Professional Qualifications Federal or State Responsibility?

BY BOBBY HALTON

The fire service has from time to time considered the need for establishing and enforcing nationally established standards for professional firefighter qualifications vs. the current system of state-managed professional standards. The argument against state or local control is the wide array of differences in qualifications, mandatory continuing educational hours, and difficulty in lateral movement across state lines. The question must be decided on one overriding issue: Which system would best serve the fire service in terms of service delivery to our citizens? We exist to serve our communities in a wide variety of ways and through a vast number of organizational models.

Currently, the standards for professional qualification are a state issue; control is for the most part regionally managed. A major benefit is accessibility to the standard-developing and -managing process. This allows the firefighters delivering service in those areas the ability to effect changes that they perceive will fulfill the needs of the state. The states have commissions or boards with well-developed bureaucracies that monitor compliance and update and revise the local standards. Most use National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, 2009 edition.

The federal side of the argument is that by nationalizing our professional qualifications, we would standardize our tactical capabilities to allow for greater operational integration and lateral movement. Supporters feel that by nationalizing standards, the fire service could train to one set of standards, achieving greater conformity and homogeneity. The hoped-for outcome would be improved compliance, better training, and safer firegrounds. Proponents argue that the federal government would then ensure compliance by controlling funding or access to federal grants. They point to countries such as Sweden, which is federally controlled and has a very low incidence of firefighter deaths and injury.

The comparison of the United States to Sweden is tenuous at best. First, Sweden has only nine million citizens, 16,000 firefighters, and strict building codes enforced by its socialist government. The United States has 300 million citizens, 1.8 million firefighters, building codes as diverse as our geography, and a representative republic government. Interestingly, our civilian death rates are about the same.

The two largest difficulties in nationalizing professional standards are (1) what they should look like and (2) how to measure compliance. The debate over who would manage and develop national professional qualifications raises another complicated issue: How would they be selected? Legally, it would become necessary to determine whether the federal government has any authority over firefighting, historically a local, state issue. The question of authority would certainly need to be established constitutionally by the court.

It is an interesting debate between firefighters who prefer local control and those who feel we would do better under federal control. The vast majority of firefighters are firmly on the local/state side; they strongly support the national NFPA standards and the ICC codes but just as strongly support the local authority having jurisdiction’s right to pick and choose from those standards.

Thomas Jefferson weighed in on the issue of states’ rights vs. those of the central government: “[T]he States can best govern our home concerns and the general government our foreign ones. I wish, therefore … never to see all offices transferred to Washington, where, further withdrawn from the eyes of the people, they may more secretly be bought and sold at market.” —Thomas Jefferson, letter to Judge William Johnson, 1823

What our good former president was saying here was that local concerns can be better monitored when they are managed locally. When things are managed from afar, influences that do not have any bearing locally on an issue affecting, say, the people of Boise, Idaho, can influence the people in Washington, D.C.

Those who oppose the nationalization of the fire service point to the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. The 10th Amendment protects each state’s right to govern its own internal affairs except for those few areas of authority that the states delegated to our central government in the Constitution and those few powers the states forbade to themselves that are absolutely fundamental to our constitutional system of government. Is the protection of citizens by the fire service in all its various forms a state or federal responsibility, a state or federal right?

Most firefighters believe that we should have some federal involvement in funding firefighting, specifically as it concerns the urban search and rescue task forces, which respond on a federal level. We believe that because of this program and the mutual aid that we need to extend between state lines, as well as across our borders into Canada, we have some grievance for federal support monies. The National Incident Command System (NIMS) is a good example of a federal standard that has been adopted by all. That access to federal grant programs should be denied to any department deemed to be deficient in its adoption of NIMS, however, is wrong and unnecessary.

If improving the professionalism of our fire service is the goal, we need to look no further than the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). Every state should work with the CPSE and adopt locally the CPSE professional development and credentialing process. Local adoption and CPSE credentialing allow for the recognition of regional differences, local issues, and states rights.

President Jefferson was right: We should let the federal government deal with foreign affairs and issues of national importance and leave it to the states to deal with those issues that affect us locally, like fire service.

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