Regional Focus: North America’s burning issues

April 19, 2024

From legislative achievements to frontline challenges, FSJA looks at the current state of fire safety and emergency response in North America

In the United States, fire safety has become an increasingly complex and multifaceted challenge.

From the risks posed by lithium-ion batteries in consumer electronics and electric vehicles to the debates surrounding building codes and firefighter training, the landscape of fire prevention and response is evolving.

This article dives into the myriad issues that shape America’s approach to fire safety, including technological hazards, legislative efforts, and the critical role of emergency responders in safeguarding our communities.

Lithium-ion batteries

Lithium-ion batteries are pivotal in powering a myriad of devices, from electric vehicles to smartphones, but have been implicated in an increasing number of fire incidents.

These fires pose severe public safety risks, characterized by their intensity, duration, and the emission of toxic smoke.

Fire Chief John S. Butler, in his capacity as President and Board Chair of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), testified before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, addressing the significant fire risks posed by lithium-ion batteries.

He emphasized the nation’s lack of preparedness to combat fires sparked by these batteries, noting that emergency services are approximately five years behind in tackling the challenges they present.

Butler called for federal assistance to bolster local fire departments’ response capabilities to such incidents.

Chief Butler advocated for better data collection, the development of safety standards, training for fire departments, and public education on the safe use of lithium-ion battery-powered devices.

He also urged for the rapid passage of legislation aimed at setting consumer safety standards for lithium-ion batteries and providing resources to local fire departments, highlighting the need for a balanced approach to embrace lithium-ion technology while ensuring community safety.

The second staircase dilemma

The IAFC and its Fire & Life Safety Section Board have also voiced concerns over a deregulatory trend that aims to reduce the number of required staircases in residential buildings higher than three stories.

This move, motivated by the perceived benefits of increased housing availability and cost reduction, is seen as compromising occupant and firefighter safety.

The IAFC has argued that the current two-staircase requirement, based on scientific research and the National Code Consensus process, is crucial for ensuring safe evacuation and firefighter access during emergencies.

It also supports efficient, inclusive living environments, particularly in the face of modern hazards like those posed by lithium-ion batteries.

Critics of the two-staircase requirement cite increased construction costs and reduced usable floor space, but the IAFC argued that the safety benefits significantly outweigh these concerns.

The retention of this requirement is deemed essential for maintaining safety standards that protect both occupants and emergency responders.

The IAFC is actively encouraging fire service leaders to oppose legislative efforts to amend this requirement, advocating for engagement with urban planners, legislators, and the building community to maintain high safety standards in residential structures.

PFAS legislation and litigation

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has thrown its support behind the Military Fire Fighters PFAS Compensation Bill (H.R. 6946), a legislative effort spearheaded by U.S. Reps. Marilyn Strickland and Bill Posey.

This bill seeks to establish a compensation fund for military firefighters afflicted by illnesses linked to PFAS exposure, acknowledging the health risks posed by PFAS-laden firefighting foams.

This initiative underscores the critical need to support those who risk their lives and health in service to the nation, providing necessary medical compensation and affirming a commitment to the welfare of military firefighters and their families.

In a related development, a significant legal milestone has been achieved with the federal court’s approval of a $1.185 billion settlement with DuPont to resolve litigation related to PFAS contamination in public water systems.

This settlement, orchestrated by Baron & Budd on behalf of numerous public water systems, targets the pervasive environmental and health challenges posed by PFAS, offering immediate financial relief for testing and remediation efforts.

This settlement, along with ongoing litigation against other manufacturers, highlights the ongoing battle against the harmful effects of PFAS chemicals on both the environment and public health.

OSHA’s Emergency Response Standard

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced a proposal to introduce a new safety and health standard titled “Emergency Response,” which aims to extend and enhance protections for a broader spectrum of emergency responders, encompassing firefighters (both structural and wildland), emergency medical service providers, and technical search and rescue workers.

This proposed standard is set to replace the “Fire Brigades Standard” and seeks to address a more comprehensive range of occupational hazards, in alignment with contemporary industry consensus standards and national emergency response frameworks.

OSHA’s initiative, reflecting an estimated impact on approximately 1 million emergency response workers, is intended modernize and improve safety protocols for those on the front lines of emergency services

In response to OSHA’s proposed updates, however, significant concerns have been voiced by organizations such as the National Volunteer Fire Council and the Firefighters Association of the State of New York (FASNY).

