Water is vital for human development and growth. Unfortunately, many rural communities experience the lack of quality water resources. The goal of this paper is to describe and evaluate the most common water supply challenges facing rural communities and their implications for firefighting. The paper provides several examples of the major water supply difficulties affecting rural communities. The effects of these water supply difficulties on firefighting capacities are discussed. Recommendations to improve rural water supply and firefighting procedures are provided.
Keywords: rural, water supply, firefighting.
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Water Supply Challenges in Rural Communities: Implications for Firefighting
Water is vital for human development and growth. Unfortunately, rural communities experience the lack of quality water supplies. Changes in population dynamics and the economic and social difficulties facing rural communities impede the development of effective water supply systems. Water vulnerabilities have already become a characteristic feature of many rural communities, with far-reaching implications for their firefighting capabilities. Needless to say, in rural communities that lack access to water, even the smallest fire can lead to a serious catastrophe. As of today, the lack of hydrants, inappropriate firefighting apparatus design, problems with dip sites, and the lack of cooperation with the water utility authorities make rural communities extremely susceptible to the risks of fires. In the absence of effective water supply systems, no rural community is fully secured from firefighting problems. Despite these difficulties, most rural communities have more than one firefighting option to choose from: elevated water storage facilities/tanks and natural bodies of water. Coupled with enhanced cooperation between firefighting departments and utility authorities, they will improve rural communities’ firefighting capabilities.
Challenges Facing Rural Communities: The Lack of Water
Rick and Bonnie Spinks were helplessly watching the orange flames ‘eating’ their house (Thompson, 2004). That used to be Bonnie’s house since she was 16 (Thomson, 2004). Sitting on a hill in their backyard, Bonnie and Rick understood they could not do anything to save their house (Thompson, 2004). Four fire departments worked hard to conquer the fire, but they could do little in the absence of the most valuable resource – water (Thompson, 2004). A usual fire would require between 4,000 and 6,000 gallons of water, but, in case of Rick and Bonnie Spinks, nearly 12,000 gallons were used (Thompson, 2004). Not surprisingly, with the lack of available hydrants, the firefighters working on the scene faced serious difficulties getting enough water to the scene.
At the same time, miles away from the Spinks’ house, firefighters of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the southern Arizona were facing similar problems. According to Encinas (2009), nearly all communities in the southern Arizona meet the “rural” criteria and “have limited infrastructure to support firefighting operations.” In the southern Arizona, where large fires are not uncommon, meeting the demand for water during firefighting operations is quite a challenge. In most cases, firefighters need to cross miles before they get to the nearest source of water (Encinas, 2009). To save the time and costs of firefighting operations, professionals choose to rely on the water they bring to the scene (Encinas, 2009). However, as in case with Rick and Bonnie Spinks, the amount of water brought to the scene may not suffice to capture and control the fire.
Most firefighters are aware of the water supply problems facing rural communities all over the country. In the midst of the summer, fire departments experience real anxiety, as they know they may fail to cope with serious fires, due to the lack of water. Many rural agencies have but to rely on the natural sources of water, such as rivers and ponds. However, as the summer drought continues, even these sources may prove insufficient to ensure the success of firefighting operations (Anonymous, 2012). Like their colleagues in the southern Arizona, firefighters in rural Washington County have serious water worries (Anonymous, 2012). In conditions of severe heat, rivers, ponds, and lakes have started to shrink, and firefighters are no longer confident they will have adequate water supplies to deal with the major fire crises (Anonymous, 2012). Apparently, the issues of poor water supply in rural communities and firefighting difficulties are not occasional. They are systemic. Therefore, it is high time to explore the problem in more detail.
Rural Communities and Water Supplies: What Hinders Effective Firefighting?
The problem of inadequate water supply in rural communities encompasses numerous elements. The absence of available hydrants, inappropriate apparatus design, difficulties bringing sufficient amounts of water to the firefighting scene, problems with dip sites, and the lack of cooperation between firefighters and utility authorities make rural communities extremely vulnerable to the risks of major fires. Water is vital for human development and growth, and rural communities lacking access to quality water resources, especially in light of the growing fire risks, can suffer considerable physical, financial, and emotional losses (Hope, 2006). Changes in population dynamics lead to an incredible increase in water demand across all rural communities (Vorosmarty, Green, Salisbury, & Lammers, 2000). Unfortunately, it seems that most rural communities have failed to curb the existing water supply and firefighting issues so far. The most serious is the situation with hydrants. For most fire departments located in rural communities, getting sufficient amounts of water is a common problem, while access to water remains the major factor affecting rural homeowners’ insurance bills (Thompson, 2004).
