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Fire service groups react to OSHA’s proposed updates to ‘Fire Brigades’ standard

A review of statements and resources from the USFA, NVFC, OSHA Training Institute Education and Firefighters Association of the State of New York

Two Firefighters watching a Fire

Dennis Laughlin/Getty Images

By FireRescue1 staff

In early 2024, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, indicating the intention to modernize the agency’s “Fire Brigades” standard (29 C.F.R. 1910.156), in an effort to “update an existing standard and expand safety and health protections for emergency responders, including firefighters, emergency medical service providers and technical search and rescue workers.”

The OSHA news release stated that the current standard’s protections for a narrow set of industrial and private firefighters have become outdated, as the standard was originally published in 1980:

“Currently, OSHA regulations protect emergency responders’ safety and health in a patchwork of decades-old, hazard-specific standards. Not designed as comprehensive emergency response standards, they fail to address the full range of job hazards faced by today’s emergency responders. The newly named ‘Emergency Response’ standard updates safety and health protections in line with national consensus standards for a broad range of workers exposed to hazards that arise during and after fires and other emergencies. The proposal will include major changes for protective clothing and equipment and significant improvements in safety and health practices that the industry generally accepts as standard procedures. … The proposed rule requires employers to obtain baseline medical screening for all emergency responders and ensure continued medical surveillance for responders when they are exposed to the byproducts of fires and explosions more than 15 times annually. The proposal also includes a variety of other requirements to better protect both workers whose primary job is emergency response and those whose emergency response duties are in addition to their regular daily work duties.”

Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker further stated: “Emergency responders are critical workers in all of our communities, and they deserve protections that keep up with today’s industry practices. We are proposing much-needed updates that will expand protections for emergency workers and bring our standards closer to common industry procedures.”

Several fire department organizations and associations are sharing information and position statements related to the proposed changes. Additionally, firefighters can share their opinions about the proposed changes on the Federal Register site through July 22.

U.S. Fire Administration

The U.S. Fire Administration’s January InfoGram offered additional information about the proposed changes, including the fact that OSHA estimates that approximately 1 million emergency response workers would fall into the scope of the proposed rule, and that approximately 300,000 volunteer responders would fall within the scope of this proposed rule.

“Notably, OSHA’s proposed standard would bring OSHA 1910.156 into alignment with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Response Framework and the National Incident Management System (NIMS). It would modernize the standard to align with the current industry consensus standards issued by the National Fire Protection Association on the safe conduct of emergency response activities. The proposal includes major changes for protective clothing and equipment and significant improvements in safety and health practices that the industry generally accepts as standard procedures. OSHA notes that the proposed rule is a ‘performance-based’ standard, providing flexibility for affected employers to establish the specific criteria that best suits their organization. OSHA intends the performance-based nature of the proposed rule to be beneficial to small and volunteer organizations with limited resources.”

National Fire Academy Superintendent Eriks Gabliks and OSHA’s Director of Standards and Guidance, Andrew Levinson, discussed the history of the Fire Brigades standard and proposed Emergency Response standard, and Levinson explains the process for submitting comments and proposed timeline. Watch here:

National Volunteer Fire Council

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) released a statement in March indicating that the proposed changes present challenges to fire departments: “This proposed updated standard would issue hundreds of new requirements that may be very burdensome, and in many cases impossible, for volunteer fire departments to comply with. The NVFC encourages volunteer departments and associations to submit comments on this proposed rule and request a public hearing so OSHA can have the best possible understanding of how this proposed rule would impact volunteer departments.”

Additionally, on June 12, the NVFC will hold a nationwide Day of Action, encouraging fire and EMS personnel to review the proposed standard, understand the potential impact on their community, and prepare their comments to OSHA. Special virtual events will take place throughout the day to help answer questions:

  • 10-11 a.m. ET – Live Q&A on Facebook with David Denniston, chair of the NVFC’s OSHA Task Force
  • 1-2 p.m. ET – Office Hours on Zoom with Ryan Woodward, NVFC’s chief of legislative and regulatory affairs
  • Virtual comment-writing group throughout the day on the NVFC’s member platform, Volunteer Voices

Review a summary of the proposed changes prepared by NVFC.

OSHA Training Institute Education Center, Keene State College

OSHA Training Institute Education Center, Region 1, which is authorized by OSHA to provide safety and health training to improve safety culture and performance in the workplace, offered a webinar on the proposed standards changes featuring Chip Darius, an instructor with the Center; Ken Willette, the executive director of the North America Fire Training Directors; and George Simmons IV, the general manager and co-founder of Industrial Safety and Rescue.

The webinar description notes: “Over two dozen consensus standards are being incorporated into the proposed rule. From new firefighting and PPE requirements, to EMS, to technical search and rescue, this rule change dramatically affects emergency response operations for private employers -- and for municipal emergency services in states with state OSHA plans.”

View the webinar here.

Firefighters Association of the State of New York (FASNY)

The Firefighters Association of the State of New York (FASNY) represents the interests of the approximately 80,000 volunteer firefighters in New York State. 

On Feb. 29, FASNY President Edward Tase, Jr., released a statement to members with his strong reservations about the proposed changes, noting that the new standard, if approved, “will dramatically change the face of the fire service in New York and across the nation”:

“While the goal of the new rule is to further protect the safety of emergency responders, it was crafted in a vacuum and does not reflect the challenges that emergency response agencies face in the real world. While the fire service fully agrees that responder safety is of paramount importance, that goal must be balanced with the abilities and resources of the agencies responsible for those individuals. After careful review, it is apparent that many of the changes and new requirements will negatively impact already struggling response agencies. In fact, the new standard could hamper recruitment and retention efforts and even cause many current firefighters to leave the service. Despite its bureaucratic ‘good intentions’, this new rule could actually decrease firefighter health and safety.”

The statement goes on to question the reliability of some of the data and theories used to produce the proposal; underscore the costliness of implementing several changes; and highlight the impact of integrating several NFPA standards, specifically that anyplace the NFPA standard says “shall” or “must,” the AHJ would be responsible to adhere to them.

“Our concern here is not merely that they are unfunded mandates. It is the fact that it will place increased liability on organizations especially if they suffer a firefighter injury or death,” Tase says. “The unattainable nature of this proposed standard virtually ensures fines and litigation at a level we have never seen.”

Fire service leaders and firefighters from across the state and the nation are gathering in Syracuse on June 12 for the FIRE2024 conference, hosted by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, where FASNY representatives, along with other state fire service associations and local government officials, plan to express their concerns about the proposed changes.

According to the FASNY media advisory, “If OSHA moves forward with these regulations, communities will have to make some tough decisions: close the doors of the volunteer fire departments; increase taxes to try to comply with the new rules; or operate outside of the new federal standard – leaving themselves open to fines, citations, and civil liability exposure should an injury or death occur.”

International Association of Fire Fighters

Hear from IAFF staff on the ERS, how to submit your own comments, and the importance of health and safety standards.

Has your organization released a statement about the proposed changes? Email