By Bill Adams
A hypocrite can be defined as a fraud, a phony, or a pretender. Those are strong words—especially when insinuating that they are linked to or associated with the fire service and, in particular, to the fire department. Perhaps a milder definition to use is a trickster. Be advised this article is not intended to cast a shadow over all firefighters. But, if the bunker boots fit, wear them. I don’t genuflect at the mere mention of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standards—especially NFPA 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus. Although not agreeing with all that’s written in NFPA 1901, I advocate that the fire service is obligated to be NFPA-compliant “in as much as it can humanly and financially do so.” By saying “in as much as it can humanly and financially do so” gives some wriggle room—whether justified or not.
It was demoralizing when we were no longer allowed to ride on the running boards of our city service ladder truck. And 25 years later, it was downright humiliating being removed screaming and kicking from riding the rear step. Moaning and groaning is part of the fire service—it’ll be there any time a change is made. Live with it. While some disagreement can be disingenuous, causing dissension is devious. Disobeying is downright deceitful. Disagree with discretion.
Being hypocritical is when firefighters use, promote, and preach the benefits of the NFPA only to justify an ulterior motive or achieve a personal agenda—while concurrently ignoring the NFPA when they personally do not like a requirement. That makes a mockery of the system and it’s just not right. And, doing so is not the exclusive domain of volunteer, career, or on-call firefighters. It happens all the time.
The ABC Fire District commissioners were budgeting thousands of taxpayers’ dollars to retrofit all of their existing apparatus with the same rear chevron striping configuration NFPA 1901 requires on new purchases. When questioned the reason for retrofitting existing apparatus at the budget meeting, the commissioners and chief officers quoted NFPA 1901 sentence 18.104.22.168 verbatim. They advocated vehicle and firefighter safety and referenced the numerous articles favoring the chevrons. The mentioned nothing about color.
The budget passed and the funds expended. The apparatus looked real sharp with black and white chevrons complimenting the rigs’ black over white paint jobs. Sentence 22.214.171.124.1, requiring yellow and red colored chevrons, was ignored. Why? One commissioner said the residents were used to the black and white colors and the red and yellow striping would just confuse them. Another said it really didn’t matter because the colors were reflective at night. The chief said it was the district’s traditional color scheme and all the firefighters liked it. And, it met the intent of NFPA 1901.
Several years ago, the professional association representing the City of DEF Fire Department’s rank and file members petitioned the city council, campaigning aggressively for the city to purchase all new bunker gear in compliance with the latest NFPA standard dealing with protective clothing. It demanded all gear be replaced at one time rather than over a several year period as proposed by the city. The association claimed firefighter safety should never be compromised. And, it said the City had set precedent by adopting—by specification—other NFPA standards when purchasing helmets, self-contained breathing apparatus and fire trucks. The city relented.
Recently, one of the city’s firefighters was “written up” (formally charged) for the second time for not wearing a seat belt while driving one of the engines. The professional association rushed to the firefighter’s defense. It charged that the firefighter was being harassed because the offense was not serious. It claimed the NFPA had no business interfering with or adopting local department of motor vehicle regulations. And, fire department operating procedures should be the responsibility of the authority having Jurisdiction—not the NFPA. Besides, the association claimed, other city employees like those who drove the sanitation trucks, don’t wear them and they are no better than firefighters.
When the GHI Volunteer Fire Company purchased its new tanker, the fire chief browbeat the purchasing committee to accept just about every recommendation NFPA 1901 had for new apparatus. The chief also signed off on the NFPA 1901 Section 4.21 Statement of Exceptions, agreeing that certain items not provided by the manufacturer would be provided by the purchaser. One of the items was “helmet holders” for the cab. When the rig was placed in service, one of the troops asked why the helmet holders weren’t mounted. With a wink and a nod, the chief said not wearing helmets in the cab was a stupid idea—he didn’t agree with it. He said “if you don’t want to wear, or carry, your helmet in the cab, you can put it in a compartment before you get on the road.” He said the regulation was no big deal. Note that if a helmet is stored in the driving or crew compartment, it must be secured according to 126.96.36.199 to be compliant.
Not too many people concern themselves with liability until after the fact. What would happen if the ABC Fire District’s apparatus, with black and white chevrons, is rearended by a nonresident driver, and that driver’s insurance company claims the fire district assumes “contributory negligence” because it only followed the part of a nationally recognized safety standard it liked and not the part it disliked?
In the second scenario what if the apparatus driver is involved in an accident and suffers life-threatening injuries because of not being belted? Would the professional association rush to defend the firefighter claiming the city did not adequately enforce the seat belt requirement? You can’t have it both ways.
In the last scenario, because the Chief inferred he had that option to, imagine if a firefighter opted to bring his helmet into the cab and it slid around, somehow getting jammed underneath the brake pedal. If the rig couldn’t stop and crashed into another vehicle causing serious injuries, would a wink and a nod from the fire chief hold any water in court?
True story: Twenty years ago, an early 1980s custom pumper was responding to an alarm with the driver’s leather helmet sitting on the dash. When going around a corner, the helmet moved, jamming against the windshield with the rear brim wedged in between the spokes of the steering wheel. It was a testament to the strength of those early OSHA-compliant-only leather helmets or the brute strength of the driver that the windshield cracked and the rig finished turning the corner “shiny side up.” Yet, you see photographs in trade journals everyday showing helmets propped up against windshields. I hope the windshield glass isn’t stronger these days.
BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.
By Bill Adams