The average person may think that every community in the United States is protected by a fire department of some type. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and thousands of communities go unprotected from fires, medical emergencies, rescue situations, or natural disasters. In fact, in some states such as Arizona, existing fire departments are not required by state law to respond out of their jurisdictions to help unprotected communities. Many communities have successfully organized fire departments, yet others do not know where to begin. Here are a few tips on how to form a volunteer fire department (VFD).
Starting a volunteer fire department involves more than just getting a fire engine and responding to emergencies. Even someone with a fire department background may have no idea that there are legal requirements and ramifications including fines and penalties if a department is not properly organized. One of the best resources for forming a volunteer fire department is the National Volunteer Fire Council http://www.nvfc.org/. You do not even need to be a member to benefit from the information available through this organization, but at $50 per year, membership will provide additional benefits and resources. In the resources section of their website, you will find various regulations and how they apply to your volunteer fire department. One of the best sources of information available is from the National Fire Protection Association http://www.nfpa.org/, however you may find that initially NVFC is a little more user friendly. Your State Fire Marshal may be able to provide additional information regarding training requirement, grants available, and applicable state regulations. Other information is available from the United States Fire Administration at https://www.usfa.dhs.gov/applications/publications/ .
Once you get started, be sure to contact the Insurance Services Office (ISO), http://www.isomitigation.com/ . ISO evaluates fire departments nationwide to rate them in the Public Protection Classification (PPC) Program. Each fire department is rated on a scale of 1-10, ten being no fire protection, one being the best score possible. As this score sets insurance premiums for a community, you should begin following the ISO guidelines immediately. Review the online information and contact ISO for additional information. For a new volunteer department, you should be initially seeking an ISO Class 9 or 8 b Rating. Go to http://www.isomitigation.com/ppc/2000/ppc2003.html for additional information. ISO reviews issues including water supplies, communications, and fire department. These areas must be adequately addressed in order to achieve a rating. Remember that ISO will need a map of the area that your department covers, so prepare a detailed map of your area delineating your boundaries, your County/parish may of assistance in this matter. Consultants are available to assist in the ISO process, including the National Fire Service Office http://nfso.us/ .
Your volunteer fire department is going to need a group to oversee the organization (Board of Directors) usually made up of three-five individuals. This Board can appoint the Fire Chief who will actually manage the department, and who then will appoint volunteer officers and firefighters. Some volunteer fire departments require a “candidate” to be voted on by the group prior to allowing them to become a member. Background investigations are a must, to keep out people with significant criminal records, poor driving habits, drug problems, etc. Too often, people in positions of authority with a VFD have absconded or stolen department funds. Don’t let this happen to your organization! Always insure that a system of checks and balances are in place. Remember that many states require a Commercial Drivers License to operate heavy fire vehicles. This creates an issue with some communities, particularly with young volunteers. Medical examinations for firefighters, along with immunizations are also required. NVFC and VFIS can provide additional information.
ISO and OSHA will require a minimum of four personnel on scene, qualified and equipped as “Interior Structural Firefighters” prior to making entry into a burning building. This requires extensive training and experience and is extremely dangerous. In the beginning, some experts recommend training personnel as “Exterior Firefighters”. In this instance they receive minimal training and are placed outside of a burning building to protect “exposures” or other things that may burn. They can always spray water from the outside into a fire with proper training. (See training section)
Everyone asks the same question in the beginning, “Where do I get the money to start a Volunteer Fire Department?” Do not believe that there is an unlimited sum of “seed” money to start your organization. Most departments start when a community pools its funds to start a volunteer fire department. Contact local community groups such as fraternal organizations (Elks, Lions, and Moose) or other local clubs (Rotary, etc.) The most important immediate issues are a response vehicle (fire engine), storage building (fire hall/station), equipment (protective clothing, tools, hose, nozzles), training, and insurance. Starting with the later, the Volunteer Firefighters Insurance Service (VFIS) http://www.vfis.com/ is probably your best bet for obtaining insurance on vehicles, equipment and liability. With reasonable premiums and a thorough knowledge of the industry, VFIS also can provide valuable training resources at little or no cost to its customers. Any heated building that secures can be used as your initial “fire hall”. Contact local businesses, farmers, county government, airports, or school districts to find an appropriate location to house your vehicle(s).
