Regional Focus: Advancing fire safety in the U.S.

July 3, 2024

From the World Fire Congress to recent federal and state legislation, FSJA examines the latest advancements in the United States’ fire safety sector

The inaugural World Fire Congress was held in Washington, D.C., on May 7-8, 2024, bringing together delegates from 54 countries to address the growing challenges faced by fire and rescue services worldwide.

Hosted by the United States, the event aimed to enhance international collaboration and share best practices for managing fire risks.

The Congress was organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Fire Administration, with participation from top officials including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, and U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell.

The event emphasized the need for global cooperation in responding to increasing fire hazards, particularly those driven by climate change.

During the two-day event, delegates discussed key themes including structural fires, the impact of climate change such as wildfires and flooding, emerging energy technologies, and firefighter health and wellbeing.

One of the significant outcomes was the signing of the World Fire Congress Charter, which commits participating nations to ongoing collaboration and information sharing to tackle these issues.

The event also established a global leadership network for fire services, with the United States hosting online communities of practice for the four key themes discussed.

These communities will meet monthly to share experiences, conduct research, and develop training and development programs.

At the conclusion of the Congress, the United States handed over the responsibility for organizing the next World Fire Congress in 2026 to the United Kingdom.

The UK delegates included Mark Hardingham, Chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), Sarah Gawley from the Home Office, and Roger Thomas, Chief Fire Officer of Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service.

The Congress is expected to rotate around different continents, with the United Arab Emirates set to host in 2028.

House passes Fire Grants and Safety Act

On May 8, 2024, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Fire Grants and Safety Act (S.870) with a vote of 393 to 13.

This bill seeks to reauthorize key programs and agencies within the nation’s fire and emergency services, specifically the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG), the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant Program (SAFER), and the United States Fire Administration (USFA).

The Act was originally approved by the Senate in April 2023 with a vote of 95-2.

However, it must now return to the Senate for approval of the House-amended version before it can be signed into law by the President.

The bill aims to extend the authorization of these programs through fiscal year 2028 and delay their statutory sunset date to September 30, 2030.

Key provisions of S.870 include the authorization of $750 million in funding for the AFG and SAFER programs from FY 2024 through FY 2028, and $95 million for the USFA.

This funding will support the development of the National Emergency Response Information System, EMS programs at USFA, and efforts to investigate and report on the causes of major fires to promote best practices for prevention.

In addition to the primary focus on fire and emergency services, the bill also includes measures to promote the development of nuclear energy in the United States.

The Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) expressed strong support for the legislation.

CFSI has emphasized the critical nature of the vote for the continuation of AFG and SAFER programs.

IAFC President Fire Chief John S. Butler highlighted the importance of the bill for protecting funding and training resources for local fire and EMS departments.

The Senate is now expected to review and pass the amended bill to ensure its enactment before the current sunset date of September 30, 2023.

Firefighters transition to PFAS-free gear

Firefighters in several cities, including San Francisco, Vancouver, and Concord, are transitioning to personal protective equipment (PPE) free of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

This move follows a joint advisory by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association highlighting the dangers of PFAS in firefighter gear.

San Francisco is leading the transition, with an ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors mandating PFAS-free gear by June 30, 2026.

The city has allocated nearly $2 million in its budget and secured a $2.3 million FEMA grant to fund the replacement of older gear, with the total cost expected to exceed $10 million.

Local 798 and the San Francisco Firefighter Cancer Prevention Foundation (SFFCPF) have been active in advocating for this change, emphasizing the health risks associated with PFAS exposure.

PFAS, often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment, have been linked to several health issues, including cancer, decreased fertility, and developmental delays.

These chemicals were commonly used in nonstick, fireproof, and stain-resistant products, but are still found in many firefighter uniforms for their ability to repel flammable liquids and resist extreme heat.

The IAFF has been conducting field test surveys of PFAS-free gear from manufacturers like Fire-Dex, Lion, and Honeywell.

Preliminary results from these tests, which began in February, have been positive.

Adam Wood, vice president of SFFCPF, reported that the new gear performs well in fire conditions, offering necessary protection. Other cities are following suit.

Vancouver is set to be the first North American city to fully transition to PFAS-free gear, with delivery expected before June.

Concord has approved the purchase of 92 sets of PFAS-free gear, aiming to replace all contaminated gear within five years.

To support these transitions, the IAFF has retained legal assistance to challenge the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards that mandate PFAS in firefighting gear.

