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Current Events and Issues

Is Your Fire and EMS Department Ready for Climate Change?

Posted: June 30, 2021

From training for nontraditional incident response to migrating populations to technology used on the job, climate change is having an increasingly significant all-hazards impact on the fire and emergency medical services (EMS).

We are already experiencing and responding to the adverse effects of climate change. It's important that the fire and EMS are aware of what these effects are and prepare now for them.

How is climate change impacting the fire service?

As our climate changes, U.S. communities will experience warmer or wetter winters, more frequent storms, more severe storms, and hotter and drier summers. For the fire service this translates into:

  • More frequent responses to weather-related incidents.
  • Longer wildfire seasons (potentially year-round).
  • More emergency declarations and longer recovery phases.
  • Health, safety and behavioral health concerns for fire and EMS personnel.
  • A need for different skills and equipment, such as water rescue or response to green energy-related incidents.
  • Water supply insecurity.

Impacts related to climate change are already evident in many sectors and are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond.

Rethink your risk

Review your existing community risk assessment under a climate change lens. Is your community at increased risk due to the impacts of climate change, like wildland urban interface (WUI) fires or flooding? Here are some risks to consider:

Fire weather

Periods of weather with a combination of high temperatures, low humidity, low rainfall and often high winds can increase the likelihood of WUI fires. These fires can be severe with a high loss of life and property. Is your department trained and equipped to respond to WUI fires?

Is your community in the WUI? The answer might surprise you.

Other weather-related disasters

  • Drought. Sustained or even short (flash) periods of drought can increase your risk from WUI fires.
  • Extreme heat or cold. Low and high temperatures can result in more frequent EMS calls and personnel rehab concerns.
  • Severe storms and flooding. Disaster response to these events, especially if sustained, can stretch your personnel's ability to respond to other events.

Population migration

People are moving away from areas impacted by climate change to other areas of our country where weather events are less severe. This population migration to or away from communities has an impact on your fire and EMS department.

  • Will you need to hire or recruit additional personnel?
  • Will you need to adjust outreach messages for changing demographics?
  • Will population changes impact land management use and building or zoning codes?
  • Will declining or increasing populations impact your department's budget and reach?

Renewable energy sources and green buildings

People and companies are moving toward green solutions to mitigate climate change. This means there are new hazards for the fire service to be aware of and trained to respond to such as:

  • Electric vehicle and charging station fires.
  • Solar photovoltaic system fires.
  • Structure fire and collapse issues associated with green building exterior and interior materials and finishes.
  • Changes to electrical distribution networks and battery storage technologies.

Target hazards

Has climate change resulted in new or changed target hazards in your community? Do you have recycling centers or facilities that produce or store biofuel, geothermal, solar or hydrogen energy products? Is the communication infrastructure changing? If so, you may need to assess these properties and buildings to determine the risk for potential loss of life or negative community impacts if there were a fire or weather emergency.

Training to help you command incidents in high-risk areas

The NFA course Command and Control of Fire Department Operations at Target Hazards will help you to respond to fire and rescue incidents that include high casualty, multiple exposure and unusual occupancy risk considerations.

Aging infrastructure

Climate change can make issues with aging roads, buildings and public infrastructure worse. For example, when an aging stormwater drainage system is overwhelmed, flooding can impact your department’s ability to reach people safely in an emergency. It can also impact your personnel's ability to respond and can even compromise the fire station.

Many older buildings were not built to withstand the increased frequency of severe weather events, and repeated exposure can make them unsafe. Roofs may not be able to withstand heavy amounts of snow. Indoor climate control systems may not operate sufficiently during extreme weather events, causing people to use equipment like window air conditioners and portable heaters in an unsafe way that can cause a home fire.

Creating a Community Wildfire Protection Plan

Need help with risk assessment?

If you haven't assessed your community's risk, or if you would like more information, we have training and tools to help you develop a plan that protects your community.

Creating a Community Wildfire Protection Plan

This guide has form-fillable templates to assist you in documenting your community's wildfire risks and creating an action plan.

Get the guide

Online training

The National Fire Academy (NFA) online course Introduction to Community Risk Assessment provides a foundational understanding of the components, benefits and processes of conducting risk assessments.

Read the course description

Prepare to meet your community's climate change risk

Now is the time to create a climate-resilient fire and EMS department and community. To help you prepare, consider:

Community risk reduction programs

Preparing communities for severe weather events and WUI fires can lead to a safer response for fire and EMS personnel. Identify and assess your community's risk and then target educational programs and public messages to mitigate these risks. Emphasize defensible space, how to prevent accidental wildfire ignitions, evacuation planning and emergency notification.

Enroll in an NFA community risk reduction online course

Training

Based on the climate change risks you have identified, train personnel to meet these new challenges. If increased flooding is a risk in your area, train and equip personnel for swift water rescue. Similarly, if you are experiencing more severe thunderstorms and tornados, train for search and rescue. Make sure all personnel are trained to operate under the Incident Command System (ICS).

Enroll in an NFA ICS online course

Technology

Evaluate new or different technologies to meet the challenges of incident response in severe weather, such as high-water apparatus, battery-operated tools, photovoltaic power systems, FirstNet, hand-held GPS devices and unmanned aircraft systems.

Harden your infrastructure

  • Plan for how your department will maintain its operational capability during a prolonged disaster response and the health and safety impacts of that response on your personnel.
  • Ensure that fire station building and mechanical issues are addressed, including redundant power supply, and that your station is well supplied.
  • Make sure that equipment meets your response needs in this era of climate change.
  • Encourage personnel to create a family emergency plan. Ready Responder can help your agency plan to meet personnel and family needs during severe weather events.

Land management use and building codes

Sound land management use policies based on risk assessment help communities survive wildfire and flooding events. Adopting and enforcing modern model building codes increases public and responder safety and provides protection for properties.

Make sure you are part of these important discussions with community leaders and planners. The decisions made in these meetings can have long-lasting effects on your response to WUI fires and severe weather events.

Funding for your climate change needs

Your department can apply for funding under several Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant programs to pay for personnel, training, equipment, community outreach programs, hazard mitigation projects and more. 2 grant programs to consider are:

Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program (AFGP)

This grant program provides 3 annual funding opportunities that fire departments can apply for to receive resources to equip and train emergency personnel, enhance efficiencies and support community resilience. Learn more about AFGP grants.

Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC)

This grant program supports hazard mitigation projects that reduce risks from disasters and natural hazards. Learn more about BRIC grants.

For more information about other FEMA preparedness and hazard mitigation grants, visit FEMA.gov.

Declare a climate emergency

If your jurisdiction has not already done so, declare a climate emergency for your department to help reduce carbon emissions.

  • Buy green apparatus and equipment, including station laptops and other office materials.
  • Choose suppliers who demonstrate good environmental practices.
  • Avoid disposable and single-use products like cups, plates and coffee stirrers in your station.
  • Recycle station materials when possible.
  • Raise awareness about the effects of climate change at public events and in your meetings with community leaders.

Climate change is not a future event. Many areas of the country are dealing with the effects now and the fire and EMS are being called on to mitigate these effects. Make sure your department and personnel are ready.

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