When it comes to vehicles, many State Forestry Departments have surplus fire vehicles available for use by Volunteer Fire Departments. These vehicles are obtained through a variety of sources, including the Federal Excess Property Program, http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/partners/fepp/. Two grant programs are related to this program which may be useful, including the Rural Fire Assistance Program (RFA), http://www.nifc.gov/rfa/ and the Volunteer Fire Assistance Program (VFA) http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/partners/vfa/ . To keep abreast of filing dates for these grants and requirements for filing go to http://www.grants.gov/ . State firefighters associations often have surplus property programs to assist volunteer departments, including the California State Firefighters Association (CSFA) http://www.csfa.net/. Check with your state firefighters association for further information.
Once your organization has been around for a while, you may become eligible for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program through the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), United States Fire Administration (USFA) available at http://www.firegrantsupport.com/afg/ . This site has several grants available; however the AFG Program is most applicable to a Volunteer Fire Department. Grant consultants are available for assisting with the various grants including Homeland Defense Journal at http://www.homelanddefensejournal.com/ .
For continuous funding, volunteer fire departments typically rely on donations, fund raisers (pancake breakfasts, spaghetti dinners), raffles, etc. One way to keep a steady revenue stream coming in is to charge a “subscription” to area property owners. In this instance, a small annual fee is charged for emergency services. If a property has not paid a subscription, in most cases a fire department is able to bill for response costs, often for much more than the cost of a subscription.
Naysayers may advise you that ISO is dead, however there are many instances in which a fire department was formed and property owners saved over $500 a year once ISO recognized the fire department. If there are 50 properties in your community, this equates to an annual savings of $25,000 per year. What if each property owner donated a portion of this savings annually to the VFD?
Eventually, you may wish to form a “fire district” which is a government entity with taxing authority through a state or county. Fire district’s have the ability to collect taxes, insuring a constant stream of funding down the road. Contact your local county attorney’s office for more information.
There is no point in having a fire department unless you can communicate with them. Small communities traditionally utilized a siren which was sounded to notify volunteers of a fire or emergency. With the advent of 911, most states have implemented the 911 system to contact a fire department. Check with your county law enforcement as they typically administer 911 services. ISO will provide guidelines on communications, however you will need some method of receiving the call, alerting the volunteers, usually done through pagers, and communicating with field units, with both mobile (vehicle mounted) and portable (hand held) radios. Contact neighboring fire agencies to see if a regional dispatch center is in place.
All fire service personnel, including volunteers are required to be properly trained. This is not only for legal and liability issues, but from a firefighter safety position as well. To begin initial training, I recommend contact neighboring departments and community colleges to determine if a program is in place to train firefighters locally. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has Independent Study courses online that provide certificates of completion for some training, go to http://training.fema.gov/IS/crslist.asp . Three of these courses are critical if you are pursuing grant funding, IS-100.a Introduction to the Incident Command System; IS-700.a National Incident Management System, An Introduction; and IS-800.b National ResponseFramework, An Introduction. These courses are mandatory if you are seeking Federal grant funds. These three courses, along with IS-5.a An Introduction to Hazardous Materials, and IS-3 Radiological Emergency Management, will also assist in meeting ISO training requirements. Documentation is key in all aspects of operating a fire department, but especially in the training arena. Other courses that are offered will help you in organizing and managing your volunteer fire department, including IS-244 Developing and Managing Volunteers; IS-240 Leadership and Influence; and IS-242 Effective Communication.
The United States Fire Administration, National Fire Academy also has online training available at http://www.nfaonline.dhs.gov/. Rural communities without adequate fire hydrants or water supplies should utilize Q-217 Alternative Water Supplies. Areas with a wildland fire problem may choose to utilize Q900 S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior and Q-901 S-130 Wildland Firefighter Training. All fire department personnel will benefit from the Incident Command Series I-100-400, and department leaders will benefit from the simulation courses which teach how to manage a fire incident.