The IAFF has filed a lawsuit against the NFPA, which is advancing in Massachusetts Superior Court.

The move towards PFAS-free gear is part of broader efforts to reduce occupational cancer risks among firefighters and ensure safer working conditions.

Legislative developments in fire safety and response

Recent legislative actions across the United States are addressing various fire safety and response concerns, with significant measures introduced and approved at federal, state, and municipal levels.

In New York, FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh celebrated the passage of H.R. 1797, the “Setting Consumer Standards for Lithium-Ion Batteries Act,” by Congress.

This legislation requires the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to establish safety standards for rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, commonly used in e-bikes and e-scooters, to mitigate fire risks.

Commissioner Kavanagh, who has advocated for such regulations, highlighted the increase in lithium-ion battery fires, which have caused approximately 500 fires and 24 fatalities in New York City over the past two years.

Also in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams signed two bills on May 1, 2024, to enhance safety measures for FDNY’s emergency medical workers.

Introduction 126-A requires the provision of body armor meeting ballistic and stab-resistance standards, while Introduction 127-A mandates de-escalation and self-defense training.

These measures formalize the existing practices within FDNY and aim to ensure the safety of EMS personnel who often respond to high-risk situations.

In Seattle, Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed emergency legislation to amend the Seattle Fire Code, enabling the Seattle Fire Department (SFD) to expedite the demolition or remediation of unsafe vacant buildings.

The city has seen a surge in fires in these buildings, with 130 incidents reported in 2023.

The proposed legislation, supported by City Council members Bob Kettle and Tammy Morales, aims to reduce hazards posed by derelict structures, which threaten both public safety and firefighters.

Maryland has enacted the Melanie Nicholle Diaz Fire Safety Act (HB823), mandating the installation of automatic smoke detectors and notifications about the lack of sprinkler systems in residential rental high-rise buildings.

The legislation, effective July 1, 2024, includes provisions for notification appliances for individuals with hearing impairments and authorizes local governments to offer tax credits for fire safety improvements.

A workgroup will develop best practices for fire safety in pre-1974 high-rise apartments, with findings due by December 31, 2024.

At the federal level, Rep. Mike Thompson (CA-04) announced the House’s approval of the Federal Disaster Tax Relief Act (H.R. 5863).

This bill exempts wildfire victims from federal income taxes on their settlement money and attorney fees, applying retroactively to qualified victims.

The legislation also addresses tax relief for victims of the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and designates Hurricane Ian as a qualified disaster.

The bill now awaits a Senate vote. These legislative developments reflect ongoing efforts to improve fire safety standards, protect emergency responders, and provide relief to disaster victims across the country.

Emergency Response Standard

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has introduced a proposed rule to establish a new safety and health standard for emergency responders, titled “Emergency Response.”

This proposed rule aims to replace the existing Fire Brigades Standard and address a broader range of occupational hazards faced by firefighters, emergency medical service providers, and technical search and rescuers.

The current OSHA standards for emergency responders are outdated and fragmented, failing to address the full spectrum of hazards and advancements in safety practices and technology.

The new standard seeks to align with the Department of Homeland Security’s National Incident Management System (NIMS) and incorporate modern industry consensus standards from the NFPA.

The proposed rule is performance-based, providing flexibility for organizations to establish criteria that best suit their specific needs.

This approach is intended to be particularly beneficial for small and volunteer organizations with limited resources.

However, concerns have been raised about the feasibility of compliance for volunteer fire departments, particularly regarding physical exams, new equipment purchases, and emergency planning requirements.

OSHA has extended the public comment period for this proposed rule to June 21, 2024, in response to feedback from the emergency services community.

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has urged volunteer departments to submit detailed comments on how the proposed standard would impact their operations, emphasizing the importance of providing comprehensive feedback to inform potential adjustments to the rule.

The development of this proposed standard involved collaboration with the National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH) and a subcommittee of emergency response community representatives.

This subcommittee, comprising experts from labor, management, federal agencies, and industry organizations, developed draft regulatory language that received unanimous support from NACOSH.

OSHA’s initiative to modernize its emergency response standard is part of a broader effort to enhance the safety and health protections for emergency responders, reflecting lessons learned from past disasters and aligning with current best practices and technological advancements in the field.

Public participation in the comment process is encouraged to ensure the final standard effectively balances safety improvements with the practical needs of all emergency response organizations.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here. Editor’s note: this article was published on June 3rd 2024, information may now be out of date.

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