The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) First Responders Group (FRG) develops technologies and knowledge products for all first responders. FRG draws most of its information about capability gaps and requirements from urban and suburban agencies, however. This makes sense, since urban and suburban first responders serve the most densely populated regions. In recent years, however, as the incidence of floods, wildfires, and violent storms in rural areas has increased, volunteer firefighters have played a larger and more prominent role, and they are doing so without many of the resources of larger agencies.
Therefore, FRG is looking for answers to two questions: Do rural volunteer fire departments have unique needs? If so, what can FRG do to address them?
The National Fire Protection Association U.S. Fire Department Profile – 2014, issued in January 2016, points to a little appreciated fact: the vast majority of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers serving small communities. The profile estimates that in 2014 there were approximately 1,134,400 firefighters in the U.S. Of these, 788,250 (69 percent) were active volunteer firefighters. Although 70 percent of career firefighters protect communities of 25,000 or more people, 95 percent of volunteer firefighters serve communities of fewer than 25,000 people, and more than half of those serve communities of fewer than 2,500.
Of the estimated 29,980 fire departments in the U.S. in 2014, 19,915 (66.4 percent) were all-volunteer. Mostly volunteer and all-volunteer fire departments protect 35.4 percent of the U.S. population, about 115 million people.
These statistics underscore findings from the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), which show that thousands of communities rely on volunteers as a first line of response to everything from fires, emergency medical incidents, and natural disasters to hazardous materials spills and terrorist events. NVFC estimates that time donated by volunteer firefighters saves localities an estimated $139.8 billion per year.