Online fire academies are starting to handle training needs in communities that are unable to conduct adequate training. Two examples include the Open Fire Academy at http://openfireacademy.com/, and Training Division at http://www.trainingdivision.com/. Insure that your training and instructors are accredited through your State Fire Marshal or National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications (NPQS) Pro Board http://www.theproboard.org/ and/or International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) http://www.ifsac.org . This will insure that all of your training meets national training standards. Training materials are available through International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) http://www.ifsta.org and Jones and Bartlett Publishers http://www.fire.jbpub.com . The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) http://www.iafc.org/ also has valuable training resources available. Training consultants are also available to help train your personnel, such as Fire Management Consultant (FMC) http://www.firemanagementconsultant.com a company that provides training worldwide.
A common misconception for starting a fire department is that you must have fire hydrants available. Many communities lack municipal water systems, and these fire departments get water from lakes, rivers, wells, cisterns, pools and irrigation districts. Contact ISO and USFA for additional information on alternate water sources. To counter the lack of hydrants, fire departments utilize “water tenders” or “tankers” to haul water to the fire scene. These vehicles are extremely heavy and cumbersome and create their own unique hazards. Review the book Safe Operation of Fire Tankers available free at https://www.usfa.dhs.gov/applications/publications/ .
Purchasing Apparatus and Equipment
Of course every community wants a brand new fire engine. Unfortunately, a new engine starts at $200,000 plus another $50,000 for equipment. How can you afford to buy a fire vehicle? Contact a reputable dealer that specializes in used fire apparatus sales. Three examples include Fire Trucks Plus http://www.firetrucksplus.com/ ; Fire Etc. http://www.fire-etc.com/ ; and Firetec http://www.firetec.com/. New fire apparatus manufacturers may also have used vehicles available that were taken in on trade. These include Rosenbauer http://www.rosenbaueramerica.com/ ; Crimson http://www.crimson-fire.com/ ; Pierce http://www.piercemfg.com/Home.html ; Ferrara http://www.ferrarafire.com/ ; Fouts Brothers http://www.foutsfire.com/ ; and Emergency One http://www.e-one.com/ . Please note that this is not a list of all vendors, search fire apparatus on the internet for more options.
Fire equipment can be purchased from a variety of vendors that can be located on the web, including Cascade Fire Equipment at http://www.cascadefire.com/ and WS Darley at http://www.darley.com/ . Before buying anything, research your needs and get multiple quotes. Also ask about shipping charges and sales tax as you may be able to avoid them with certain vendors.
Today’s fire service does more than just fight fire. Responding to medical emergencies, rescue calls, hazardous materials and other incidents is routine. It is up to a new department to determine what services they will provide and what level of training will be given to personnel. Emergency Medical Training can be as simple as First Aid/Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)/Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) training completed in about 16 hours, or as complex as Paramedic training which can take up to one year to complete. In between First Responder Medical (40 hours) and Emergency Medical Technician Basic (1 semester at a community college) cover different skills and protocols. Visit the National Safety Council at http://www.nsc.org/ and National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians at http://www.nremt.org/Content/NREMT_Home.nremt for additional information.
Many fire departments respond to extricate victims of traffic collisions with specialized tools and equipment. Grants are typically available from State Highway Safety offices. Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) can also be used to buy this equipment, rescue vehicles, and other equipment. Visit http://www.hud.gov/offices/cpd/communitydevelopment/programs/ for more information.
Whenever possible, contact neighboring fire departments near your community for information and advice. Why reinvent the wheel? They may have some valuable tips that can save you time or money when forming a volunteer fire department. You may also find private companies in your area with fire brigades that are willing to help you get started. In one community, the United States Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs actually helped form a volunteer fire department with existing vehicles and equipment in exchange for fire protection at Federal buildings.
This article will hopefully lead you to some of the many resources available to assist in forming your VFD. It is in no way a list of every possible stumbling block, and there will be many, along the way. The fire service has a proud tradition of helping others, and by forming a VFD in your community, you too can be a life saver. Good luck!