Volunteer fire departments in New York face challenges with proposed OSHA regulations

June 14, 2024

OSHA proposes new safety regulations for firefighters

Volunteer fire officials across New York state are expressing concern about the cost implications of proposed federal safety regulations for firefighters.

As reported by Syracuse.com, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) introduced its proposed Emergency Response standard late last year.

This standard aims to set comprehensive workplace protections for emergency responders, including firefighters and paramedics.

The proposed regulations would replace existing rules from 1980, which only cover firefighters.

The new rules would increase training requirements, mandate biennial medical screenings for firefighters, require more frequent vehicle inspections, and necessitate written emergency response plans.

Impact on volunteer fire departments

David Denniston, a firefighter from Cortland and a top official with the Association of Fire Districts of the State of New York, highlighted the potential challenges during an interview with Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard.

He expressed concerns that the increased time commitment might force some volunteer firefighters to leave, exacerbating existing recruitment issues.

Denniston also emphasized the financial burden these changes could place on fire departments with limited funding options.

Over 1,000 fire departments in New York state are staffed by more than 80,000 volunteers, with paid departments primarily serving cities while suburban and rural areas rely on volunteers.

Training and compliance issues

Training for volunteer firefighters currently varies, with many receiving task-specific training.

Denniston, who is responsible for training in Cortland County, mentioned that the proposed regulations could double the training hours required.

This would align volunteer training with the minimum 229 hours needed for professional firefighter certification in New York state.

During a news conference in Syracuse, Denniston acknowledged the need for improved safety rules but questioned the feasibility of the proposed regulations for smaller departments.

He stated: “We agree that a lot of the stuff that’s in there is good. There’s some things in there that we don’t think OSHA has proven how that would really affect firefighter safety.”

Support and criticism of the proposed regulations

The proposed rules have received support from career firefighter groups.

An International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) union official testified at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing, stating: “Just because it’s costly doesn’t mean we need to shy away from safety.”

An OSHA spokesperson explained that the regulations aim to protect emergency responders from hazards, including cancers, and that the agency plans to hold a multi-day hearing to gather further input.

The state Office of Fire Prevention and Control is reviewing the proposal to ensure firefighter safety without compromising departmental operations.

Chris Dubay, vice president for engineering and research at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), noted that many local fire departments already follow some NFPA standards.

He suggested that OSHA could incorporate only the most essential parts of these standards.

Funding and budget concerns

New York fire districts, primarily funded by local property taxes, face budget constraints.

Federal grants for firefighter training and equipment have been reduced, despite high demand.

Denniston expressed concerns that voters might reject budgets that include tax increases necessary to meet the new regulations.

He emphasized the need for attainable safety improvements: “We’re kind of like owner-operators. We’re doing the fire fighting, we’re doing the job.

“But we’re also trying to figure out where the funds are coming from, and then ultimately we’re the taxpayers in these areas that are paying for all of this, as well.”

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