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OSHA Proposes New Emergency Response Standard for Fire Brigades that Creates Potential Unfunded Mandates

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is proposing a rule to modernize protections for emergency response workers, who often face substantial occupational hazards. This long-developed proposal, officially published in the Federal Register on February 5, 2024, though laudable in its intent, poses potential challenges for local fire organizations and local governments if implemented in its current form.

OSHA’s current Fire Brigades standard, 29 CFR 1910.156, provides protection specifically to industrial or private firefighters but no other types of emergency responders. It was published in 1980 and has not been updated with subsequent improvements in personal protective clothing and equipment or advances in safety and health practices. OSHA proposes to replace the existing 29 CFR 1910.156 with the new Emergency Response standard. By expanding on existing standards and potentially applying them to volunteer firefighters, OSHA could impose additional burdens on local governments already struggling to recruit and retain salaried and volunteer firefighters to provide fire protection to their communities. This is especially true of Virginia, where approximately 71% of firefighters are volunteers. The National Volunteer Fire Council elaborates on potential impacts to volunteer fire departments further here.

According to groups like the National League of Cities, recent discussions surrounding the proposed Emergency Response Standard have shed light on significant financial challenges facing local fire departments. These include but are not limited to: potential increases in training and certification requirements for firefighters and officers, additional administrative tasks and documentation requirements, the need to budget for the purchase, maintenance, and replacement of firefighting apparatus, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and communication systems, infrastructure upgrades or modifications to fire department facilities, and additional liability and compliance issues.

As previously reported, local governments across the Commonwealth are struggling to maintain necessary fire services in a time of increased call volume, level state funding, and declining volunteerism. If the proposed rule goes through in its current form, it will pose yet one more challenge to local governments in the form of an unfunded mandate.

The public comment period is open until July 22. VACo intends to submit public comments and will share these with our members. However, if you wish to submit your own public comments, you may do so here.

VACo Contact: Jeremy R. Bennett

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