Non-Fire Calls On The Rise
The services provided by fire departments have evolved significantly over time, with a shift towards responding to more medical emergencies than actual fire scenes. Dispatch calls may now lead firefighters to respond to various scenarios such as motor vehicle accidents (MVA), medical emergencies, or hospital transports, rather than just fires.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has reported a substantial increase in the number of EMS calls, which reached 26,291,000 in 2021, compared to 1,353,500 fires. This shift in focus is reflective of changes in the industry, communities, and across the nation, with an increased demand for emergency medical services and a decrease in the number of fires.
So, what has changed in our industry, in our communities, and across our nation to make such a drastic impact on the services provided by fire departments today?
Matthew Neil of Seville Fire Department
Emergency Services Take The Lead
The public has become increasingly mindful of the availability and accessibility of 911 EMS support. Since its inception in 1957, the National Association of Fire Chiefs’ process for reporting fires has taken on a whole new meaning. 911 is now known as the national telephone number offering citizens free, fast, and easy access to safety services, thanks to the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, which opened the phone line to nationwide reporting for all emergencies.
This coupled with public recognition of different signs of common medical ailments has increased the likelihood of citizens calling for help. For example, left-sided weakness could be a symptom of stroke, and shortness of breathes coupled with backaches, could be a precursor to a heart attack.
Yet, contrary to this evolution of call changes, 38% of fire departments provided no emergency medical services, 45% provided basic life support (BLS), and 17% provided advanced life support (ALS) according to the U.S. Fire Department Profile Survey collected over 2016-2018.
Factors Affecting Call Volume
Some other factors contributing to the large swing in call volume include:
- COVID-19 pandemic
- Poverty/quality of life
- Drug misusage
- Development of fire-proof materials
- Longer life expectancy
- Population growth changes
The Birth of Fire Prevention Training
America Burning (a 1973 research report published by the National Commission of Fire Prevention and Control) is often credited for being the leader in educating the public on methods of fire prevention. As a result of this report, the U.S. Congress, with support from President Gerald Ford, approved the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974. This led to several initiatives which aimed to reduce fires by strengthening firefighter training, spreading prevention awareness, and implementing stricter safety protocols. Initiatives included:
- The National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, simply known today as the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA),
- the National Fire Academy for Fire Prevention and Control,
- the National Fire Incident Reporting System, and
- the Center for Fire Research.
Why Structural Fires Have Changed
In response to a broader understanding of fire safety and prevention, fire codes have become stricter over the years. The NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, originally developed in the early twentieth century, has undergone multiple updates. From adding requirements for escape routes and alarms/detection systems, to fire sprinklers and protection for interior finish.
Today, flame retardant chemicals are applied to fabrics and materials to slow or prevent the ignition or growth of a fire. These chemicals are often found in modern upholstery, carpets, electronics, and seat covers.
But that’s not to say that we're safer from fires in today’s world. Despite the reduction in fires, homes are built with cheaper materials, and furnishings are coated with more chemicals, so homes that do catch fire burn hotter and faster than they once did.
UL Firefighter Safety - Side by side comparison of how dangerous common house fires have become.
According to the NFPA, residents have a limited 2 minutes to get out of a modern home and reach safety. Luckily, advanced technologies in fire alarms, increased public awareness of preventative measures, routine fire inspections, and fire safety drills have become standard practices.