Fire Protection

SIC 9224

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This classification covers government establishments primarily engaged in fire fighting and other related fire protection activities. Government and private establishments primarily engaged in forest fire fighting and fire protection services are classified in SIC 0851: Forestry Services. Private establishments primarily engaged in other fire-fighting services are classified in SIC 7389: Business Services, Not Elsewhere Classified.

Industry Snapshot

Public fire departments responded to 1.45 million fires in 2008, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Including all calls (e.g., medical aid, false alarms, mutual aid, hazardous materials, hazardous condition), fire fighters donned their gear more than 25.25 million times in 2008--averaging a call every 22 seconds. In 2008, there were 3,320 civilian deaths and 16,705 civilian injuries. Property damage totaled $15.5 billion.

Fire incidence in major cities was at its peak during the civil unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. However, overall trends have been downward since the late 1970s. The number of fires fell from 3.3 million in 1977 to 2.3 million in 1987 and 1.8 million in 1997. This decrease is due in part to improved fire code enforcement, mandatory sprinkler and smoke alarm laws, an increase in the utilization of other fire prevention methodologies, and innovations in fire-fighting technology.

Even today, though, the United States has the highest fire death rate of any industrialized country. Researchers have linked this fact to a difference in attitudes, pointing out that families who experience fire loss are ostracized in countries such as Japan and Holland. Fire departments in other countries also tend to devote a much larger portion of resources to prevention rather than suppression.

According to the NFPA, in the late 2000s, there were about 30,170 fire departments and 52,400 fire stations in the United States. These departments employ approximately 1,148,850 firefighters. Of these, about 28 percent are career firefighters, and 72 percent are volunteer firefighters. About 75 percent of paid firefighters work in cities with populations of more than 25,000, and the vast majority of volunteer firefighters (94 percent) operate in small, rural communities of less than 25,000.

Organization and Structure

Fire departments have two basic fire-related functions: prevention and suppression. Fire prevention activities aim to keep fires from starting. Fire suppression activities seek to put out fires once they have started, to rescue individuals, and to protect property from the paths of fires. More and more, fire departments also operate emergency medical services and air crash services that relate only tangentially to the problems of fires in structures.

In most urban areas of the United States, the fire-fighting service is primarily the responsibility of the local government. In suburban and rural areas, either independent voluntary organizations or profit-making firms may provide the service instead. Most professional fire departments today have a past that includes volunteer elements, with traditions dating back, in some cases, to the nineteenth century or even colonial times.

The local nature of fire protection reinforces individual fire department identities. Variations in procedures also reflect regional differences in building construction and environmental conditions. The major influences at the national level are the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a consensus standard making organization; the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), a directorate within the Federal Emergency Management Administration; the USFA's National Fire Academy (NFA); the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the largest union; and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).

Cities across the nation have made significant cuts in their budgets to adapt to a changing economic environment. Additional budget pressure has come from mandates for safer equipment and specialized training in such areas as hazardous materials and medical response. These demands have increased at the same time that the declining fire rate provides less actual fire-fighting experience to younger members, thus creating the need for more training in fire-fighting basics.

Frequently the first emergency response teams to arrive on scene, fire departments are taking on larger roles in emergency medical treatment, natural disasters, and terrorist incidents. This also puts fire department personnel at more risk. This was especially evident in New York City on September 11, 2001. On that tragic day, an unprecedented number of firefighters (340) were killed, along with a chaplain and two paramedics. This stands in stark contrast to the 99 deaths that took place in other incidents across the country that year. Shockingly, the number of firefighters who lost their lives on September 11 exceeded the number of full-time firefighters killed on the job over the previous 20 years. In the wake of this disaster, many citizens developed an even greater respect for America's firefighters. For example, following September 11, it was not uncommon to see people wearing apparel with the "FDNY" insignia in cities across the nation.