These groups argue that the proposed changes, which include stringent physical exams, new equipment mandates, and the development of comprehensive emergency plans, pose insurmountable challenges for volunteer fire departments.

FASNY’s critique highlight a perceived disconnect between the proposed rule’s intentions and the practical realities faced by emergency response agencies, fearing that the new standards could hinder recruitment, retention, and operational capabilities.

Both organizations are urging constituents to engage in the public comment period to express their concerns and seek modifications to the proposed rule, emphasizing the potential for increased liability, fines, and litigation as detrimental consequences of the rule’s current form.

Safety Stand Down 2024

The theme for this year’s Safety Stand Down, taking place from June 16-22, 2024, is “Fire Training: Back to Basics.” This initiative aims to put emphasize the importance of fundamental training strategies and tactics for firefighters, ensuring they are well-prepared to respond to a broad spectrum of emergencies.

By focusing on the essentials of firefighter training, Safety Stand Down advocates for the critical role that ongoing education plays in the effectiveness and safety of fire departments.

This annual event, a collaborative effort among major fire service organizations including the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), encourages fire departments to halt non-emergency activities during the week to concentrate on training and education.

Resources and action plans supporting this year’s theme are available on the campaign’s website, including the NFPA’s Fire Service Safety Stand Down Quiz.

IAFF Conference

The IAFF highlighted significant bipartisan efforts and legislative achievements during its annual conference, attended by over 750 union members.

IAFF General President Edward Kelly emphasized the importance of active lobbying for fire service, public safety, and member well-being issues, given the legislative gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Key priorities for the IAFF include the reauthorization of crucial grant programs, recognition of occupational cancer deaths, the development of non-toxic firefighting gear, and the safeguarding of firefighters’ rights to free speech and fair employment conditions.

High-profile legislators and officials, including U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell and Senators Amy Klobuchar and Jamie Raskin, expressed their support for these initiatives, highlighting the critical role of firefighters in public safety and the need for adequate resources and protections.

The conference also covered efforts to repeal policies that unfairly impact retired first responders’ benefits, with promises of continued advocacy for firefighter health, safety, and fairness in the face of occupational risks.

Cuts to FEMA grant programs

On March 21, the U.S. House of Representatives unveiled a $1.2 trillion spending package aimed at funding numerous federal programs and averting a government shutdown before the critical deadline of March 22.

The bill proposes a 10% reduction in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) grant programs, impacting key initiatives like the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) programs, which saw a cut of $36 million, bringing them down to $324 million.

Similarly, the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) and the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP) experienced significant reductions.

The U.S.

Fire Administration is set to receive over $71 million with provisions for developing the new National Emergency Response Information System.

Meanwhile, the National Urban Search & Rescue System and the SIREN grant program for rural EMS are among the few to see funding increases, alongside the fully funded National Firefighter Registry for Cancer at $5.5 million.

Smokehouse Creek fire breaks state records

The Smokehouse Creek Fire, which ignited on February 26, 2024, has become the largest recorded wildfire in both Texas’s history and the United States for the year, burning across the northeastern Texas panhandle and western Oklahoma.

Originating near Stinnett, Texas, under conditions conducive to fire spread, the fire rapidly expanded, reaching 500,000 acres within the first 24 hours.

The fire, 100% contained on Marc 17, resulted in the destruction of over 130 houses, leaving 11,000 people without power and claiming two lives.

In response to the escalating wildfire crisis, the USDA announced a $500 million investment from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda to enhance the USDA Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy.

This funding is part of a broader $2.4 billion effort underpinned by the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, aiming to reduce wildfire risks to communities, infrastructure, and natural resources.

A portion of the funds will support ongoing efforts in 21 designated priority landscapes, with an additional $100 million allocated to the new Collaborative Wildfire Risk Reduction Program, targeting high-risk wildfire areas outside these landscapes.

As we navigate the complexities of fire safety in the United States, it’s clear that technology, legislation, and community engagement play pivotal roles.

The insights from experts and industry associations underscore the need for preparedness, innovation, and collaboration across sectors.

 By addressing the challenges posed by lithium-ion batteries, regulatory debates, and firefighter training, we can move toward a safer, more resilient future.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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