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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

New regulations pending

Local fire departments should be paying attention to mandates proposed by OSHA


We’ve been reporting for the past few years about the ongoing challenges faced by area ambulance services, challenges due in part to regulatory changes that have increased the costs of operating such services.
Unfortunately, possible regulatory changes could soon leave area fire departments in a similar situation. The federal Occupational, Safety, and Health Administration, or OSHA, is considering a new regulatory framework for the fire service that would take a voluminous set of standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, and make many of them mandatory for fire services across the country.
For years, fire departments across the country, including those operating in our region, have utilized the NFPA standards as useful best-practice when feasible. Safety is clearly a major concern in the fire service and the NFPA standards are considered the gold standard, which is why departments take them seriously.
Yet officials in most rural services recognize that meeting all of the standards is simply impractical, particularly in small departments that rely on volunteers. A regulatory change that mandates many of the standards would potentially be devastating to small departments.
As we’ve reported in the past, retention and recruitment of new volunteers has been a challenge for most fire departments, particularly in small communities. There are several reasons for that, but the time commitment required simply to meet the basic training requirements, about 120 hours currently, is a major factor. Yet the new regulations being considered by OSHA could easily triple or quadruple the time involved in meeting the requirements, by mandating actual certification for a wide range of functions within the fire service that don’t currently require that level of training. That’s going to make the already difficult task of enticing new recruits all the more challenging.
In our area particularly, such a requirement would likely prompt widespread retirements from area departments, which could prompt some to simply fold. Attrition from the retirement of baby boomers is already threatening the future of many small departments. The new OSHA proposal, if adopted, would only accelerate that process and make it even more difficult to attract younger replacements.
And even if recruitment wasn’t an issue, the cost of the proposed new regulation, for additional training, more frequent and invasive health screenings, equipment upgrades, and administration of a vast array of new requirements, could prompt taxpayers to revolt, or opt to disband fire services altogether.
It should be noted that many large fire departments, which operate with full-time, paid staff, are already implementing many of these proposed requirements, and that’s a good thing. The standards OSHA is looking to mandate could make a difference, even save lives.
But there are always tradeoffs and the loss of many smaller, volunteer fire departments could well be one of the most significant should OSHA move forward with its proposal without modifications that take the unique circumstances of small services into account.
Small departments are already dealing with regulatory requirements that simply don’t make sense. For example, departments are currently required to replace turnout gear every ten years. In big city departments, gear is typically replaced much sooner than that because it is used enough that it wears out. But in small, rural departments, that might only see a handful of structure fires a year and may not even conduct interior operations, turnout gear may well see little use outside of training exercises. And in every department, there are members who show up for calls occasionally, at best. In those cases, turnout gear can still be like new after ten years. Yet, departments are expected to take these items out of service and replace them, even when it’s entirely unjustified. Considering that the coats and pants, by themselves, now run about $4,000 a set, that adds up quickly and, in far too many cases, it’s an absolute waste of taxpayer funds. It’s an example of how one-size-fits-all thinking does a real disservice to small departments that, in many cases, lack the need and the funding to replace their turnout gear on the timetable established by OSHA.
While many of these regulations are useful and well-intentioned, it is also true that some of the organizations pushing these initiatives have a vested interest, because they sell new turnout gear, new SCBA, or fire apparatus. It’s that nexus of the private sector and government regulators that can sometimes advance policies or regulations that make marginal sense but feather someone’s nest.
The bottom line is that local fire officials need to be paying attention to what is being proposed. A public comment period on OSHA’s plan has been extended and local officials should be making sure their voices are heard. Complacency could bring an end to many of our region’s small departments.