1994: A YEAR OF REGULATORY ISSUES FOR THE FIRE SERVICE
In the classic film Mr. Smith does to Washington, Jimmy Stewart gave America a taste of the excitement, intrigue, and glamour that is our nation’s capital. The trouble is, most of the business of government is conducted not in the great halls of Congress but in the depressing, overcrowded offices of the bureaucracy; and not by towering giants of public policy but by an army of young attorneys, dedicated public servants, clerks, and everyday working people.
Once a bill becomes law, a federal agency almost always must make sense of that law through the drafting, refinement, enactment, and enforcement of regulations If laws set policy, regulations create reality
for America’s fire service. 1994 will be more a year of regulation than legislation. Here are a few highlights.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission —which has jurisdiction over products from lawn mowers to toys—will decide sometime this spring whether to require upholstered furniture sold in this country to meet flammability standards comparable to those that have significantly reduced California’s fire death rate over the past decade. The National Association of State Fire Marshals, which formally asked the Commission to regulate upholstered furniture, was joined by the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, International Association of Fire Fighters, National Volunteer Fire Council, International Association of Arson Investigators, National Fire Protection Association. Flame Retardant Chemicals Association, and many state and local fire officials in demanding the regulation. Predictably, upholstered furniture manufacturers oppose the regulation.
- The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a regulation that would require any “fixed facility” —which could be a factory, warehouse. farmers’ cooperative, gas station, pipeline, or retail establishment —storing set amounts of certain chemicals to write and publicly disclose plans to deal with “worst-case scenarios.” “Worst-case scenario” is described as a total release of the chemical coupled with failure of all safety systems. I guess that Bhopal was not “worst case” since not all of the deadly chemical was released and not all safety measures failed. Virtually hundreds of thousands of facilities will be subjected to the regulation when it goes into effect this year.
Why should fire departments care? First, some consumer activists want all of these plans—which each could be several inches thick—to be filed with local fire departments. (And you thought MSDSs , were bad!) Second, businesses filing these plans have to describe disaster mitigation training exercises with local fire departments. Who pays for the training drills? you might ask. Good question. Third, you can bet the juiciest of these plans will be on the front page of your local newspaper, along with questions about your readiness to handle a 400-foot-high fireball and * purple cloud rolling down Main Street. No one will care that there is a one-in-aquadrillion chance of a “worst-case sce-⅜ nario” in your town. You’d better stop fussing with those minor house fires and get ready for the BIG ONE. –
- The EPA is expected to release any day now (at press time) its so-called SNAP (Significant New Alternatives Program) list—describing products it has approved as alternatives to ozone-depleting chemicals. With halon manufacturing now banned, the SNAP list reportedly will blessS at least two alternatives to halon; Great Lakes Chemical Company’s FM 200 and Ansul’s Inergen. Other substances may be approved for very limited purposes.
- The General Services Administration’s fire engineering team, led by Don Bathurst. must write a regulation this year defining the term “equivalent level of fire protection,” as in, equivalent to the sprinklers required in the Federal Fire Safety Act, which passed last year.
The new law requires that the federal government install sprinklers in many ofe its facilities and much public housing. However, the law allows government agencies to rely on “equivalent” measures. The difficult task of defining “equivalent” measures fell to Bathurst, who chairs an advisory committee made up of other fire officials from a half-dozen agencies.
The new regulation, at one extreme, could end up as a loophole large enough for a hook and ladder, or it could demonstrate that — in terms of life safety—nothing is equivalent to sprinklers. My guess is that the new regulation will make sense from a fire protection engineering standpoint and will irritate folks on both sides of the sprinkler battle.
• Last, but certainly not least, are two Department of Labor regulatory issues that have volunteer firefighters in enough of an uproar that they encircled the (Capitol Building with emergency vehicles— lights flashing and sirens blaring—in a notso-silent protest late last year.
The first of these issues deals with the “coercion” rule in the Fair liibor Standards Act. The rule says that an employee may not volunteer to do his or her job for the same employer—that is, the employee must be paid for every hour worked. Fair enough. But, volunteer firefighters say they are a special case. Can paid firefighters working in a county seat volunteer as firefighters in their small towns 20 miles away? No, says the l.abor Department, if there is a countywide system in which the paid department is “closelyintegrated” with the small, independentlyincorporated all-volunteer departments around the county.
Issue number two deals with compensation. What is a volunteer? Federal law says that it is okay to receive a “nominal” fee for volunteering. But, what is “nominal,” and at what point is a department in violation of the minimum wage laws? The IX*partment of l.abor won’t say and—as a result — it may be impossible for a department to know if it is in violation.
lc*d by the National Volunteer Fire Council and a team of lawyers and volunteer fire officials from MontgomeryCounty. Maryland, a protest on these issues could truly bloom in 1994.
In so many ways, regulation —not legislation—is the insider’s game in Washington, D.C. My guess is, if Mr. Smith had known this one compelling truth, he never would have gone to Washington. Or, if he had gone and gotten mired down in some regulatory issue, you never would have sat through the movie.