There is no doubt that the climate is undergoing significant changes worldwide. In many areas, these changes are already challenging the resources and capabilities of the fire service. Understanding how climate change may impact firefighting in the near and long-range is critical.
The Changing Environment for Firefighters
Firefighters exist in a world of extremes. A firefighter’s job is to enter environments of extremes, especially heat, and mitigate the situation. Whether the firefighter works in an urban department and deals with structural firefighting emergencies daily, or responds to rural wildland fires, climate and weather have a great impact on that job.
The effects of global climate change on a firefighters job come in many forms. As climate change occurs and weather patterns change, the firefighting community must adapt and create new strategies and tactics to address these changes.
The Changing World – Both Urban and Wildland
Studies have shown that the number of extreme weather events is increasing. These changing patterns include more intense weather phenomena as well as the frequency of such events. These types of events create challenges for firefighters across the board.
Urban Effects – More, Bigger, and Longer
Urban firefighters are already dealing with many of the side effects of worldwide climate change. These changes manifest in the urban environment in several ways. Fire departments and firefighters must adapt to these changing conditions to meet the challenges that may arise in the future. The challenges affect long-range strategic planning as well as immediate tactical responses.
Weather Event Intensity – The Bigger Challenge
As the climate changes, experts predict that weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards will increase in severity over the coming years. Since firefighters are usually central to the emergency response to these types of events, more intense weather-related events will require larger and more complicated responses from fire departments.
Planning for an increased number of bigger weather-related events must be done sooner rather than later. It’s not just about having enough firefighters. This type of planning is a community concern because it affects budgets and resources in the community as well as larger regions. A focus on inter-agency cooperation is a must as well as local and regional long-range planning.
When More is Not Better
To make matters worse, along with increasing intensity, experts predict that the frequency of these types of weather-related events will also grow. Increasing numbers of climate change-driven emergencies exacerbate the problems faced by communities, regions, and fire departments. More frequent events reduce the time fire departments and communities must recoup from one event to the next.
Planning for increased numbers of emergency responses to weather-related catastrophes is imperative to maintain the effectiveness of the emergency responses. This is not just a fire department concern, but also a community and regional concern.
The Escalating Time Problem
Many weather-related fire events are also seeing an increase in the length of the event as well as the seasonal conditions that are conducive to these types of events. Perhaps the most concerning is the lengthening of the wildland fire season.
The USDA reports that:
In addition, data reflects that the duration of wildland fires is also increasing. It is taking longer to control these events, which translates into more costs and more resources expended in the efforts. With the expectation that weather patterns will continue to change and contribute to longer fire seasons, regional planners must plan to meet the resource needs of these events.
More Challenges for Everyone
From a firefighting perspective, the challenge soon is to adequately prepare to meet the challenges posed by global climate change. It is easy to see the challenges for those communities that routinely face major events like hurricanes along the coastal regions and tornados in the central plains of the US.
However, even cities and towns that are not exposed to hurricanes, tornadoes, or wildland fires can experience the effects of global climate change. Northern climates are experiencing a growing number of much more intense winters. Longer intervals of extreme cold weather and higher snow accumulations are just two of the effects that are being felt around the world.
The Effects for Firefighters and Fire Departments
Whether you’re a veteran firefighter or preparing for the firefighter exam, the net effect of global climate change manifests in several ways:
Increased manpower requirements
More frequent and more intense weather-related emergency responses require more manpower and a deeper manpower pool. Communities and fire departments must plan strategically for these needs.
Increased logistical demands
The logistics of responding to and supporting operations at weather-driven emergency locations must also be factored into the plan. Not only will resources be tested, but the ability to resupply may also be affected when these events occur during short periods.
Effects on Firefighters and their Families
Firefighters do not escape the effects of weather-related emergencies. Hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, wildfires, and blizzards don’t exempt firefighters and their families. The stress induced when a firefighter is battling the elements while tending to personal concerns can be overwhelming. Fire departments and communities must be ready to respond positively to the needs of their personnel.
Planning for an event that may or may not occur can be difficult. The resources necessary to prepare for these events can be expensive. Fire Chiefs may find the concepts of preparedness and pre-planning hard to sell to some elected officials. Education is the key to preparing elected officials and city senior management for the need to meet the costs of preparing.
The Direct Connection – Global Climate Change and Firefighting
There can be no doubt that global climate change has a direct bearing on fire departments of every size. From the largest urban fire department to the smallest local volunteer department, these factors must be part of the near term and long term strategic planning for the department, city or town, and region.
Without the acceptance that weather and climate change affect fire department operations, the protection of the communities these agencies service will be compromised.
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