A LESSON IN POLITICS
The shadow of the proposed staffing-level addition to NFPA 1500 hangs over us still. Although the New Orleans vote “resolved” this heated issue at least temporarily, the politics continue.
As early as March, calls for reconstitution of the NFPA 1500 technical committee were registered with the NFPA Standards Council by at least two committee members and one major fire service group. Some charged that politics had rendered the committee dysfunctional.
The NFPA Standards Council apparently agreed with this assessment. As NFPA 1500 technical committee members convened in San Diego in July, they were notified of the Council’s decision to reconstitute, meaning that all members had to reapply for appointment.
Karly in October, the Standards Council removed seven members from the committee. The group included three career fire department safety officers, a career lieutenant, and a career chief of department. These individuals had two things in common: All were active committee members and all were in favor of the proposed minimum staffing language.
Soon after, Chief Alan V. Brunacini of the Phoenix Fire Department resigned his position as chairman of the NFPA 1500 technical committee. He was the driving force behind this critical fire service document.
And now there are questions about the committee’s future. “The committee has lost continuity now,” comments Chief Stephen N. Foley of the Longmeadow (MA) Fire Department, an ex-officio member of the 1500 committee. “None of the subcommittee or task group chairpersons were reappointed. None of the fire department safety officers were reappointed. I wonder if the new committee will have the teeth.”
“Though 1500 has been controversial, it has had a positive effect on firefighter injury and death rates, and I’d hate to see that die,” says Murrey E. Loflin, safety officer for the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, ex-officio member and secretary of the 1500 committee.
“There are many new elements to the 1500 standard,” says I.t. William J. Cesareo of the Wilton (CT) Fire Department, another ex-officio committee member, “and I’m not sure the new appointees will be able to answer the intent of the new language, since they didn’t experience the internal process we used to get there.”
“We had a fantastic committee that worked well together.” says Angelo Catalano, commissioner of the Bellmore (NY) Fire District and 15(H) committee representative of the Association of Fire Districts of New York. “I’m very disappointed in the way this was done. 1 don’t think the committee will be as effective without those people; 1 don’t think the attitude of the committee will be the same. The biggest blow is losing Alan Brunacini.”
And there are questions and opinions about the intent behind committee reconstitution and the methods and criteria used to accomplish it.
“I received notification from the Standards Council that I would not be reappointed because I don’t represent an organization and that all members of the committee are organizational representatives,’” says Neil Rossman, a Massachusetts attorney who for several years provided legal counsel to the committee.
“The NFPA wanted to review the balance of the committee, and 1 agree that the committee should be better balanced. But I have no problem with individual committee members who vote without allegiance to specific organizations,” comments Philip C. Stittleburg, chief of the LaFarge (WI) Fire Department and representative of the National Volunteer Fire Council.
“I suspect that it was political,” states Robert D. Tutterow, safety officer of the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and exofficio committee member. “They’ve neutered the committee. We were moving too fast, too far for some, and some groups lobbied to take the purist out of the committee.”
“The committee always worked well together. There was always a way to reach a compromise. But after what went on [with the staffing issue] I don’t see how the committee could continue to operate,” says Ned Carter, commissioner of the Oceanside (NY) Fire District and president of the Association of Fire Districts of New York.
“The committee had become dysfunctional, polarized. The issue became too personal. The lines were drawn and crossed,” says Garry L. Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “There were far more committee labor votes as a block.”
“Anyone on the committee who was supportive of the staffing proposal was considered to be an IAFF representative, and that’s not the case,” says an official spokesperson of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “Our locals have autonomy under our constitution and by-laws.”
“The whole situation was mishandled by the NFPA, and the losers are those who use the standard,” comments Firefighter Don R. Forrest, secretary of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, California, who served as committee vice chairman but who as of this writing has not been contacted by the NFPA since the reconstitution. “The NFPA clearly had a difference of opinion with the union’s position. NFPA’s dismantling of the committee looks like they said, ‘Anyone who’s on the other side of the fence, if you disagree, you’re out.’ This purge sends a message to the next group: ‘Pay attention and tow the party line, or you’ll be axed, too.’ ”
“The reconstitution is appropriate,” says A.W. Conners, chief of the Grand Rapids (MI) Fire Department and former IAFC representative to the committee. “We went from a tremendous level of cooperation to an adversarial situation that would have precluded possible improvements to firefighter safety. We had a super team that deteriorated when the staffing issue was pushed so hard. But I have faith in the NFPA consensus standards-making process.”
Some point out that the reconstitution solution will not make the issue go away.
“Even with reconstituting, the issue will still be there,” says Chief Scott D. Kerwood of the Sni Valley (MO) Fire Protection District and former safety officer of the Tulsa (OK) FireDepartment, another committee member who was not reinstated. “I don’t like to see people running from tough issues, and reconstituting the committee won’t make it go away.”
So now we’ve had healthy dialogue, personal attacks, bruised egos, floor fights, and propaganda campaigns. We’ve had, some allege, overt political pressure brought to bear on committee members. We’ve had, it has been suggested, a situation in which the combination of committee complexion and staffing controversy spelled litigation problems for the NFPA down the road. And now we have intervention by the NFPA to defuse a fire service debate that must have appeared to the Standards Council to be one that needed its strong hand.
That was too strong for Brunacini, however, who was not consulted by the NFPA on committee reconstitution.
“The staffing issue was the most controversial we had ever dealt with,” he says, “but we wanted to use the system to resolve the issue. The process became political. I found myself in a position that was untenable. When you fall out of love with a labor of love, you do something else.”
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He continues, “The safety of firefighters was always the focus of the committee. We had people who worked together for years toward a common goal. When we got together, there was no difference between big cities or little cities….When you say, ‘We’re going to reconstitute you with people who are politically acceptable,’ you end up neutering the committee.”
But Brunacini remains upbeat and is quick to identify what 1 believe is the resounding lesson tor the fire service in all this mess. It is not about being for or against reconstitution, which seems largely a matter of opinion; rather, it’s about an issue that’s far bigger than individual players on the standards-making field.
Brunacini says, “We need to define and take control of our own future. Codes and standards are one of the ways to define accepted good practice. We lost a little bit of the process. Fire service fragmentation makes it difficult for us to coalesce on different issues. The fire service then becomes a distraction to those outside it—an enormous confusion to the Standards Council.
“We have a different sociology. When they see us struggle with each other, we look like a bunch of wackos. We understand that, but those outside don’t. Things get complicated when we fuse that tension with the standards-making process, and a lot of that is our own fault. It’s time for us to shine up our image and represent our best interests.”
Amen. When we infuse divisive politics into the process by which we pursue increased firefighter safety, everybody loses.