Federal high-visibility vest rule takes effect

Related Blog Post on The Kitchen Table: An Inconvenient Safety Measure

By Cristi Laquer
FireRescue1 Staff

Photo Cristi Laquer
A display at 3M in St. Paul, Minn., shows some of the variation in high-visibility garments for first responders.
A much-anticipated and wide-reaching change aimed at first responder safety takes effect Monday.

The Federal Highway Administration's Worker Visibility Rule (23CFR 634) now requires anyone — including firefighters, emergency medical workers and police — working on federal highways to wear vests that meet ANSI standards for high-visibility. But it also includes a change that exempts firefighters who are near flame, heat or hazardous materials.

Firefighters working on roadways outside the 'hot zone' are required to wear high-visibility vests.

An exception to the rule
The rule has stirred controversy in the fire service, primarily because most high-visibility vests are not flame resistant to NFPA standards.

The interim rule exempting the fire service, announced by the FHWA on Friday, is in response to concerns voiced by the fire service.

"The FHWA had received numerous comments from firefighters expressing safety concerns about the vests," according to Hari Kalla, team leader in the FHWA Office of Transportation Operations, which manages the updating and publishing of traffic rules.

Food for thought from
"Do you want to be the officer that tells a family that we lost their loved one because we wanted to be color-coordinated or because the vest was a pain to wear?"
Mick Mayers in An Inconvenient Safety Measure
The FHWA has worked with departments and national fire service organizations to publicize the rule, which was published in 2006, and give those affected a chance to comment.

"Based on the number of calls we have gotten, we think it's very well publicized," said Kalla, adding, "We're hoping to be able to continue to help people if they have questions or concerns."

Departments that buck the new rule may see financial repercussions. The FHWA has the authority to withhold funding from states that are found to be non-compliant with FHWA rules. Should a collision involving a firefighter occur, compliance also limits the risk of legal liability for departments.

Kalla is quick to stress that the objective of the rule is not to penalize departments.

"Most importantly, it's for worker safety," said Kalla.

Apparel available
Apparel manufacturers have been quick to respond to the new rule, with Lion Apparel last weekend introducing the first flame resistant vest that meets the visibility standards set out by the FHWA.

"If you do get into a hot situation, it's not going to melt like a lot of the vests," said Nick Curtis, vice president of global product development at Lion. He also said that many orders for the new vests had been cancelled following the FHWA's announcement of the exception for firefighters.

The vest, which can be worn over turnout gear, is designed for firefighters with pockets and a break-away system for easy doffing and rehab.

The company hopes it will provide a versatile option for firefighters working on roadways, despite the changed rule, according to Curtis.

"If there's an extended incident where visibility is required but turnouts aren't because there's not a known assessed risk of fire, then the vest could be worn without turnout," Curtis said. "The reason to have it be flame resistant is that anything could happen."

Related Resources:

 Read the interim final rule on firefighters: Federal Register (PDF)
 Visit the FHWA online: http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/

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