In addition to the events of September 11, a bombing in the late 1990s involved a "secondary bomb" timed specifically to target responders arriving to provide aid in the wake of the initial attack. Additionally, responders at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, came under attack while rescuing injured students. Many fire departments now are working closer with law enforcement to manage these mass casualty incidents.

Fire departments continue to struggle to meet tightened safety standards from two sometimes conflicting sources: voluntary standards promulgated in recent years by the NFPA and mandatory standards of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Newer equipment--such as insulated pants-and-jacket combinations--also has had physical and psychological effects on individual firefighters. Meanwhile, changes in the building environments, such as synthetic materials and thermal-insulating windows, create fires of greater intensity and toxicity. The U.S. Department of Labor forecast that these pressures will move smaller departments from volunteer to paid status, creating new jobs. Larger, urban departments, however, are likely to have little job growth.

Although the nation's fire departments face situations that are more complex and dangerous than ever before, as well as more stringent standards, many fall short of having the resources required to carry out their duties. According to the Needs Assessment Study of the U.S. Fire Service, conducted by the NFPA for the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and released in 2003, "Many of the nation's fire departments do not have enough fire stations to achieve widely recognized response-time guidelines and lack key equipment, prevention programs, and a wide range of training. Approximately a third of all firefighters per shift are not equipped with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Most fire departments do not have the ability to handle unusually challenging incidents with local specialized resources and do not have written agreements to direct use of nonlocal response resources. In general, fire departments do not have enough portable radios to equip more than about half of the emergency responders on a shift, and most radios lack intrinsic safety in an explosive atmosphere and are not water-resistant."

In 2005, public fire departments responded to 1.6 million fires, in which 3,675 civilian deaths occurred, as well as 17,925 fire-related civilian injuries. In addition, fire-related property damage totaled $10.67 trillion. The industry reported that one civilian perished every 143 minutes due to a fire-related incident, and that one civilian was injured every 29 minutes from a fire-related occurrence. House fires accounted for 3,030 (82 percent) of the civilian deaths. In all, 23.25 million calls were placed to U.S. fire departments. Seven percent of these calls were regarding fires, nine percent were for false alarms, and 62 percent were for EMS. The NFPA reported that 87 firefighters lost their lives in 2005, a decrease from 103 firefighters in 2004.

According to the NFPA Journal, there were 396,000 residential fires in 2005, representing 77.5 percent of the total number of structural related fires, down 3.7 percent from 2004. Of that total, about 287,000 were in one- and two-family residences, contributing 56.2 percent to the yearly total. Apartment fires represented 18.4 percent, or 94,000 fires. In contrast, nonresidential structure fires at institutional properties increased 15.4 percent, for 7,500 fires, whereas educational property fires fell 14.3 percent. While some figures were down for 2005, overall fires were still up 3.3 percent over 2004. However, civilian deaths fell 5.8 percent for 2005.

On September 29, 2006, Congress passed the fiscal year 2007 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act (H.R. 5441). Despite efforts by President Bush requesting a meager $293 million, the bill called for $547 million to fund the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, another $115 million for the SAFER program, and $47 million for the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), all above 2006 spending. That was good news for the industry following cuts in 2005 and 2006.

Current Conditions

By the late 2000s, it was becoming clear that the role of fire departments had greatly expanded to include not only fire protection but also medical and mutual aid calls. In the 25-year period between 1983 and 2008, the number of fire departments increased from 28,227 to 20,170. The number of total fire fighters rose from 1.11 million to 1.15 million--career fire fighters accounting for all of the increase; the number of volunteer firefighters actually decreased by over 57,000. However, compared to these gains, total call responses more than doubled from 11.89 million in 1983 to more than 25.25 million in 2008. Specifically, fire calls generally trended downward over this time period, reaching a 25-year low in 2008 of 1.45 million. Yet, medical and mutual aid calls skyrocketed from 6.44 million and 441,000 to 15.77 million and 1.21 million, respectively.

