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Rurally Speaking: Moms, Grandmas, and Grandpas in Today’s Rural Fire Service

By Carl J. Haddon

It is no secret that the average age of our volunteer firefighter corps here in the United States is rapidly on the rise, and volunteer recruitment is at an all-time low nationwide.

Chief officers and fire commissioners are challenged with the difficult job of trying to ensure that these brave souls are adequately outfitted, equipped, and trained to safely do the job for which they give their precious free time to protect their communities. Having filled the shoes of both of these positions, trust me when I tell you that this is no easy task—especially when considering the eventuality that these folks will face live fire responses and situations.

Rural volunteer firefighters still make up the overwhelming majority of today’s American fire service, even though their/our numbers are on the decline.

Outfitting, equipping, and training moms, grandmas, and grandpas for live fire situations cannot be taken lightly. This is opposed to the traditional career firefighter side of the equation that typically includes a much more stringent hiring and pre-employment process. Everything from specs for personal protective equipment (PPE) to fire apparatus, to heavy-duty extrication equipment can and should be considered while keeping the realistic composition and physical capabilities of your respective staffs in mind. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of firefighting apparatus and equipment is designed and built with the 25- to 35-year-old physically fit career male firefighter as the target model. Less than one third of the population of today’s American firefighters fall into that category. That said, please don’t think I am suggesting that today’s rural fire service is solely comprised of moms, grandmas, and grandpas. However, their numbers are on the rise, and the statistics of the average number of members over the age of 40 would likely shock someone who doesn’t live with this reality in his department.

Fortunately, fire truck manufacturers have become much more ergonomically conscious and user-friendly in an attempt to meet the needs of a vast array of firefighting forces. Things like lower hosebeds, easy-access pump panels, ground ladder storage, and even apparatus access and egress steps, have been and are continuing to be improved and redesigned. Apparatus makers and dealers are more than willing to help rural departments with choosing and writing the specs and options that best serve the department interested in purchasing new vehicles, or even preowned/refurbished apparatus.

There are also dozens of spec options for PPE that include everything from fabric and thermal barriers to wildland/rescue/nonstructural firefighting brands and choices. These choices and specs, however, are often lost on rural departments, because many of them tend to buy PPE “off the rack” without realizing that PPE dealers can and should come out to their departments to measure their staffs for proper fit and to talk with their decision makers about what specs might best suit their departments. PPE is not one-type- and one-size-fits-all.

Regarding equipment such as hydraulic rescue tools, although not necessarily designed with the mom, grandma, or grandpa in mind, a number of rescue tool manufacturers have taken into account the potential need for two rescuers to be handling the same tool in so much as many of today’s heavy-duty hydraulic tools weigh in excess of 40 pounds, with a number of the battery-powered “all-in-one” tools weighing in at well over 50 pounds. As a result, the forward grab handles on these tools are big enough to comfortably and safely accommodate the hands of two rescuers. Not only is this feature quite beneficial for the smaller statured or older firefighter, but it is also quite beneficial for anyone involved in an extended rescue or extrication, such as those found involving vehicles with a large percentage of ultra-high-strength steel.

Whether your department is tasking purchasing committees with developing acquisition recommendations or the fire chief makes the acquisition request to his fire commissioners directly, there needs to be much consideration given to many things prior to purchases. We cannot continue to hold onto the mindset of “we’ve always don’t it that way.” At the end of the day, the demographics of the rural fire service are changing. Equipment and PPE purchasing should be evolving in light of these new demographic changes. Regardless of whether your department needs to outfit moms, grandmas, and grandpas as the “backbone” of your department or you are outfitting strapping young career firefighters, properly protecting your members is the most valuable investment you can make.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.