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Guthrie Pushing for Minimum Standards for RI Fire Departments

Saturday, January 19, 2013

 

Should there be a set of minimum standards that all Rhode Island fire departments have to follow that govern things as simple as the types of diesel exhaust systems used to items as complex and potentially expensive as minimum staffing requirements?

At least one State Representative thinks so.

Rep. Scott J. Guthrie, a Democrat from Coventry, has once again introduced a bill that would require all fire departments in the state to comply with the occupational and health standards developed in 1987 by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Guthrie’s efforts, he said, are simply intended to set a minimum baseline by which to evaluate a fire department and to set a clear definition of what is and is not acceptable for the health and well-being of both firefighters themselves and the taxpayers they’re paid to protect.

But the bill, which passed through the Senate last year but met resistance at the House level before ultimately failing to secure enough votes to become law, is much more complex. If enacted, the “minimum” standards could have huge implications for fire departments throughout RI, particularly at stations in smaller communities that may not currently be staffing at the NFPA recommended levels.

Guthrie doesn’t think it will have much of an effect, though, and believes that it’s high past time for the state to adopt a basic set of principles already in place in many parts of the country.

“The NFPA standards were developed to provide a consensus standard for an occupational safety and health program for fire service,” Guthrie said. “The intent of the standard is to provide a framework for a safety and health program for fire departments and other organizations providing similar services.”

Guthrie says he is particularly concerned with the rules that govern death benefits for firefighters killed in the line of duty.

“If a firefighter is killed in the line of duty in Rhode Island, there is a line of duty death benefit that comes from the state as well as the federal government and we should, at the very least, comply with the minimum standard because it’s taxpayer dollars that are going to a public servant that may have sacrificed his life to save somebody else.”

Referred to the House Committee on Municipal Government, the Guthrie bill, 2013-H 5067, would require compliance with, at a minimum, the 1987 version of the NFPA standards and to provide a written plan of implementation to the state fire marshal by January, 2014.

“It has been 25 years since the NFPA standards were developed and there is still no minimum standard that has been adopted or implemented by fire departments in Rhode Island,” Guthrie said. “During the last two and a half decades, those standards have been added to and improved, and our fire departments still have not acted to adopt the most minimum standards that were proposed in 1987. That’s pretty sad and it should also be a great concern to every firefighter in this state who is regularly exposed to dangerous situations.”

The legislation would empower the state’s Fire Marshal with enforcement of the standards, which are currently overseen by the Department of Labor and Training though, according to Guthrie, some departments may seek exemptions from specific provisions.

In addition, the bill would create an NFPA 1500 implementation plan review committee of seven individuals appointed by the RI League of Cities and Towns, two members named by the president of the RI State Association of Firefighters, two appointed by the president of the RI Fire Chiefs’ and a pair of members of the general public named by the Speaker of the House and Senate President, respectively.

Guthrie says he believes most fire departments in the state are currently compliant with the NFPA but warns that there is no way of knowing because there is no current standard by which to measure their standing.

“Taxpayers should know that everybody has a minimum standard,” he said. “Firefighting is a science, it’s not like a regular go-and-work-on-a-machine job. Nothing is the same, every fire is different so just to make sure that everybody is trained to the minimum standard is to the benefit of the taxpayer and to the benefit of the firefighter himself. “

The legislation was introduced as a result of the findings of a commission that Guthrie co-chaired in 2011 and the bill has been co-sponsored by four of Guthrie’s colleagues in the House: Rep. John Edwards, Rep. Raymond Gallison Jr., Rep. Raymond Johnston and Rep. Joseph M. McNamara.

“We’re a big supporter of the bill he introduced and of Representative Guthrie, who has done a great job for us up there,” said Paul Reed, President of the Rhode Island State Association of Firefighters.

According to Reed, the biggest issue relates to minimum staffing standards at stations across Rhode Island.

“The NFPA standard, which is the nationally-recognized standard making board, not only in the United States but probably worldwide states that there should be four firefighters on each piece of apperatus and other than the city of

Cranston and some of their engine companies and the city of Providence and some of their ladder-engine companies that’s not adhered to,” he said. “The smaller the communities, the more we found we’re going out with two people on engine companies. Some places don’t even have ladder companies. I would have to say as far as our minimal staffing, I think Rhode Island is not in the forefront.”

For Guthrie, the bill isn’t as complicated as it may seem.

“I really don’t think it’s going to have a huge affect in the cost of firefighting in any department,” he said. “I would think that they would welcome having some kind of a standard.” 

 

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