Of concern in the late 2000s in many small, rural fire departments was the recruitment of young volunteer firefighters. Because of the heavy work and high stress involved with firefighting, good health is of particular importance. Cardiac arrest is the leading cause of on-the-job death among firefighters. Recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters was becoming more difficult. Generally, more young people migrate to larger cities to find employment or commute long distances, reducing their available free time to commit. In addition, ramped-up training requirements, which have improved on-the-job safety and efficiency, have also likely deterred potential recruits. Several pieces of legislation were before Congress that would provide incentives (e.g., tax breaks) for volunteers.

In 2008, a wildfire topped the list as the largest loss fire for the fifth time in 10 years. In all, firefighters responded to 15 large loss fires (i.e., those which cause in excess of $10 million in damages). Although these fires accounted for a minute portion of fire responses (0.002 percent), they caused more than 15 percent of total monetary damages. Because of their high cost in terms of both property and life, the government has been willing to funnel money toward prevention in these areas. For example, in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus bill, passed to jump start a depressed economy, earmarking $33 million for wildland fire management projects and the removal of hazardous fuels, which are fire sources.


Because fire fighting is such a specialized occupation, many people who begin their careers as firefighters with a particular department remain with that department for the duration of their career. Fire fighting is a uniformed, quasi-military service. Firefighters typically work swing shifts or long shifts and work in groups of 5 to 12 people. Most firefighters rotate on a 24-hour work shift, with many firefighters moonlighting in different trades during their off hours.

Important legislation passed in late 1999 amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to add a definition of a firefighter. FLSA has a special overtime exemption to accommodate the unusual schedules of local government fire and emergency services agencies, in part due to the unpredictable nature of emergencies. This exemption allows an average of 53 hours per week before overtime is due. However, prior to 1999, the FLSA did not explicitly define firefighter, leading to inconsistent court interpretations on whether incidents involving emergency medical services were covered under the firefighter exemption. The new legislation, supported by both labor and management, defined a firefighter as an employee trained in fire suppression who has the authority and responsibility to engage in fire suppression and is employed by a fire department of a municipality, county fire district, or state. Under the legislation, the firefighter is covered under the exemption whenever he or she is engaged in the prevention, control, and extinguishment of fires or response to emergency situations where life, property, or the environment is at risk. This definition of a firefighter was also adopted under the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

According to BLS, in 2008, approximately 365,600 firefighters were on payroll in the United States. In a recent year, approximately 827,150 people were volunteer firefighters. The fire service is overwhelmingly male and traditionally blue collar. Entry to most career fire departments is based on competitive testing, with rigorous tests for physical strength and agility. Promotion is often based on a combination of competitive testing and seniority. Paid departments experience little turnover. Many departments are beginning to require some college education for promotion.

When full-time firefighters are used exclusively, labor costs--including benefits--may exceed 90 percent of the total costs of fire service delivery. Nearly 80 percent of active firefighters are union members. Fire departments have a low rate of turnover; most job openings result when firefighters retire or change careers.

A major and legitimate concern of firefighters is safety. The rate of deaths in the line of duty is much higher for firefighters than for police officers or other city employees. The USFA reports that approximately 100 firefighters die each year in duty-related incidents. Exposure to heat, smoke, and building collapse poses intense danger. Moreover, smoke inhalation may cause respiratory problems, heart failure, and cancer. One response to the danger has been more generous death, disability, and retirement benefits for firefighters.

In 2008, the median annual wage of a firefighter stood at $44,260. Firefighters employed by the local government earned $44,800 per year, firefighters employed by the federal government earned $45,610, and firefighters employed by the state government earned $37,870. The median salary for first-line supervisors and managers was $37,440 annually during this time. According to the International City-County Management Association, fire chiefs earned anywhere from $78,672 to $104,780 annually in 2008, compared to deputy fire chiefs with an annual salary of $69,166 to $88,571. Fire captains earned from $60,605 to $62,265 annually.

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