Volunteer firefighters in California must now meet the same California OSHA training and safety standards as career firefighters, according to a new state law that went into effect January 1.
The California State Firefighters Association sponsored the legislation to ensure that all firefighters have the proper equipment and training for the types of calls they respond to, said CSFA legislative advocate Afrack Vargas. The law adds the term firefighter to the definition of employee for Cal-OSHA requirements.
Afrack said the idea has been in the works for several years.
"Our committee on volunteer issues met and decided that volunteer firefighters should have the same protections that career firefighters do," Vargas said. The CSFA went to the California legislature and got a bill introduced in March 2001.
The bill, SB 1207, passed in 2002. After hearing concerns from volunteer fire departments, however, the CSFA got another bill passed to push back the implementation of the new law until this year.
"Departments have had all of that time to talk to OSHA, consultants, to understand what the guidelines mean," Vargas said.
However, some firefighters are worried because they just learned about the new law from local news reports. "There's a lot of misinformation out there, that all firefighters need to submit to hours and hours of training, which is just not true," Vargas said.
"They need the right amount of training for whatever their level of exposure is," he said. This means that if a department doesn't do medical runs, perform interior firefighting attacks, or other specialized activities, they do not need that type of training.
The National Volunteer Fire Council said they are aware of several other states with such standards.
NVFC Director of Government Relations Craig Sharman said that in addition to California, volunteers are held to the same state OSHA standards as career firefighters in states including Connecticut, Tennessee, Washington, Oregon, Michigan and Minnesota.
Volunteer fire officials from a few states, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire, reported to the NVFC that they are not OSHA states so they have no such legislation. At least one state, Kentucky, said their volunteers are not required to meet OSHA standards but make the effort anyway.
Many volunteer fire departments in California have already been striving to meet OSHA standards as well.
Sutter County Fire Chief Chuck Vanevenhoven manages five fire stations, two of which are volunteer. He said many of his volunteers were upset after an article about the new law broke in a local newspaper, because the firefighters were unclear about what they would need to do and whether they would have time.
"Overall, it only has to do with Cal-OSHA and that's a good thing," the chief said. "I don't see it impacting us at all, because we're on track with that anyway."
Vanevenhoven added, "It's unfortunate for the fire agencies that don't have that in place yet, but anytime your dealing with safety for the firefighter, it's a good thing."
The Linda Fire department, also located in Sutter County, also has a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters and won't be affected much, said Assistant Chief Bob Criss.
"There's a lot of talk in the departments that don't have paid people, they're kind of panicked about it," he said. "Infectious control programs, two-in two-out programs... everyone will get used to the idea and get by," he said.
He does suspect however, that the new requirements may add to the mounting difficulty of recruiting new volunteers.
"The more things you pile on those people... it puts a heavy burden on them. A lot of people are saying it's just not worth it anymore," Criss said. "People don't have time anymore. Volunteers are slowly becoming a dying breed."
"We pamper our volunteers and go out of our way to make them feel wanted so they continue," Criss said.
While the new law is a big topic at some departments, it is still unknown at others.
The eight-member Sprowel Creek VFD in rural Humboldt County, which protects a population of 100 in an area of 25 square miles, said they were unaware of the new requirement to meet Cal-OSHA standards.
"I'm sure we're not even close," said engineer Leroy Ikerd. "We would already be there if we could afford it," he said. According to the text of the new law they should be able to afford it now, because the state is required to reimburse local agencies for such mandated costs.
According to the bill analysis online at the California State Senate web site, Cal-OSHA already inspects many volunteer fire departments on a voluntary basis. It says there will be state-reimbursable mandated costs to local governments, probably in excess of $200,000 annually, to purchase firefighting safety equipment needed for Cal-OSHA compliance.
BILL NUMBER: SB 1207 CHAPTERED
FILED WITH SECRETARY OF STATE OCTOBER 13, 2001
APPROVED BY GOVERNOR OCTOBER 12, 2001
PASSED THE ASSEMBLY SEPTEMBER 10, 2001
PASSED THE SENATE JUNE 4, 2001
INTRODUCED BY Senator Romero
MARCH 19, 2001
An act to amend Sections 6303 and 6304.1 of the Labor Code, relating to occupational safety and health.
LEGISLATIVE COUNSEL'S DIGEST
SB 1207, Romero. Occupational safety and health: volunteer firefighters.
Existing provisions of the California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973 define the terms "employee" and "employment." The definition of "employment" in existing law limits "employment" to work for hire.
This bill would impose a state-mandated local program by including within these definitions, and thereby making the act applicable to, volunteer firefighters when covered by workers' compensation pursuant to provisions applicable to volunteer firefighters of specified volunteer fire departments that are wholly or partially supported by a county, city, or public district.
The California Constitution requires the state to reimburse local agencies and school districts for certain costs mandated by the state. Statutory provisions establish procedures for making that reimbursement, including the creation of a State Mandates Claims Fund to pay the costs of mandates that do not exceed $1,000,000 statewide and other procedures for claims whose statewide costs exceed $1,000,000.
This bill would provide that, if the Commission on State Mandates determines that the bill contains costs mandated by the state, reimbursement for those costs shall be made pursuant to these statutory provisions.
THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA DO ENACT AS FOLLOWS:
SECTION 1. Section 6303 of the Labor Code is amended to read:
6303. (a) "Place of employment" means any place, and the premises appurtenant thereto, where employment is carried on, except a place the health and safety jurisdiction over which is vested by law in, and actively exercised by, any state or federal agency other than the division.
(b) "Employment" includes the carrying on of any trade, enterprise, project, industry, business, occupation, or work, including all excavation, demolition, and construction work, or any process or operation in any way related thereto, in which any person is engaged or permitted to work for hire, except household domestic service. "Employment," for purposes of this division only, also includes volunteer firefighting when covered by Division 4 (commencing with Section 3200) pursuant to Section 3361.
SEC. 2. Section 6304.1 of the Labor Code is amended to read:
6304.1. "Employee" means every person who is required or directed by any employer to engage in any employment or to go to work or be at any time in any place of employment. "Employee" also includes volunteer firefighters covered by Division 4 (commencing with Section 3200) pursuant to Section 3361.
SEC. 3. Notwithstanding Section 17610 of the Government Code, if the Commission on State Mandates determines that this act contains costs mandated by the state, reimbursement to local agencies and school districts for those costs shall be made pursuant to Part 7 (commencing with Section 17500) of Division 4 of Title 2 of the Government Code. If the statewide cost of the claim for reimbursement does not exceed one million dollars ($1,000,000), reimbursement shall be made from the State Mandates Claims Fund.