NFPA 1710: The Fight’s Not Over

Opponents of the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) 1710 standard have not given up the fight and, if anything, are even more determined to do whatever it takes to prevent it from being implemented. Instead of ending the long and bitter battle, the NFPA's recent vote to accept the standard has touched off a fresh firestorm of opposition from within and outside the fire-rescue service.

The controversial standard covers the staffing, deployment and response times for fire companies and ambulances on career departments. After six years of public hearings, heated debates and numerous revisions, 1710 finally was approved by the NFPA membership at their May meeting in Anaheim, CA. Support for the standard came from a unique labor-management coalition led by the International Association of Fire Fighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, which produced an overwhelming vote in favor of the standard.

But the fierce opposition continues to come from organizations representing mayors, city managers, county executives and other local government officials. They see 1710 as a threat to home rule and call it "an unfunded mandate" that will force them to spend money they don't have to hire firefighters in order to be in compliance. They charge that it infringes on the right and responsibility of local elected officials to set their own standards for fire and emergency medical protection and that a "one-size-fits-all" national standard is unworkable and not supported by any scientific data. Perhaps their greatest fear is that failure to comply will make them vulnerable to lawsuits in the aftermath of serious fires.

"This is a fundamental issue for local government," says Donald J. Borot, executive director of the National League of Cities, "we're being told to do something without providing the funds to do it." Borot argues that a fire department's response times and staffing levels should be determined by local conditions and priorities set by officials who are elected to make those decisions. He's joined in that view by the National Association of Counties, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the International City/County Management Association and other organizations representing local government - all of whom claim they were excluded from the NFPA process that developed the standard.

There also is opposition within the fire-rescue service from individual chiefs, state fire organizations and the National Volunteer Fire Council, which objects to having separate standards for career and volunteer departments. (NFPA's 1720 standard, covering volunteer deployment and response, also was passed at the Anaheim meeting.) Chiefs in the western states are especially concerned that tax-and-spending limitations and the vast areas their departments have to cover make it impossible for them to meet 1710's minimum requirements.

But the driving force behind the opposition is the alliance of public officials, some of whom have threatened to oppose other NFPA fire and life-safety codes if they cannot have 1710 set aside. Some have put pressure on their chiefs to oppose it and a chief who personally favors the standard told me he risked losing his job if he hadn't followed his mayor's orders to vote against it. The next showdown is scheduled for a July 10 meeting of the NFPA's Standards Council in San Francisco, to hear appeals, review the process, then accept or reject the vote cast by the membership at May's general meeting.

It's ironic that the people who caused the problem are now attempting to block the solution. The idea of creating a national standard came about because so many local officials have used their fire departments as the place to save money. They ignored pleas and warnings of their own chiefs and ruthlessly slashed fire department budgets by closing fire stations and reducing personnel on the companies. There would be no need for 1710 if these same officials had not failed in their responsibility to provide the proper level of fire and EMS protection.

The standard is an effort to reverse the trend of the last two decades by giving fire chiefs and local unions a weapon they can use in fighting their budget battles. With 1710, they have a set of guidelines for the response and deployment of firefighters on the career departments. It calls for the first-due company to reach the scene of a structure fire within five minute of being dispatched and for a first-alarm assignment of 15 firefighters to arrive within nine minutes. On EMS calls, the first-responder unit also should be on scene in five minutes. The goal is for these and other 1710 provisions to be met 90% of the time.

Contrary to what opponents say about the lack of scientific research, these recommendations are based on the experience of veteran fire chiefs and supported by every manpower and response study that has been conducted in the last 25 years. As for the charge that it's a "one-size-fits-all" approach to the problem, proponents of the standard point out that a building burns the same in a small town as it does in a big city. They add that 1710 is aimed at the larger career departments, while 1720 is a much easier standard for the smaller volunteer and combination departments.

The fight over 1710 is reminiscent of the battle that took place several years ago when the NFPA adopted its 1500 standard covering fireground safety. It established the "two-in/two-out" rule and a four-member team to make the initial attack on a working structure fire. At the time, there were dire predictions that local government could not meet the cost and that fire departments would be forced out of business. Well, no one was put out of business and today most departments are meeting most of the NFPA 1500 provisions - and most are glad they have it.

As for the charge that local elected officials were left out of the process that developed 1710, the truth is they were invited to participate from the very beginning, but didn't show up until the final stages. They wanted to turn the clock back six years and start all over again. It reminds me of a lesson learned in my 50 years as a professional newsman: never be surprised by the by the anger and double-talk of public officials when they're trying to escape the consequences of a problem they created.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as 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.