Most rural communities lack access to functioning hydrants (Thompson, 2004). Larger hydrants present the biggest problem (Thompson, 2004). Fire departments usually need two types of hydrants: flush hydrants and regular hydrants, because the water mains available “in most rural communities are not large enough to support regular hydrants” (Thompson, 2004). For example, in the case of Rick and Bonnie Spinks, firefighters had to get a pumper truck and connect it to the nearest flush hydrant; another pumper truck was sent to Needmore for more water (Thompson, 2004). Large hydrants fulfill a number of fire protection functions, while flush hydrants are needed to have air cleared from the entire system (Thompson, 2004). The rural community does not have enough mains to support its water supply system; as a result, firefighters cannot connect their hoses directly to the existing flush hydrants (Thompson, 2004). The pressure of water in the system is very low, and it takes some time to get enough water into pumper trucks (Thompson, 2004). Consequently, the existing rural water systems can do little to prevent fires. They merely provide water throughout the aging infrastructure (Thompson, 2004).
Apparatus design is another issue with firefighting in rural territories. In areas like the southern Arizona, each firefighting station is assigned with at least one engine (Encinas, 2009). Yet, tenders can be as long as 40 minutes away from the scene, and when the entire structure is involved, rescue transitioning and life hazards elimination can become particularly problematic (Encinas, 2009). Tender design problems are so serious that most rural fire departments have made it a matter of choosing between bringing sufficient amounts of water to the scene or getting it there at all (Encinas, 2009). It is no wonder that members of rural communities feel so vulnerable in the face of fire threats. Added to this may be the problem of area remoteness, which makes rural communities inaccessible to engines (Encinas, 2009). Long distances to the nearest dip sites further complicate the situation.
Finally, many fire departments lack effective cooperation with utility companies and authorities. As a result, they may not have the resources needed to improve the efficiency of rural water supply systems. Encinas (2009) suggests that fire departments should establish close relationships with all community stakeholders already when the new construction project is being planned. Apart from establishing effective fire-protection systems in new buildings, adequate supplies of water for firefighting needs must be guaranteed (Encinas, 2009). Unfortunately, all these problems reduce the chances that even the smallest fire in a rural community like Lawrence County will be effectively managed.
Water Supplies in Rural Communities: What to Do?
The basic question is not in the way rural communities deal with their fire risks but in what they can really do to improve water supply and make water available to firefighters. To begin with, and based on Nye and Mancl (n.d.), fire companies and departments must calculate the minimum amounts of water needed to meet their firefighting needs. This can be done, taking the cubic feet of community structures, their classification or occupancy hazard level as the basis for calculations (Nye & Mancl, n.d.). For example, water supply requirements increase for buildings that are located closer than 50 ft from each other (Nye & Mancl, n.d.). Additionally, fire companies must ensure that the water can be delivered quickly to the fire scene. “The flowrate per water stream should be at least 500 gallons per minute and sustained for at least 60 minutes to control a fire” (Nye & Mancl, n.d., p.1). Furthermore, the creation of elevated water storage facilities, the use of swimming pools, as well as natural water bodies, such as mines and ponds, can alleviate the burden of firefighting problems affecting rural communities (Nye & Mancl, n.d.). However, given that all naturally constructed bodies of water are dependent on seasonal and environmental changes, small communities must map all water resources available to firefighters and develop a plan of using these resources effectively, depending on the season and weather. Finally, developing productive relations with utility providers and insurance companies can potentially improve the quality of water supply systems in rural communities. Insurance companies are particularly interested in reducing the fire protection costs and risks, while local utility companies can provide additional guidance regarding the installation of dry hydrants all over the community area (Nye & Mancl, n.d.). These are just the basic recommendations to reduce the risks of fires in rural communities, which will give local residents and fire companies another chance to prevent a fire tragedy.
Rural communities face numerous water supply challenges. These problems have far-reaching implications for the protection from fire and firefighting procedures. The lack of hydrants, inappropriate apparatus design, and the lack of cooperation between fire departments and utility companies impede the development of effective fire prevention procedures. However, most rural communities have more than one firefighting option to choose from. Natural sources of water, elevated water storage facilities/tanks, and stakeholder involvement will enable rural fire companies to prevent a fire tragedy.
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