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For the first time in its long history, the American fire-rescue service has a national standard covering the deployment and staffing of fire companies on career departments. With labor and management working together, delegates to the National Fire Protection Associa-tion's annual convention have voted overwhelmingly in favor of the controversial standard known as NFPA 1710.
Supporters of the measure hailed it as a breakthrough that will have a positive, long-range impact on career departments. In their view, it will lead to better fire and emergency medical protection for the public and improved firefighter health and safety. They also see it as a tool to reverse a 20-year trend in which local governments have been saving money by imposing budget cuts on their fire departments that eliminated stations and reduced company staffing to dangerous levels.
Opponents of 1710 charged that it is unfair and unrealistic interference in local government and a scheme by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) to protect union jobs. The strongest opposition came from organizations representing mayors, city managers and county executives, who fear that it will force them to spend more money on fire and EMS protection and leave them vulnerable to lawsuits if they fail to meet the standard. There also was strong opposition from some fire chiefs, mainly in the western states. Other chiefs privately told of pressure being exerted on them by local officials to remain silent or oppose the standard.
However, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) formed a powerful coalition with the IAFF to lead the fight that resulted in the 1710 standard being adopted at last month's NFPA meeting in Anaheim, CA. IAFC President Michael Brown and IAFF President Harold Schaitberger worked as a team and both organizations packed the hall with supporters. Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner described it as a well-coordinated campaign that overwhelmed the opposition.
The battle began six years ago, when the NFPA's Standards Council approved a project to study and make recommendations on the question of response times and staffing of fire companies. It came about, in part, as a reaction to the budget cuts that have devastated fire departments all across the country. From the beginning, it was a highly controversial issue and along the way it was decided to go for two separate standards: 1710 covering fully paid fire departments and 1720 for volunteer and combination departments.
That separation cleared the way for the IAFC and IAFF to join forces and push for adoption of a national standard for career departments. (NFPA's 1720 standard also was passed at the Anaheim meeting, but it is weaker and far less controversial because it basically allows volunteer fire departments to set their own standards.)
In contrast, the 1710 standard has some teeth and sets very specific goals for career departments to achieve. It calls for a minimum response of 15 firefighters on a structure fire, with the first-due company reaching the scene within five minutes of being dispatched and the entire first-alarm assignment on the fireground within nine minutes. On emergency medical calls, 1710 also sets a five-minute response time for the first-responder unit and calls for two paramedics and two EMTs on the scene of an advanced life support (ALS) incident.
There are many other details, but those are the major points. In practical terms, it means that career departments will have to operate with a minimum staffing of four firefighters on their engine and truck companies in order to meet the standard. And, that's what has local government officials so enraged. They can now be held accountable for budget cuts they imposed on their fire departments and, for the first time, fire chiefs and local unions have a national standard to use in fighting those budget battles.
Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini, chairman of the 1710 committee, calls it a "major breakthrough that gives us a standard that covers the deployment, staffing and response times of fire companies." He points out that in the past, outside organizations such as insurance companies set the standards for fire department operations, but this is the first time that experienced fire service leaders are establishing the level of fire and EMS protection their departments should deliver.
IAFF President Schaitberger acknowledges that the controversy was over "employment as well as deployment," but adds that the real goal was to "make the job safer and produce better fire departments … We won because we were right and because the fire service was unified.'
Garry Briese, the IAFC's executive director, cites the importance of the union and the chiefs working together for the safety of their firefighters and the citizens they protect. "This gives fire chiefs a tool to use to achieve standards they know are right, even when local government may balk at spending the money," Briese said.
Now that 1710 has been passed by the NFPA membership, it goes back to the Standards Council for a final review, where it's almost certain that opponents will file an appeal seeking to have it set aside. Presuming that the council holds its ground and rejects that appeal, organizations representing local governments also may try to challenge it in the courts.
It will take time for the full impact of NFPA 1710 to make itself felt. Many understaffed fire departments will be unable to meet the new standard for several years and everyone realizes that some may never achieve those goals. But, for the first time in two decades, there finally is a light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, it signals the beginning of the end for two- and three-man fire companies on most of the nation's career fire departments.
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.