Support the Timberjay by making a donation.

Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Proposed OSHA regs worrying many fire officials

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 6/13/24

REGIONAL— A proposal to adopt a new regulatory framework for fire departments across the country, could have a significant impact on smaller, volunteer services, like many of those here in …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Proposed OSHA regs worrying many fire officials


REGIONAL— A proposal to adopt a new regulatory framework for fire departments across the country, could have a significant impact on smaller, volunteer services, like many of those here in northeastern Minnesota. That’s the concern raised by top officials within the fire service, who fear that the new regulations, if adopted as proposed, could force many smaller fire departments to shut down due to high costs and the loss of personnel.
The new regulation, dubbed the Emergency Response Standard Plan, is an effort by the federal Occupational, Safety, and Health Administration, or OSHA, to provide greater protections for firefighters across the country. Supporters of the proposal note that even as firefighters face an increasing number of health risks, ranging from exposure to cancer-causing agents to traffic accidents, safety regulations have changed little in decades.
That’s why even critics of the proposal don’t view the issue as black and white. “In the long run, it might not be bad for the fire service,” said Hibbing Fire Chief Eric Jankila, who noted that his department, which operates with full-time professionals, already tries to incorporate many of the standards that would become mandatory should the OSHA proposal go forward.
The OSHA proposal would take a total of 21 standards adopted by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, and convert them from recommendations for fire departments to mandates. This includes certifications for firefighters as well as design and certification requirements for things like protective equipment.
While the proposed change has been in the works for a few years, it’s only more recently that many smaller volunteer services have tuned into the discussion— and there’s increasing alarm at what’s being proposed. “Everything I’ve heard so far sounds problematic as far as recruitment, retention, and budget goes,” said Steve Lotz, fire chief with the Vermilion Lake volunteer fire department.
Concern is building nationwide. The National Volunteer Fire Council held a national “Day of Action” on Wednesday of this week to raise awareness of what OSHA is proposing, and the organization is urging volunteer fire officials to weigh in on the subject. OSHA recently extended the public comment period to July 22 due to the growing concern. The council is “encouraging fire and EMS personnel to review the proposed standard, understand the potential impact on their community, and prepare their comments to OSHA,” states the council on its website at
Jeff Mayer, who has long been involved in fire training in northeastern Minnesota, says he hears the widespread concern but said the ultimate impact will depend largely on how aggressively OSHA seeks to enforce compliance. “The question is whether they will hold to the letter of the standard, or allow an equivalent,” said Mayer. He said the NFPA standards has long allowed the use of “equivalent” training. “As long as they go by that, we’re already doing it,” he said, noting that most area fire departments conduct monthly training sessions designed by various college-affiliated organizations, to meet the NFPA standards. The state of Minnesota also provides funding to fire departments to pay the cost of most of that training.
Mayer did say that some of the new training requirements for department officers could be time-consuming and he said the changes related to health screening for firefighters may be the most onerous of all.
One factor that may be fueling concern is the relative lack of details available about the proposed change. Much of the regulatory language is dense and technical in nature, making it difficult to parse. None of local fire officials who spoke to the Timberjay indicated they felt fully informed on the subject. “There’s not a lot of detail out there,” said Jankila, who raised his concerns at a recent meeting of the Arrowhead Chiefs Association. “I said folks need to start looking at this,” Jankila added. “If they could get 10,000 departments raising these questions that would help.”
While many in the fire service recognize the value of an increased focus on firefighter safety, there’s equal concern that the proposed new regulation could bring an end to many small departments that simply won’t be able to meet the new standards.
As proposed, the change could significantly increase the training requirements for firefighters, which have already increased substantially over the past couple decades. Basic training required of new firefighters can take about 120-150 hours. But that time commitment could easily double or triple under the new rules, as firefighters would be required to gain certification in various elements of their jobs. Each of those certification courses can be 40 hours long, noted Jankila.
Such training requirements are useful, notes Jankila, which is why larger services like Hibbing often require certification for many of their personnel, depending on their duty assignments. That makes the impact of the proposed regulatory change less onerous for many larger departments, which typically have more room in their budget and more specialized roles among personnel, that makes the extra training both practical and more affordable.
But Jankila sees trouble ahead for the many smaller departments in the region. “I think it would be very challenging for the Vermilion Lakes, the Greenwoods, the Breitungs, and places like Tower,” he said.
Steve Lotz agrees and notes that the training requirements would likely fall hardest on small departments. “To me, the single biggest issue is that we don’t have assigned people for assigned tasks for assigned shifts,” Lotz said. “We don’t know who is going to show up to do what on any given scene. Which means we pretty much have to be able to do all of the tasks. So, it’s more of a burden for us than in a bigger department where we don’t have the specialized assignments.”
It’s a common concern, as officials with small departments fear a “one-size-fits-all” approach by OSHA could eventually force them to shut their doors or leaving small communities facing an additional significant tax burden.
Lotz argues that there needs to be a roadmap in place for how to provide fire protection in rural areas should OSHA ultimately opt to implement the change in regulation. “If the plan is to put us out of business, we need an alternative plan to provide protection in these service areas,” he said.
Mayer acknowledges that fear of change is always present, but he said some fire officials may be reading too much into the changes, without reflecting on the potential to improve firefighter safety. “I think it will actually benefit us in the long-run in terms of health and safety,” he said.