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Fire safety: Increased training requirements for volunteers can be difficult to manage

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Recognizing dangers at structure fires and hazardous waste spills. Knowing how to keep hoses and air packs in working order. Learning how to safely travel to a fire scene.

All are among the requirements for more than 4,000 volunteer firefighters in the 100 volunteer fire departments across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

While the state has long mandated training for firefighters, the safety requirements have grown exponentially over the past two decades, often leaving firefighters and their overseers wondering if they are meeting all of the expectations and properly documenting the training, according to Robert Leonard of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York, which provides education and training for firefighters statewide.

“The amount of training is probably up by multiples in the time I’ve been in this, which is probably 22 or 23 years,” Mr. Leonard said. “We believe that training is very, very important, but documentation of this training can be challenging.”

Meeting training requirements can be difficult for the often short-staffed departments, and that can place the onus on the towns, villages or fire districts that oversee the departments, according to Bradley M. Pinsky, a Syracuse attorney whose firm — Pinsky Law Group — represents about 500 fire departments in the state.

Safety requirements run the gamut, from firefighters learning how to properly communicate with each other at the scene of a fire to how to store equipment after returning to the fire station. New firefighters must receive 15 hours of training upon joining a fire department, and every firefighter must take eight hours of “refresher” training annually.

The job of enforcing safety standards lies with the state Department of Labor’s Public Employee Health and Safety (PESH) bureau, which relies on federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules. Under state law, volunteer firefighters, when acting in that role, are considered public employees and are required to meet safety training requirements similar to those of paid employees.

Similarly, if something goes wrong, the municipality or district responsible for the employee can be held liable for the consequences.

“The question is, how do you know if you’re complying?” Mr. Pinsky said. “The towns and villages may think the fire department is doing a good job, but they don’t really know, because they don’t know the standards.”

With more modern fire suppression systems in buildings and increased fire prevention awareness in general, there actually are fewer fires these days, according to Mr. Pinsky. That means firefighters get fewer opportunities to hone their skills under emergency conditions. At the same time, he said, PESH has stepped up its enforcement of training regulations in the past year.

“I have been representing fire departments for 17 years, and I’ve never seen this level of investigatory activity,” Mr. Pinsky said.

That isn’t a bad thing, according to Mr. Pinsky, himself a certified municipal training officer, but he said departments can struggle with meeting the standards, primarily in the area of documentation. That can be caused by several factors, from time constraints on volunteers to being unsure of exactly what is needed to bring the paperwork into compliance to the satisfaction of state regulators, who often give short notice — sometimes as little as a day — that an inspection is coming.

“If PESH just shows up and says, “Give me the documentation,” most departments don’t have all of this, and I venture to say some of them don’t have 50 percent of it,” said Mr. Pinsky, a chief in the Manlius Fire Department.

A PESH spokeswoman did not respond to a request for additional information from the bureau about inspections, but typically if PESH finds violations, it will give a department time to rectify the situation, with the amount of time provided correlating to the seriousness of the offense. Even then, individual fines aren’t hefty, with $50 being assessed for nonserious violations and $150 for more serious ones.

Despite that, department goals are to avoid any violations, though the unspoken goal is much greater, Mr. Pinsky said.

“The most serious punishment is that a firefighter doesn’t get to go home (because a serious accident occurs),” he said. “I don’t want people to comply for the sake of complying. I want people to comply for the sake of going home.”

The all-volunteer Louisville Fire Department knows where it stands with PESH, courtesy of an involuntary inspection completed the last week of February after an anonymous person complained to the bureau that the department lacked necessary training.

Peter A. Roberts, a firefighter and member of the department’s board in charge of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training, said the inspection noted that some members needed to get current on safety and hazardous materials, but that PESH provided the department about three months to rectify the situation.

“It’s been nothing but a positive,” Mr. Roberts said. “All of our members are caught up on the necessary training.”

Mr. Roberts said PESH inspectors “don’t just rush in and shut you down,” but they provide information about how a department can comply with regulations. He said if he had known the outcome of the inspection ahead of time, he would have requested one years ago.

“It helps us out and makes us better firemen,” he said. “We’re not wondering if we’re compliant. We’re feeling like we’ve been well-trained, we’re feeling like real firefighters.”

The only compliance issues remaining for the Louisville department involve the adequacy of its protective clothing, bailout ropes and interior fire-fighting equipment, matters the department will have to look to the town board to help fund. Mr. Roberts said that once the department formally asks the board for help, the liability to get the gear transfers to the town, and then it would be up to the town to satisfy the PESH requirements.

Joseph D. Plummer, director of the Jefferson County Fire and Emergency Management Office, said many departments meet training requirements over the course of ordinary business, but some don’t document it properly, in part because they don’t realize information they are providing to firefighters constitutes training. He said, for example, that an after-action review of a fire, in which firefighters meet and go over what they could have done better or differently at a scene, counts toward training requirements, but departments often don’t document it as such.

“They’re not actually taking out a piece of paper and filling it out,” Mr. Plummer said. “These are things they may be doing all year long, but they just aren’t documenting it, putting it into the right category.”

He said the departments he works with “all know the deal” and are willing to work with PESH to meet compliance standards. He said the departments know the goal is to keep firefighters safe, and many in the county have requested inspections. Departments can request a PESH inspection, with the trade-off being that the agency typically will serve in more of an advisory, rather than enforcement, role if the inspection is voluntary.

“To my knowledge, there has never been a fire department in Jefferson County, in my time here, that has been fined by PESH in reference to firefighter safety,” Mr. Plummer said. “The bottom line is, we need these people safe. That’s (PESH’s) job to do, and they do have some teeth if they find a problem, but they’ll work with the department to get things resolved.”

Harrisville Mayor Gary L. Williams said that village’s board of trustees views its firefighters as employees in the same way it views highway department workers, with the difference being the firefighters are unpaid and work at the discretion of the fire chief. But when it comes to employee safety, the village wants firefighters to be treated the same as all employees.

“They do a marvelous job, and we have a moral and legal obligation to make sure they are properly trained and properly equipped,” he said. “Fire, when you’re in a building, doesn’t differentiate between a paid firefighter and a volunteer firefighter.”

Mr. Williams, a former firefighter himself, said the village board traditionally took a “hands-off approach” to the fire department but is trying to ensure it has the appropriate safety policies in place.

“We’d rather be proactive than reactive after we’ve had an accident where someone is injured,” he said.

As part of that, Mr. Williams said the village might request an inspection by PESH and is working with Mr. Pinsky to prepare for it.

“We have no idea where we stand with PESH, but we’re probably about to find out,” Mr. Williams said.





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