While local fire departments are becoming increasingly engaged in wildland-fire response, many personnel based in structural firefighting aren’t receiving the necessary training in wildland firefighting for an effective and—most importantly—safe response.
You may call them grass fires, forest fires, swamp fires, brush fires, prairie fires, canyon fires, rangeland fires or wildland fires. Yet, no matter the name, they all pose an evolving threat to lives and property in an expanding number of communities across the United States.
Homes near natural areas—what many call the wildland-urban interface (WUI)—are beautiful places to live in, retire to and visit. These pristine environments add to the residents’ quality of life and are valued by community leaders seeking to develop new areas of opportunity and local tax revenue.
However, these areas are not without risk. Fires are a part of their natural ecology and living near the wildland means living with the threat of wildland fires. These fires can be as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the winds that often drive them. Recent fires in 2011—like those seen in Texas, the West and even the Mid-Atlantic states—serve as reminders to the fire service of their current and expanding role in the WUI fire threat.
For many volunteer and rural departments, necessary training for this threat in the WUI is an understandably difficult task to meet. Aside from budget constraints, available personnel hours for training are limited when balanced with the needs of current department efforts, reduced staffing, training requirements for structural firefighting and EMS, and every-day response duties. Engaging with residents about wildland-fire preparedness can also be difficult for a department that doesn’t have a history in wildland-fire response or the public-education outreach personnel required to stand up such an appeal.
The IAFC’s Ready, Set, Go! Program provides the tools and guidance necessary to deliver the wildland fire-safety message to individuals at the local level. The program is a three-step process that teaches homeowners to create their own action plan of preparedness, have situational awareness and leave early in the event of a fire—all with the goal of significantly increasing the safety of residents and firefighters.
Fire departments, especially volunteer and rural departments, can utilize this program’s free material and guidance to quickly develop a base of understanding and outreach to the benefit of the residents they serve. There are event mini-grants available to some departments to help get this program off the ground.
As we know, national studies have shown that firefighters are uniquely respected in their communities and can project a trusted choice to the public-preparedness appeal. Firefighters can deliver the preparedness message to the resident in an effective manner so that they can best prepare themselves and their properties against wildland fire.
It’s important to first evaluate the local threat and the current base of understanding by department personnel. Fire chiefs should consider where the department stands in:
- Staff’s knowledge proficiency about wildland fires, fuels, operational techniques, qualifications, response and the effects of changing weather on wildland fire behavior
- Situational awareness when responding and engaged in wildland-fire suppression and structure protection
- Knowledge of local building-stock vulnerabilities to flame front and ember impingement
- Understanding of local wildland-fire fuel loads and scope of fire risk
- Identification of at-risk populations and housing developments in the WUI
- Ability to address special-needs populations like the elderly, those with limited transportation or language skills and vacation-home/part-time residents who may not know the local fire threat
- Availability of suppression resources and public expectation of response
- Its current level of preparedness/response collaboration with local emergency management and public safety agencies
- Knowledge of the fire department’s role in any local community wildfire preparedness plans (CWPPs)
- Partnerships with secondary assets like Fire Corps, CERT teams or existing Firewise Communities in the department’s response area.
It’s then important to evaluate training needs. Fire chiefs should identify their personnel’s educational needs on wildland-fire issues and ensure they gain the proper training to become successful ambassadors of the wildland-fire preparedness message within the community.
Reflect on your department’s mission and consider how the use of training dollars and available hours reflect both current needs and future threats to the community. Identifying local and state partners—like state forestry agencies—will help build important relationships with response agencies before an event.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group provides free online and CD-based training and qualifications courses that your department members can take to build their understanding and response capabilities. Courses include:
- S-110 Basic Wildland Suppression Orientation
- S-130 Firefighter Training
- S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior
The classes provide the minimum education standards related to wildland firefighting and can be taken on their own, at the student’s pace or integrated into existing department training protocols. The chief of department serves as the course administrator and signs-off on personnel completion of the courses for subsequent certification by NWCG. Information on the courses is available from the NWCG website.
Another resource is the NFPA’s “Assessing Wildfire Hazards in the Home Ignition Zone,” a two-day seminar. Information on the course is available on the Firewise website, under courses and training.
National studies have shown that firefighters are uniquely respected in their communities and can project a trusted choice to the public preparedness appeal. Firefighters can deliver the preparedness message to residents in an effective manner so the residents can best prepare themselves and their properties against wildland fire. Review your department’s understanding of wildland fire and its role. Then, as fire chief, encourage regular training and outreach for the irregular event.
This article has been updated with additional resources and information since it's original release on November 1.
Lucian Deaton is the program manager for the Ready, Set, Go! Program. Chief Will May (Ret.), vice chair of the Wildland Fire Policy Committee, assisted with this article.