almost 1.2 million firefighters working in 30,000 departments in the United States. Approximately 900,000 of them work in volunteer or combination departments. Fire chiefs in these departments rely heavily on volunteers and often respond with 10 or fewer firefighters to a fire call. This greatly impacts the safety of both citizens and the responding firefighters. Within career fire departments, many municipalities continue to cut funding, which in turn means responding to the same — or even greater — call volumes with less staffing.
In fact, low staffing makes it difficult for many fire services to comply with the OSHA requirement that when two firefighters are inside fighting a fire, an additional two firefighters are outside prepared to rescue them in the event of an emergency. The number of firefighters on scene are often inadequate to address all the necessary functions, such as fire attack, search and rescue, ventilation, water supply and rapid intervention.
In volunteer/combination departments, retention of members is a critical concern. Across the country, fire chiefs are sounding alarms to their communities about their recruitment and retention problems. Another challenge for volunteer fire departments is that firefighters don’t have the time to keep up with rigid training requirements while balancing the commitments of a full-time job and family life. In North Carolina, for example, the number of volunteer firefighters has declined by 22 percent in that past two years, according to FEMA — and many other states face similar shortages.
2. Ensuring firefighter safety
Alongside the core purpose of protecting the communities they serve, firefighter safety remains a critical and deeply felt responsibility for every fire chief.
The U.S. Fire Administration recorded 87 on-duty firefighter fatalities in 2017, in addition to nearly 25,000 injuries at the fireground. Heart attacks as the result of overexertion and stress remain the the leading cause of fatalities for firefighters.
In addition to the immediate risks of injury and death, firefighters face an elevated risk of cancer due to chronic exposure to carcinogens. Firefighters have a 250 percent greater chance of contracting cancer compared to the general population. On average, 63 percent of all firefighters will contract cancer, according to recent research published by the IAFC.
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Meanwhile, the number of firefighters suffering from behavioral health issues (such as anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation) is on the rise, but many firefighters fail to seek assistance or lack access to the help they need. Their safety training is also often diluted, because the number of training topics has increased, causing a decrease in training hours in each subject area. These risks and concerns are heavy burdens laid upon the chief of the department, who often lacks the resources, programs or education that could assist their members in need.
3. Enhancing fire department communication
While mobile devices and fast, reliable wireless broadband are opening up exciting new opportunities for fire services, many departments lack the resources to modernize their communications systems. For fire chiefs across the U.S., developing a mobile transition plan must be a key priority in 2019.
In the past, fire departments relied on pagers and radio dispatch, but now they are beginning to transition to smartphone apps such as Active 911 and I Am Responding. Not only do these apps page the firefighter on their phone, but they also provide information such as the incident type, address and information from the caller.
Most dispatch systems today are computerized and use voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) to communicate calls to the stations. Extending access to computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems from desktops and laptops to mobile apps can help fire chiefs stay informed when on the go, tracking who is responding, their members’ location and more. This allows for the chief or incident commander on scene to determine quickly if they need mutual aid or additional responses from other departments.
Smartwatches offer enormous potential too. With advanced sensors tracking location, movement and heartrate, wrist-worn devices allow fire chiefs to monitor the status of their members in real-time, or to receive automated alerts when an elevated heartrate is detected.
4. Coordinating agency resources
When a large emergency incident occurs, many departments struggle to coordinate the responding resources. In particular, volunteer and combination departments face challenges in securing mutual aid. When a request for additional response or mutual aid is delayed, harm or further loss is likely to increase. If the fire hits during normal business hours, many volunteers may be short staffed, because volunteer members are often unable to leave their jobs. Those that do respond may have to return to their home fire station before traveling to the incident scene, which delays their response even further.
The interagency coordination challenges that fire chiefs are facing today are often compounded when agencies lack a common communications platform. Many agencies use varying radio systems that are not always interoperable with one another. Cloud-based platforms offer a potential solution here also, since they can integrate more much more readily. However, fire chiefs need to research carefully and consult with neighboring departments as they determine the right platforms to build their large-scale emergency response plans around.
Rising expectations for fire services
Regardless of location or size, fire departments are facing rising expectations for service delivery, including EMS, active shooter response, fire and rescue and more. In order to meet these challenges in a world of reduced staffing and funding, departments must learn to do more with less.
Progressive fire services who are adopting mobile technology, including smartphones, tablets and smartwatches, are achieving meaningful operational benefits. The ability to instantly access alerts and critical information, whether in emergency response vehicles or at the fireground, acts as a force multiplier. Smart new cloud-based platforms allow for faster reception of the call, routing or direction assistance, and allow the dispatcher and 911 operators to update responders with critical information so they can be better prepared for the incident prior to arrival.
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