Ignoring Standards Can Be Dangerous: Part 2

As stated last month, this two-part series was prompted by a firefighter who is concerned because his chief officers are not supporters of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards. Their philosophy is that if they followed NFPA standards, their department would go out of business. Hmmm…? Stick your head in the sand. Don’t worry. Be happy!

Fire service organizations frequently use and refer to NFPA standards. I don’t know of any National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter fatality investigation that did not cite at least one (usually several) NFPA standards that should have been followed to reduce the chances of a similar occurrence.

The Department of Homeland Security uses a number of NFPA standards related to qualifications, safety and health, apparatus, PPE, and other equipment to assist in procurement decisions for federal, local and state agencies. Don’t even think about applying for a grant without mentioning your request will be compliant with the applicable standards or help you to comply with a standard. If you ignore NFPA, your request will be DOA.

Texas is noteworthy in that its Fire Commission inspects fire departments. They routinely use NFPA standards as their inspection criteria. It is very interesting to note: “The mission of the Texas Commission on Fire Protection is to help protect the lives and property of the citizens of Texas by developing and enforcing professional standards for the fire service.” I understand the new revision of NFPA 1851, the standard for selection, care, and maintenance of protective ensembles, has created quite a ruckus. However, to the commission’s credit, they are having meetings with their fire departments to help explain the new requirements and how they will be reinforced.

Despite what some might think, the staff of NFPA does not develop NFPA standards. Nor do manufacturers dominate them. A balanced committee representing various segments of the industry, including firefighters, develops the standards.

For details of how standards are developed and how committees are balanced, go to www.nfpa.org — click on “codes and standards” and then click on “code development process.” From there you have a menu of items to open to learn about the many facets of standards development.

Technical Committees

Anyone can participate in the process by submitting proposals and by submitting public comments. You do not have to be an NFPA member to submit proposals or comments. NFPA membership is not even a requirement to serve on a technical committee. Having been involved in the process for almost 20 years, I can say the fire service has a seat at the table. A chief officer of a well-known department has always chaired the technical committee for apparatus.

As with the PPE technical committees, almost all task groups (task groups are where the bulk of work gets done) are chaired by representatives of the fire service. In both groups, when an issue appears it will not gain consensus, the committee usually turns to fire service representatives for direction.

Granted, the NFPA process is not perfect. There have been attempts by other organizations to develop standards for the fire service, but they have failed. The process is very open, and compared to other standards-making organizations such as American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the process is very efficient.

Still, the process time for revising an NFPA standard is two years. Though the process is open, the NFPA does reach out to other fire service organizations or publications to announce pending changes in standards. It is incumbent upon individuals and fire departments to seek out the information.

A Shortcoming

Becoming a member of NFPA and its subsequent complimentary membership into the Fire Service Section will help keep you informed of the various stages of standards development that relate directly to the fire service.

Another historical shortcoming of NPFA is its outreach to help explain new standards and revisions to existing standards. Aside from a handbook to accompany NFPA 1500, the standard on fire department occupational safety and health written almost 20 years ago, there are no publications, nor conferences or seminars to help fire departments with standards. Perhaps this shortcoming is being addressed. I am happy to say that the Fire Service Section of NFPA is working with F.I.E.R.O. (Fire Industry Equipment Research Organization) to co-sponsor the first, and hopefully annual, Fire Service PPE Symposium. The symposium is designed to help fire departments understand the requirements in the design, function, selection, care, and use of structural firefighting PPE. The event will be held March 9-11, 2009 in Charlotte. Details can be found at http://www.fireppesymposium.com/“>www.fireppesymposium.com.

The importance of standards will continue to gain momentum. It must be noted that legislation has been introduced by U.S. senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) to establish a task force to help fire departments better comply with safety standards. The legislation would require that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): determine the current level of compliance with firefighter safety standards among fire departments; establish a task force to explore ways governments can promote the adoption of such standards by fire departments; and require the task force to provide recommendations to Congress, as well as to individual states and localities, on how best to increase department compliance.

At this point, the bill does not require compliance with consensus standards and would place no additional cost requirements on local or state governments. Instead the bill tasks the federal government with collecting data on standards compliance among local departments and studying ways to increase voluntary compliance.

We have all heard that NFPA standards can be held against us in a court of law. It’s important to remember that compliance with NFPA standards can also be used in your defense.

Taking Inventory

The best thing a fire department can do is take “inventory” of its compliance status. Annex B of NFPA 1500 has an excellent worksheet to help departments with this process. Next, departments should develop a plan to become compliant and show consistent progress year after year. Realize there’s probably no department that is 100 percent “to the letter” compliant with all NFPA standards.

However, you should be able to prove you are aware of the standards, that you have addressed your deficiencies and have a plan to become compliant. If funding is an issue, your plan should indicate that. Depending on your department’s community organizational structure, this could help transfer the burden – and liability – to the funding entity.

The worst thing chief officers can do is stick their heads in the sand or create a culture of anti-standards. An equally bad thing a department can do is to pick and choose. Purposefully choosing to be non-compliant because you disagree with the requirement is extremely risky. In either case, you put yourself, your department, and your community at risk for litigation. More importantly, you are likely putting the health and safety of your firefighters at risk while also denying them rights to recognized safety standards.

Editor’s Note: Robert Tutterow, who has 30 years in the fire service, is the Charlotte (N.C.) Fire Department health and safety officer. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Department Apparatus Committee and is on two other NFPA committees, the Structural and Proximity Firefighting Protective Ensemble Technical Committee and the Technical Correlating Committee for Fire and Emergency Services PPE.

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