Can Firefighters Nationwide Really Do More With Less?

Budget Cuts Rip Through Fire Departments as Wildfires Blaze in Mid-West

Some towns are starting to see the consequences of the budget cuts that rippled through fire departments across the nation.

While wildfires ravage the mid-west from Montana to California, fire departments across the country face severe budget cuts. Some departments—like the Westfield Fire Department in New Jersey—have suffered as much as a 25-percent cut over the past two years. Vacancies are not being filled, nine-man shifts become seven-man shifts or less, and the effects are potentially life threatening.

Per National Fire Protection Association recommendations, four firefighters should be on duty for each piece of fire equipment that’s dispatched to the scene of a fire, whether it’s an engine or a ladder truck. But when shifts are short one or two people, certain rescue equipment can’t be used. This means neighboring towns and volunteer departments—which are farther away—have to send both manpower and equipment to assist. The association also advocates that response teams send 15 firefighters to a scene within 12 minutes. Sadly, that’s not always the case.

In an effort to urge the town council to hire more firefighters, one Westfield citizen recounted the fire that destroyed her house. Due to the “two in, two out” law, which requires two firefighters to stay outside for every two who set foot inside a burning building, Westfield firefighters had to wait outside the house for a full 15 minutes before firefighters from Plainfield, N.J. arrived as backup.

West coast cities and volunteer departments are also experiencing budget cuts that could have harsh consequences.

Last year the Los Angeles city council denied filling some 318 vacant firefighting positions. The federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants, a program that gave $1.9 billion to various states and saved an estimated 13,000 jobs, spared some cities. But others, like Westfield, are seeing slower response times and higher levels of destruction due to local government penny-pinching. Since so many fire departments are facing serious budget cuts, it’s more important than ever to make sure firefighters are well trained.

Although President Obama showed support through his efforts to extend federal health insurance to about 8,000 temporary wildland firefighters, most firefighters still have to do more grueling work for less. That means firefighter basic training must be foolproof. Firefighter basic requirements haven’t changed much, but departments are tasked with scouring for quality firefighter skills training that’s also cost-effective. Online firefighter training is one possible solution, especially when one person must now fill the roles of several.

In 2011, volunteer firefighters in Texas had to buy their own gear and gas to drive the fire trucks. If departments can’t even invest in volunteer equipment, they must invest in firefighter training courses. Neither fire departments, municipal governments, nor local citizens can afford not to.

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