Safety is an important theme at any significant fire service meeting or convention. But it took on even greater-than-usual importance at this year's Firehouse Emergency Services Expo in Baltimore.
Safety themes arose repeatedly throughout the Expo seminars. Two focused exclusively on safety. One featured a lively discussion among the many fire service leaders in attendance on the legal principles that underlie safety standards. Another featured International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) Senior Editor Mike Wieder's outstanding presentation on how to implement the National Fire Protection Association's NFPA Standard 1500, which addresses fire department health and safety programs.
Safety requirements are complex, affecting every aspect of a fire department. The federal Occu-pational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created in 1970 to protect employees against workplace hazards. It enforces its rules through inspections and investigations of workplace injuries and fatalities. OSHA has adopted standards directly related to firefighting. Because it is prohibited from imposing its rules on public-sector employees, the requirements apply directly only to private-sector fire departments. However, half of the states have asserted the prerogative to establish their own OSHA programs. Public-sector firefighters in those 25 states are subject to their state OSHA rules.
Initially, OSHA focused its attention on heavy manufacturing industries, so there were few citations to fire departments. This led IFSTA's Wieder to argue that the fire service sees OSHA inspectors only after a fatality or five or more injuries occur on an incident. However, Chicago attorney Mark Lies, who has worked extensively on OSHA-related cases, contends that there has been more enforcement activity in the 1990s than in the past. He cites three examples to demonstrate the wide range of recent OSHA activity:
- The Seattle Fire Department was cited for failing to comply with a variety of standards following a fire that killed four firefighters. Violations included failure to maintain annual medical certification for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) use, failure to train for SCBA use and failure to maintain drill practice records.
- The Sioux City, IA, Fire Department was cited for violations arising out of an explosion at a nitric acid plant. The majority were violations of the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) requirements. Although that standard is directed primarily at hazardous waste operations, it can be applied to almost any fire department operation where there is the potential for a hazmat release.
- At the federal level, the Bureau of Land Management was accused of failing to provide adequate oversight of the 1994 South Canyon wildland fire in Colorado in which 14 firefighters died. Lies believes it is reasonable to expect greater OSHA attention to brushfire operations.
Perhaps the most important OSHA requirement is the "general duty clause," which holds employers to a general duty to provide a safe workplace for their employees. Under this clause, an employer can be cited for a violation even if it has met the letter of the law. This allows OSHA to use national industry standards such as NFPA standards as the basis for a citation. Thus, while NFPA standards are not legal requirements in themselves, they have the force of law in many situations. Wieder argues that nothing has improved the level of safety for firefighters more than NFPA standards.
The earliest NFPA standards addressed apparatus and equipment design. NFPA Standard 1500 was developed in the mid-1980s to establish minimum requirements for fire department occupational safety and health programs, as well as safety procedures for rescue, fire suppression and related activities.
The NFPA 1500 standards addressing emergency operations have been especially controversial. Most notable has been the minimum staffing requirement for fireground operations.
Section 6-4 of the standard addresses operations at emergency incidents with several pages of detailed language. It requires that fire departments provide an "adequate number" of personnel to safely conduct on-scene operations. Members operating in hazardous areas at emergency incidents must operate in teams of two or more. In the initial stages of an incident, a minimum of four persons is required two inside and two outside the structure. But the standard allows one of the two standby members to perform other duties, such as technician or incident commander.
There also is an appendix that addresses apparatus staffing levels. It recommends four personnel for an engine or truck; in "high-risk areas," it recommends five people for engines and six for trucks. Notably, these recommendations are not contained in the language of the standard itself.
On May 1, 1995, OSHA issued a compliance memo regarding the minimum staffing required for emergency response operations where there are substances that are "immediately dangerous to life and health" (IDLH). Although written specifically to respond to the many requests for clarification that OSHA had received, there has continued to be considerable confusion and misunderstanding.
The OSHA memo parallels the NFPA standards, and takes notice of them. It also calls for a minimum of four personnel to conduct operations: two inside and two standby backup personnel. One of the members of the standby team may be assigned another role, such as incident commander or apparatus operator. Incipient fires which do not create a hazardous atmosphere or require the use of SCBA (or exterior operations) are not covered. Failure to follow this standard is a violation of the general duty clause.
But these guidelines didn't resolve the controversy. A year later (May 1996), OSHA again was issuing guidance. It noted that the matter had "generated considerable interest" (one way of saying it was controversial). Among the claims made were that OSHA had exceeded existing industry standards and thereby engaged in back-door rulemaking activity. It also was charged that the interpretation represented an unfunded mandate on certain states by increasing personnel requirements.
In response, OSHA has tried to make clear that the guidelines apply only to major high-hazard fires within a structure, not to minor interior fires. It also emphasized that the policy addresses personnel requirements only when firefighters are entering a structure, and not apparatus staffing requirements. It specifically cites the example of a three-person crew that could enter the building for lifesaving rescue or could undertake exterior operations. OSHA recognizes that there is support for a two-in/one-out rule. The controversy continues. Regardless of which policy is adopted, it will be subject to both political pressure and likely litigation.
Safety, for ourselves as firefighters and rescue workers as well as the citizens we serve, is the fire service's top priority. Anyone who ever has had to deal with a fatality or serious injury knows that the cost of prevention is far less than the emotional and financial costs associated with such a tragedy. It should be a part of the firehouse culture and not a matter of merely trying to follow a set of complicated rules. It requires a commitment at every level, from raw recruit to seasoned veteran to the department chief.
Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.