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Firefighter safety rules draft to accommodate volunteers

Posted On: Jul. 15, 2016 12:00 AM CST

A group drafting an emergency responder preparedness regulation for potential consideration by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration will examine ways to alleviate compliance pressures for small volunteer organizations.

A potential rulemaking related to the health and safety of emergency responders has been on OSHA's radar since 2007, but stalled due to limited resources and changing regulatory priorities before gaining momentum following the April 2013 blast at West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 people, including 12 emergency responders.

However, many emergency service organizations are made up of volunteer first responders serving small populations and operating under limited budgets. In 2014, 69% of the 1.1 million firefighters in the United States were volunteers, with 367,950 volunteer firefighters serving populations under 2,500, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

OSHA officials and members of a National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health subcommittee tasked with developing the proposal on Thursday discussed potential options to alleviate the proposal's impact on these smaller organizations, including possible exclusions for organizations below certain thresholds and waivers or alternate compliance options for certain requirements.

“We don't want to put a single volunteer fire department out of business,” said Andrew Levinson, deputy director of OSHA's Directorate of Standards & Guidance in Washington.

Matthew Tobia, assistant chief, support services and volunteer administration, Loudoun County Combined Fire Rescue System in Leesburg, Virginia, suggested examining the standard for provisions with no associated costs and making those mandatory for all emergency service organizations and granting a waiver to organizations protecting populations under 2,500 for provisions with a cost impact.

“I think there are some zero-cost components envisioned in this standard, for example, a vulnerability assessment,” he said. “I think that there are definitely some components that have substantial economic impact. I can't envision a circumstance where we would value the life of a volunteer firefighter less than a career firefighter. I also understand and recognize that in many places were it not for those 367,950 volunteers there would be no protection whatsoever.”

Emergency service organizations should always conduct a risk-benefit analysis to determine whether to engage in emergency situations as it is sometimes safer for first responders not to engage if there is no risk to civilians, according to subcommittee members.

“I believe there are certain things a community fire department regardless of size should do, and a risk analysis would be one, just to keep you out of trouble like West, Texas,” said Kenn Fontenot, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council's health, safety and training committee in Abbeville, Louisiana.

The subcommittee also adopted language that would require emergency service organizations to ensure a unified command structure is utilized in situations where the incident's complexity requires shared responsibility among two or more agencies.

Mr. Tobia pointed to the Aurora, Colorado, movie massacre as an incident that demonstrated the need for such coordination because emergency dispatchers were navigating calls from multiple agencies.

“There was a genuine lack of coordination on that scene,” he said. “I think we just want to make sure that somewhere in this document we identify the fact that every incident should have one incident commander regardless of who that individual is.”

The subcommittee will have another meeting in September to try to finalize its proposal for consideration during a December meeting by NACOSH, which in turn will make a recommendation to David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, on whether the agency should pursue a rulemaking.