Fire departments have many measures to determine their competency. There are the Insurance Services Office (ISO) Fire Suppression Rating Schedule, the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI), and various National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, is the most comprehensive standard.
None of the above provides a pathway to total competency. ISO ratings are only relevant because many communities rely on them to determine insurance rates. Fire departments that have achieved an ISO rating of 1 are rightly proud of their distinction and usually display the rating on the side of their apparatus, their letterheads, their business cards, and various signage. Likewise, for the approximately 200 accredited fire departments, the accreditation logo is prominent on their fleets and published materials. Both of these measurements are “verified” by an outside agency, although accreditation involves a lot of trust by the Accreditation Commission on what the fire department reports.
The third measurement listed is NFPA 1500. No outside agency arrives at a department’s front door and “raises the hood” to determine the viability of its health and safety program. There is no lettering, decal, logo or visible signage to showcase if a department is NFPA 1500 compliant. Perhaps if there was, we would see more of a focus on firefighter health and safety. Yet year in and year out, the leading cause of firefighter deaths is medically related. Total compliance with Chapter 10 of the standard, “Medical and Physical Requirements,” would likely cut the annual line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) more than any other single measure the fire service could take. Amazingly, a fire department can be accredited, have a Class 1 ISO rating, and still not provide medical examinations as prescribed in NFPA standards. Where is the missing link?
NFPA 1500 Compliance
If every fire department were totally NFPA 1500 compliant, LODDs would be as rare as they are in other countries. The standard provides fire departments with a roadmap for total quality improvement.
In the early 1990s, NFPA 1500 was on the tip of almost every firefighter’s tongue because of controversies surrounding the standard. The primary battle was over minimum staffing, and the battle lines were clearly drawn. In the end, minimum staffing did not become a part of the standard. Since then, NFPA 1500 has been a “back-burner” issue. This phenomenon defies logic, at least from a legal perspective. For example, firefighter deaths and injuries are susceptible to litigation against the fire department, its command staff, and the governing body (municipality, county, tax district). Yet a fire department has nothing to fear for failing to be accredited or for having a lesser ISO rating.
Fire departments are not required to be compliant with NFPA 1500 or any other NFPA standard unless the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) adopts the standard. Nonetheless, fire departments have been held accountable for failing to adhere to nationally recognized standards even if the AHJ adopted them. If you are in Texas, you are aware that the Texas Commission on Fire Protection has adopted several NFPA standards, and it performs occasional fire department inspections to check for compliance.
Fire departments should do everything possible to meet the requirements of the standard. Admittedly, very few, if any, fire departments are 100 percent NFPA 1500 compliant. Nonetheless, a wise fire department should have a “working” status sheet of its percentage of compliance.
NFPA 1500’s Annex B provides a user-friendly worksheet for departments to determine their level of compliance and actions needed to become compliant. The worksheet is an excellent example of a way to track compliance. It is simple and straightforward. It identifies each of the standard’s requirements and then provides a space to indicate the following:
- Percentage of compliance.
- Estimated cost to comply.
- Expected compliance date.
Attorneys have said the key to developing a strong defense of a fire department’s safety and health program is to have documented “real progress” in complying with the standard.
Should there be a recognition model to encourage fire departments to adopt and fully comply with NFPA 1500? Perhaps it could include any or all of the following: decals, shoulder patches, flags, plaques, trophies, and logos. At the very least, maybe a fire department that can prove 100 percent NFPA 1500 compliance should automatically become an accredited agency-without having to pay the fees. And, maybe it should get a huge bump in points from the ISO Fire Suppression Rating Schedule.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).