SIC 9224

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.

NAICS Code(s)

922160 (Fire Protection)

Industry Snapshot

Public fire departments responded to 1.73 million fires in 2001, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). At 6,196, civilian deaths in 2001 were significantly higher than the previous year (4,045). However, this total included 2,451 people who were killed during the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. Had that tragic event not have occurred, the number of civilian deaths from fires would have decreased from the previous year. Property damage directly caused by fire increased steadily during the late 1990s and rose from $10 billion in 1999 to $11.2 billion in 2000. However, in 2001 these damages skyrocketed to $44 billion because of the events of September 11. In fact, 76 percent of the damages recorded in 2001 ($33.4 billion) were attributed to the September 11 attacks.

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.

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 firefighting 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.

Current Conditions

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. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that these pressures will move smaller departments from volunteer toward paid membership, 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:"


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 used 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 Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2000, there were approximately 258,000 firefighters on payroll in the United States, along with 62,000 first-line managers or supervisors and 13,000 inspectors. In a recent year, approximately 804,200 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 pose 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.

Further Reading

Federal Emergency Management Agency. "FEMA, USFA and NFPA National Study Identifies Service Gaps in America's Fire Departments." 22 January 2003. Available from .

Karter, Michael J., Jr. "U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 1998," 1999.

National Fire Protection Association. Firefighter Fatalities in the United States—2001. July 2002. Available from .

——. The U.S. Fire Problem. October 2002. Available from .

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2002-03 Edition. Available from .

U.S. Fire Administration National Data Center. "Fire in the United States 1987-1996," 1999.

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