Fire risk in the WUI: An interview with U.S. Fire Administrator Ernest Mitchell

CheifMitchellOne of the central topics facing the fire service is the fact that trends indicate fire risk has been growing in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). It’s a subject that’s drawn the attention of the national fire service community, especially as the potential for catastrophic loss of life and property becomes greater. To explore this critical issue, Community Fire Protection News interviewed Chief Ernest Mitchell, Jr., U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration (USFA), part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Chief Mitchell is responsible for managing the USFA and programs at the National Emergency Training Center. With 33 years of fire service experience, he’s been the nation’s top fire official since his December 2011 appointment by President Obama. He earned an associate of science degree in fire science from Long Beach City College, a bachelor’s degree in public administration from the University of San Francisco, and a master of public administration degree from California State University at Northridge.

Community Fire Protection News (CFP): The statistics tell us that wildland fires are growing in frequency and size of incidents. Considering those trends, what concerns do you and the USFA have?

Chief Mitchell: As with any trend that adversely affects life safety and property protection, the immediate concern is finding a solution to how we can disrupt the trend. The first step is to understand what’s causing the increase. Across a country as vast as the United States, causes may vary based on geography, climate differences, fuel availability, and other factors. For instance, in some parts of the country, lightning strikes cause numerous wildland fires; in others, there are few lightning strikes and most fires are caused by humans. There’s been an enormous expansion of building in and adjacent to open wildland during the past 20 years. That results in more fires that threaten lives and homes than in years prior.

To add to the problem, many homes are being built with less than optimal fire protection features that could reduce losses. The development, adoption, and use of modern building and fire codes to protect homes—in conjunction with thoughtful land use practices—could reduce the hazard or slow the expansion of this very real threat to lives and property. The most effective and efficient means of fire protection in the WUI would be to harden structures and build in mitigation measures. Fire suppression forces do excellent work in response to fires, but they’re easily overwhelmed by hostile wind-driven wildfires racing through homes. Prevention and mitigation measures are better solutions.

CFP: Are there opportunities for the USFA/FEMA to help reduce risks from wildfire in the WUI?

Mitchell: We work with other federal, state, tribal, and local partners on the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, a multifaceted plan designed to promote the preservation and protection of wildlands and their inhabitants. In addition to and in support of the strategy, we work with other partners and stakeholders in the fire service community to inform and educate fire departments and the public through valuable programs such as Fire Adapted Communities; Fire Wise; Ready, Set, Go; and other model programs. Local communities can develop and adopt the programs as they undertake community risk reduction activities for wildland fires.

FEMA also has mitigation funds available through various grant programs, such as the Hazardous Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), Fire Management Assistance Grant (FMAGP), and Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) Program. The programs assist in lessening the risks, but so much more could be done to reduce the hazards if communities planned and built with fire protection in mind as prescribed in current model codes.

CFP: Do you have any other comments and concerns about wildland risks and risk mitigation?

Mitchell: Wildland fire risks are predictable and therefore preventable—if precautions are taken in the planning and development stage. As someone once asked, Would you put a wooden boat in a sea of gasoline? Fire hazard conditions are comparable in some wildland areas where construction is taking place. The threat is imminent and is exacerbated by climate effects. It would be wise for communities to be cautious in their approach to development in the WUI.

CFP: As USFA director for the last four years, what are your concerns for fire risk and protection in the future?

Mitchell: I have several concerns, but the primary one is that we generally don’t appear to recognize fire for the threat it presents. Nearly 3,000 fire deaths per year is more than the total for all other disasters in the United States over many years, but people don’t seem to take fire prevention as seriously as they should. Maybe that’s because fire deaths occur in relatively small numbers per incident. We must be more cautious in our approach to building and development so we don’t increase the hazard. We must take advantage of the knowledge gained through fire experience over the years and use available technologies. In fact, the old technology of automatic fire sprinklers is still not prevalent in residences, which is where more than 80 percent of lives are lost annually. Additionally, buildings and furnishings are burning faster and producing more toxic products of combustion, creating greater hazards to occupants and firefighters. Even though it will take years, the sooner we increase the use of residential fire sprinklers, the sooner we’ll see a reduction in lives lost.

CFP: What are you able to do to address the growing risk of cancer in the fire service?

Mitchell: We participate with other fire service organizations in supporting further research and clearly identifying the risks so adequate steps may be taken to reduce them. USFA has supported research by NIOSH [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] in recent years, and we support increasing national research efforts. Though somewhat limited, recent research results clearly indicate a higher incidence of certain cancers in firefighters. The good news is there is increased interest in performing research. But funds have been limited, and we need more support in that area. We also need more fire departments and firefighters to participate in research opportunities.

We wholeheartedly endorse actively pursuing answers and solutions to the issue of work-related cancers in firefighters. USFA can communicate findings to large numbers of fire service members, especially fire officers and local decision makers, through educational programs presented by the National Fire Academy and its partnerships with state fire training directors.

CFP: What other issues do you foresee becoming “hot” topics over the next few years?

Mitchell: You’ve already mentioned two big ones: the growing WUI fire problem and firefighter occupational cancer. I believe those will be two of the hottest. Another issue will be the use of a relatively untapped resource—residential fire sprinklers—to reduce the fire mortality rate. I hope we’ll also increase our use of technological advances in fire protection, such as more sophisticated detection and situational awareness of occupancies, monitoring life in buildings (location and status), employing robotics, and using big data in community risk reduction. Other important topics will be the changing role of fire and emergency services and the cost of fire protection; the expansion of fire and emergency services’ role in community health and medical care; behavioral health and its role in firefighter health and safety; firefighter wellness, fitness, and medical care; and the reduction of duty deaths and injuries.

CFP: How can the fire service contribute to solutions for those issues?

Mitchell: Locally, the fire service must continually monitor its role in various communities. We need to regularly scan environments and assess our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats [SWOT]. Then we need to make appropriate plans and take action. There’s no one answer that fits every community.

Both individually and collectively, we need to actively seek solutions, find new or innovative ways to solve problems, and constantly learn and work together for a safer fire service—and a safer America. The fact that something has been a problem or challenge for a very long time doesn’t mean it has to continue that way. We simply need to do more of the good things we’ve been doing and find answers in doing something different. Today, like it or not, change is inevitable, and it’s incumbent upon fire service leadership to effect the best changes to meet evolving needs and demands.

The fire service can explore working with nontraditional partners that may have tools and information we can adapt to our unique circumstances. Many communities are discovering that possibility. We live in a dynamic time when innovation and change are constants. We should be open to, and on the lookout for, advances outside our traditional field that may enhance service delivery. And of course, we must continue, as we traditionally have, to put service to our respective communities first. At the same time, we must expand our team and recognize we increase our successes by working together as the nation’s fire and emergency services.

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