Commentary

Fighting Fire with Bureaucracy

By Marshall Stocker
February 7, 2005

Firefighting is a dangerous occupation. Firefighters face an occupational fatality rate two to four times the rate of average Americans. In an attempt to mitigate the risks faced by firefighters, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires the use of protective equipment such as self-contained breathing devices and fire retardant clothing, and there the troubles begin.

To achieve OSHA compliance, firefighters must carry the 30 pound breathing device and another 30 pounds of protective clothing for the duration of interior firefighting activities. Those 60 pounds increase the excessive physical stress a firefighter experiences and likely contribute to the leading killer of firefighters, cardiac arrest.

Another unintended consequence of OSHA’s safety directives is that firefighters are now more aggressive with interior fire operations. Worrisomely, firefighters may be less informed about the conditions in which they are working.

In the old days, firefighters used their ears to gauge temperature: If a firefighter’s ears became painfully hot, it was time to leave the building and fight the fire from the outside. Now, an OSHA-mandated flame retardant hood covers the ears and dulls the firefighter’s sensory perception of heat.

Now, by the time firefighters recognize painfully high temperatures, the absolute temperature is much closer to the fatal fire dynamic called “flashover,” which occurs when everything, including the firefighter, ignites simultaneously.

A more recently issued OSHA safety standard mandates that interior firefighting not commence until a two-person rescue team is assembled. Known as the “Two In / Two Out” rule, this regulation attempts to harness the benefits of rescue teams designated to assist interior firefighters in trouble.

However, at some fires, the best strategy to protect firefighter health is to extinguish the blaze immediately before it grows to a less manageable and more dangerous size. No longer can fire officers exercise discretion over when an immediate attack is warranted prior to the establishment of a rescue team.

Three years after OSHA’s first mandated safety and training standards were issued in 1980, the number of volunteer firefighters in America began to decrease steadily. From 1983 through 2001, the number of volunteer firefighters in America, which represents 73 percent of all firefighters, fell by 11 percent.

Why is the volunteerism falling? A press release from the National Volunteer Fire Council offers a good explanation:

“The biggest factor contributing to the decline is increased time demands on the volunteer. This results from increased training hours to comply with more rigorous training requirements, [and] increased fund raising demands [to purchase mandated equipment]…. In addition, expectations of the fire service have changed over the years due to perception and [OSHA] standards development. In many cases, this is a positive change; however, it has caused many to leave the volunteer service. These factors equate to a tremendous loss of talent each year.”

So, in an effort to reduce firefighter fatality rates, OSHA has saddled fire departments with onerous safety, training, financial, and record-keeping requirements. The result is fewer Americans willing to shoulder the cost — in time, money and frustration — of volunteering to fight fires. And, clearly, a smaller number of firefighters does not enhance safety when battling a blaze.

OSHA’s regulatory oversight of fire brigades is not helping America’s firefighters. To better protect those men and women, each fire department should be freed of the regulatory burden of federal oversight and allowed to select the most appropriate protective equipment and operating procedures to mitigate locally identified risks.

OSHA should return to its original congressional directive of establishing voluntary safety standards — especially for volunteer fire departments. The replacement of federally mandated standards with department-specific safety and training protocols will ease the time commitment required to volunteer as a firefighter and reduce firefighter fatality rates.

Marshall L. Stocker is a volunteer firefighter, a national Pro Board-certified firefighter and fire officer, and holds the rank of assistant fire chief. His article “Suppressing Volunteer Firefighting” appears in the Winter 2004-2005 issue of Regulation magazine.