Fires become more deadly as firefighter recruitment declines

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Fires that feed on modern materials found in people’s homes are burning faster and becoming more deadly as fire departments across the country struggle to retain and recruit firefighters, officials said Thursday.

Officials from several fire-related agencies were in Washington to draw attention to fire-related issues, about a year after two deadly fires days apart in 2022 — one in Philadelphia and one in New York — that killed 29 people. They also recommend some ways to deal with the problem.

Last year, nearly 2,500 people died from fires, including 96 firefighters, according to U.S. firefighter Dr. Lori Moore Merrell. More than 1 million buildings caught fire last year and more than 7.5 million acres burned in wildfires last year, she said.

“America is still burning,” she said.

The number of fires reported to the fire department is down, says Steve Kerber, the vice president and executive director of the Fire Safety Research Institute, but the fires that are happening are being fueled by a greater use of synthetic materials in everyday objects like banks and therefore burn much faster. Faster fires reduce the time residents can escape and fire departments can respond, Kerber said. Over the past decade, fire deaths have increased by 30%, he said.

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Decades ago, it would probably take half an hour for a room to be completely consumed by fire, he said. But now, with materials commonly used in homes, it can be done in just three minutes. At the same time, Americans are increasingly bringing things into their homes, such as scooters or electric bicycles that use lithium-ion batteries. If one is damaged and starts to burn, it could become an explosive fire in seconds, he said.

“Today you have the least amount of time to safely leave your home than ever before,” Kerber said.

At the same time, volunteer and paid fire departments across the country are struggling to retain or recruit firefighters.

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Eric Bernard, a board member of the National Volunteer Fire Council and a volunteer firefighter in Maryland, said many volunteer fire organizations in major states like Pennsylvania or New York have seen a steady decline in membership since the 1980s. But since the pandemic, there has been a “massive” drop in the number of people wanting to join both the volunteer and professional fire departments, he said, and more firefighters are retiring. Bernard attributed that to the stress of calling during the pandemic, when firefighters often entered the homes of very sick patients and took them to hospital.

“That fatigue and that physical and mental exhaustion has led many of the career people to retire, retire early,” said Bernard, adding, “We have health issues, mental health, post-traumatic stress and members contracting COVID. “

Bernard said fire departments are also struggling to recruit women and more diverse applicants into their ranks.

Firefighters make a number of recommendations to address the issues, including creating an apprenticeship program to address the firefighter shortage and help diversify firefighter ranks; help prepare and equip all firefighters to deal with wildfires caused by climate change; implementing and enforcing building codes; and ensuring that affordable housing meets safety standards. They also advocate for suicide prevention initiatives and a comprehensive strategy to combat cancer among firefighters.

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Photo: A Philadelphia firefighter works at the scene of a deadly row house fire on Jan. 5, 2022, in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. Fires that feed on modern materials found in people’s homes are burning faster and becoming more deadly, as fire departments across the country struggle to retain and recruit firefighters. (TBEN Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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