“Typing” of Fire Departments

Robert Tutterow   Robert Tutterow

In my recent column about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) possibly developing standards for the emergency responder community, I mentioned a suggestion from the July 2014 OSHA stakeholder meeting about “typing” fire departments.

This means that a fire department would be typed by the level of service it provides that meets a prescribed standard-especially as it relates to firefighter health and safety. When given some consideration, this is a very fascinating idea.

The Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating system is somewhat of a measure of a department’s capability for fire suppression. However, ISO ignores about 75 percent of the service provided by most fire departments and is not focused on wellness or fitness capabilities. I have always maintained that a fire department that is fully compliant with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, is, by default, a most capable fire department in all aspects of its mission. A cursory glance at each of the document’s chapter headings reveals the comprehensiveness of the standard:

  • Administration.
  • Training, Education, and Professional Development.
  • Fire Apparatus, Equipment, and Drivers/Operators.
  • Protective Clothing and Protective Equipment.
  • Emergency Operations.
  • Facility Safety.
  • Medical and Physical Requirements.
  • Behavioral Health and Wellness Programs.
  • Occupational Exposure to Atypically Stressful Events.

Moreover, the standard references almost 50 other NFPA standards.

Cons

There are certainly pros and cons to the concept of typing. On the downside, there will be disagreements about how a department is categorized. There could be angst over which agency determines the type. Then there could be additional angst over how to maintain or improve a classification type. And, as is almost always the case, there could be very high costs for developing the system and ongoing costs to maintain the system. Will OSHA be directly or indirectly involved in these issues?

Pros

Whether or not such a system is ever developed, the idea has a few interesting facets. The basic premise behind this idea is that fire departments must meet basic standards for each service they offer. First, it would force a department and community to take a realistic look at the number and level of services it can provide. One question to be addressed is whether or not a department should be an interior firefighting department. There is a growing line of thought among several in the industry that some departments, primarily small rural departments, might not be able to meet basic required standards for interior firefighting because of the cost and time commitment.

Lager departments would need to closely examine whether or not to offer specialized services such as hazmat response, vehicle extrication, high-rise rescue, trench rescue, swift water rescue, underwater rescue, and so on. For each service provided, there would be a minimum standard to meet.

Wellness and Fitness

A key topic of discussion at the OSHA stakeholder meeting was with the issue of firefighter health and wellness. How would this fit into a fire department “typing” system? There would most certainly be minimum levels of fitness and physical agility tests to pass. There would have to be required periodic medical examinations specific to the job requirements. And, there would need to be other “fit-for-duty” minimum standards. Would all members have to meet wellness-fitness requirements, or would only a certain percentage of the firefighters need to meet the requirements? With more than half of firefighter line-of-duty deaths being medically related, this is certainly an issue that would probably not be overlooked. And when a firefighter goes down on the scene, the focus of service delivery to the original customer becomes compromised. Service delivery is proportional to the wellness and fitness of the firefighters providing the service.

Public Awareness

Many departments with an ISO rating of 1 proudly display this designation on their apparatus, their department letterhead, and other means of messaging to the public. The same holds true for accredited fire departments. By taking the typing idea a step further, imagine if a department was required to post its type on the front of every fire station, the side of every vehicle, on all uniforms, on all turnout gear, on all letterheads and business cards, as part of every e-mail signature, and so on. The public would quickly know what level of service it was receiving. One comment at the OSHA stakeholder meeting was that many communities are under the assumption that they have comprehensive and professional service when, in fact, they don’t. As the old saying goes, they never know until the “chickens come home to roost.”

Public awareness could become an impetus for a community to reassess its resource commitment to its fire department and provide more funding. The phenomenon of peer pressure could also be a catalyst for more funding. Another comment at the OSHA stakeholder meeting mentioned how the “true” levels of service vary from community to community. A cross-county road trip will find you traveling from service levels that range from one end of the spectrum to the other.

The idea of typing and publicly displaying a fire department’s type might never happen. But, the concept is worthy of contemplation and discussion. An ongoing public display of a fire department’s provided services and the level of each service would provide a lot of necessary transparency. It would also be a benchmark between a fire department and its firefighters on how their safety and health is valued.

As I concluded last month’s column, back in the mid-1980s during the discussion of whether or not to develop a health and safety standard for fire departments, now NFPA 1500, it was stated, “If we don’t take care of our own health and safety then the guys in the long black robes will.” Thirty years later, has that time arrived?


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.).

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