This month, the National Fire Protection Association`s Technical Committee on Fire Service Organization and Deployment (NFPA 1200, Standard for Organization, Operation, Deployment, and Evaluation of Public Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services) acts on the more than 20,000 public comments received on the proposed standard. The results will be presented at the association`s fall meeting in Kansas City for action by the general membership.

That the comments on NFPA 1200 were the most ever received by an NFPA technical committee speaks well for fire service involvement. However, some wizards predict doom for this document in its current form, citing lack of support from several fire service sectors, especially the volunteer leadership, though it must be noted that the National Volunteer Fire Council`s representative on the technical committee voted affirmatively to accept the new document.

I wouldn`t blame the volunteer community if it were upset (it doesn`t seem to be) at the lopsided technical committee configuration of three career-leaning members for every volunteer-oriented member (remember, the new 1200 standard was one of the plums offered by the NFPA to entice the International Association of Fire Fighters out of its Batterymarch Boycott of a couple of years ago), but the document by and large is universal in tone. No, what we`re hearing across the board is

a) the standard squeezes local-level control, an argument that suits philosophical debate but is by no means unique to this proposed standard (Is there a national standard or regulation that doesn`t impose upon local government?);

b) it`s too expensive (True, it is costly, but it`s about time public officials and the taxpayers finally realized and supported the cost of good fire protection–you`re not marketing!); or

c) the 1200 limbo stick is too low and many fire departments are not in shape to squeeze under it. The International Association of Fire Chiefs, for one, says flat out, “Many fire departments, particularly small departments or volunteer agencies, will have serious difficulties meeting this standard.”

Imagine the unmitigated gall of a technical committee expecting fire departments to put out fires, plan intelligently, develop systems to maximize response efficiency and safety, be organized, train, adopt and enforce fire codes, investigate fires, promote public fire safety, have an incident management system, and manage human resources and budgets effectively!

Imagine asking a fire department to “have the capability to safely initiate a primary interior attack within ten minutes of the receipt by the department of the alarm,” including establishing an uninterrupted 400-gpm water supply for 30 minutes, stretching an initial attack handline and a backup line (two members each) into the building, conducting ventilation with two members, and designating a two-member rapid intervention crew! Imagine suggesting that an interior fire attack under normal circumstances requires at least 11 to 13 firefighters! What nerve!

Imagine asking the fire department to ensure that its members are physically fit to perform the job, have a health and safety officer, keep personnel records! To have a training budget and a training program supported by chief officers, a training officer, and company officers! To establish a building inspection schedule and have sufficient staff to execute a fire prevention and code enforcement program! Imagine asking a fire department to have its dispatchers operate as though it were an emergency!

Imagine the nerve asking the fire department to be, well … a fire department!

The proposed NFPA 1200 standard is not a perfect document. No doubt it needs some refinement. But it contains the elements for responsible fire department management and operations consistent with the fire department`s core mission. Initial reactions from some quarters are sad if not frightening.

There are some 31,000 municipal/public fire departments, and they`re all different. Most likely, some will never comply with a standard such as this. But it`s not too much to ask a fire department–not the Exposure Protection Department–to get a line on a fire within 10 minutes if we expect there to be any chance of saving life and property. And it`s foolish to hold back those who can for those who can`t; that`s the same insidious “dumbing down” so pervasive in our public schools and our culture in general.

Some initial reactions to the proposed NFPA 1200 standard show it`s time for some serious soul-searching in the fire service. It`s painfully clear that the problem is not the standard–it`s a fire service that intends to go kicking and screaming into the next millennium.

Are we professional, business-like fire experts or professional crybabies forever bemoaning the height of the limbo stick? When I stand on the corner of 8th Street and Vine this fall, will I see a caravan of buses filled with firefighters singing, “Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here we come/They got a pretty little standard there and I`m gonna kill me one”?

(Note to the NFPA: Want fire service buy-in? Do everyone a large favor and create a tiered compliance system. That way, the fire service won`t react with fear and loathing at the mere mention of the word “standard.” Institute a system of compliance levels like the ISO grading schedule so that the fire service is not in a state of perpetual noncompliance. If not, what nerve!)

It`s time for the fire service to face reality, realize what we`re all here for, and stop running away from standards that can help it improve service delivery, improve public and firefighter safety, and achieve the mission. The new 1200 can help us chart the course to a bold future of strong, responsible fire departments. Will you work to preserve the status quo or improve public safety? If the former, what nerve!

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