Urban, Rural and In-between

Many cities in the United States are expanding and are incorporating areas that contain environments with which city fire department personnel are inexperienced. Expanding cities typically incorporate suburban and rural areas, and many firefighters, while experienced in responding to urban emergencies, are unfamiliar with the alternate firefighting tactics that suburban and rural environmental hazards require.


Suburban and urban environments have more similarities than the rural environment, so it is much easier for firefighters to adjust to the suburban hazards than to rural hazards. Moving from an assignment on an engine company in the downtown urban area of a city to an engine company in a newly incorporated suburban and rural area of the city requires major adjustment. There are numerous differences, both in the response area and in the actions required in an emergency response. The tactics used at structure fires need to be different in a rural area than they would be downtown, and the threats might vary as well.

As a firefighter or officer making the adjustment from an urban environment to a suburban or rural environment, you must understand that you will face different hazards and work to understand these new hazards. Building construction and material can vary greatly in different environments. In the downtown area, there are high-rise buildings, apartment complexes, industrial complexes, housing projects, and one- and two-family dwellings. These building are often constructed from older brick and wood.

Rural and suburban construction can include strip malls, type II construction, industrial complexes, one- and two-family dwellings, apartment complexes, trailer parks, and barns. While some of the building construction is similar to that found in the city, many in the area are different, and each different building construction presents its own set of hazards and requires its own set of firefighting tactics.


In a rural area, access to water might be limited. In the city, there is often a hydrant located within a block or two of every fire, and more often than not a 300- to 500-foot supply hoselay is adequate. A rural fire could require more hose to reach hydrants that are located farther away; there could also be areas that do not have hydrants within reach of a fire. Water supply can be a major challenge for rural responders, as access to water might be limited to the water in the tank. With limited access to water, first responders must consider alternate strategies for getting water to an emergency location, including relay, drafting, and water tanker operations.

The types of crimes that require fire response can also differ depending on location. In the city, drug crimes might require emergency medical and fire responses. In a suburban or rural area, the hazard of clandestine drug labs could be more prevalent. A fire in a building being used to produce drugs typically contains flammable liquids and the potential for explosions, and the buildings may also be booby trapped.

The last major difference between the urban and the newly incorporated suburban and rural environments is the urban wildland interface. An urban firefighter might encounter a grass fire, while a suburban or rural firefighter can face the threat of large wildland fires, and those fires might encroach into residential areas. Response to a wildland fire can differ greatly from response to a structure fire and requires different tactics.


Responding to structure fires in suburban and rural environments can also differ. Beyond building construction and water supply, there are additional factors that make responding to structure fires in these environments different. Some of these differences include longer response times, fewer resources at the fire scene, access, and terrain.

When a new area is incorporated into a city, especially a rural area, emergency response times can be longer. Fire companies in these areas typically cover a larger area than companies in an urban environment, as the population of rural areas is not as dense as in urban areas. In the urban environment, because response times can be shorter, fire companies are sometimes able to arrive at a fire during the early stages of fire development. In a rural environment, firefighters often arrive at a fire that has developed and spread to a large portion of the structure.

Longer response times can also mean that there are fewer resources available on scene. While a structure fire has a set number of resources that will respond, longer response times can result in the first-arriving company on scene operating without additional resources for some time. This lack of rapid access to initial resources must be accounted for in the tactics chosen at a fire.

Access and terrain in suburban and rural environments can vary greatly from those in urban environments. In an urban environment, most structures are close to the street and are accessible from many different streets. In suburban and rural environments, structures are often a much greater distance from the street, and access to these structures is frequently limited. In rural environments, firefighters are also faced with narrow roads that restrict access to the incident scene as well as dirt roads.


The keys to adjusting to these new environments are training and developing knowledge of the response area. Training is imperative to allow first responders to adjust to the new type of response area, as many of the tactics used at fires in these areas vary from those of urban fires. Gaining knowledge and understanding of the response area is equally important. Learning the response area will not only identify new hazards and the need for different tactics but also will allow firefighters to protect themselves from those hazards and perform effectively.

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