Cooperation between labor and management has produced a revised proposal for the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) new standard on the organization and deployment of fire suppression and emergency medical forces in career departments. Known as NFPA 1710, the proposed standard deals mainly with the staffing and response times of fire companies and EMS units and has been a long-running controversy within the fire-rescue service.
It's still controversial, but the revised proposal now has the support of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). The chiefs and the union worked together on the revision that was presented to last month's meeting of the 1710 Committee in San Diego and there is a good chance that it eventually will be adopted by the NFPA's Standards Council. Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini, chairman of the 1710 Committee, describes it as "a good first step" that clearly defines standards for the career fire departments.
The standard calls for a first-alarm response of 15 firefighters for a structure fire. This includes an incident commander, a pump operator plus personnel to stretch and operate one attack and one backup line, while others perform search and rescue, ventilation, and two stand by as the rapid intervention team. The first-due company must reach the scene within five minutes of the time it was dispatched and the entire first-alarm assignment should be on the fireground within nine minutes.
This represents a change in response times. The original standard called for a four-minute response and eight minutes for all first-alarm units to arrive. However, it was agreed that this was unrealistic and one minute was added for "turn out time." (In a separate standard that covers alarm processing, the NFPA allows a maximum of 90 seconds from the time a call is received until a dispatcher gives it to a fire company.)
There is some leeway as to how personnel arrive on the scene. For example, if two understaffed units respond from the same station, their personnel can be combined to form a four-member team for the initial attack. However, they are then considered to be operating as a single unit and an additional company must be dispatched to make up the difference. In practical terms a minimum staffing of four firefighters will be needed on most engine and truck companies in order to meet the standard.
On EMS calls, response times for the first-responder unit is the same as on fire calls - five minutes from the time they are dispatched. The level of training for ambulance crews will be set by state licensing authorities and private ambulance companies who contract with a city to provide emergency medical or transport service will have to meet that level.
The standard also calls for two paramedics and two EMTs to be on the scene of an advanced life support incident. But all four do not have to be fire department personnel. While some may be firefighters, others can be hospital or private ambulance personnel, as long as it adds up to two paramedics and two EMTs. This requirement is based on studies showing a "significantly higher survivability rate" for patients treated by the four-person EMS teams.
Many of these provisions are compromises on both sides, but the IAFC and the IAFF were determined to work out their differences and come up with a standard that would improve firefighter safety and delivery of fire-rescue services. Those involved acknowledge that every department is not going to be able to immediately meet every provision of the new standard, but they see it as a real goal that every department can strive for.
Harold Schaitberger, general president of the IAFF, calls it "a standard that allows our members to do their job more effectively and provides a greater level of safety ... and it helps chiefs maintain the strength of their departments." Brian Johnson, the IAFC's assistant executive director, says: "It's going to raise the level of service and provide a tool for fire chiefs to justify their staffing at a time when local governments are hacking away at their budgets."
The next step is for a letter ballot to be circulated to all 30 members of the 1710 Committee. If two-thirds approve, it will be voted on at the NFPA's meeting in May, then sent to the Standards Committee for final acceptance in July. Opposition is certain to come from mayors, city managers and other officials who don't like the idea of spending money to bring their fire departments into compliance with the revised standard. Hopefully, the NFPA will heed the views of the IAFC and the IAFF.
Update on the FIRE Act.
In its final hours, the lame duck session of the 106th Congress appropriated $100 million for the first year of a new program to provide federal aid to local fire departments. The funds will be awarded in matching grants and another $300 million is authorized for the 2002 fiscal year.
This is a dramatically reduced version of the original FIRE Act, which proposed $5 billion over a period of five years, but it's a historic breakthrough. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) points out: "For the first time, the federal government has done for the fire-rescue service what it does for the police. We've created a major precedent."
Weldon and a small group of Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate fought hard to overcome a lot of obstacles in order to get the money appropriated. They were supported by the fire organizations and, once again, teamwork between the chiefs, the union and the volunteers made it possible to achieve a worthy goal.
It has been a long, hard battle and, at times, it looked as if they would fail. But they bounced back from each defeat and kept trying. Thanks to them, we finally have a federal aid program to help the nation's firefighters. It may be small, but it's a start and something we've never had before.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.