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Federal rules could hinder local firefighting

March 31, 1998|By LISA GRAYBEAL

New federal regulations could put a damper on firefighters' favorite strategy for battling a building fire - the inside attack.

Under the rules, firefighters soon won't be able to enter a burning building unless an equal number of qualified people remain outside as backup.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known as OSHA, this year developed regulations that spell out the minimum number of firefighters who must be on hand, the physical condition they must be in, and the type of breathing apparatus they have to use.

"This is probably the single greatest impact on fire departments I've seen in 20 years," said Joseph Kroboth III, chief of the Volunteer Fire Company of Halfway and president of the fire chief's committee of the Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

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The regulations go into effect on April 8 and fire departments must be in compliance by Oct. 8.

Included in the new regulations is the so-called "two in/two out" provision, which states that when two firefighters are inside a burning building, two others must be outside to provide assistance or perform rescue operations if needed.

The fire truck driver and officer do not count as suitable backup, Kroboth said.

For the two in/two out rule to be waived, firefighters would have to have evidence - such as someone yelling from the window of a burning home - that a life-threatening situation exists, Kroboth said.

Violation of the regulation could subject a fire department to action by OSHA officials, Kroboth said.

The new regulations could force local fire departments with too few volunteers to drastically change their procedures to make sure enough firefighters are available to respond to fire calls, Kroboth said.

Fire departments in the area have always used the "buddy system," under which two firefighters go together into a burning building. Only one firefighter was required to be outside as a backup, he said.

Under the new regulations, if only three firefighters show up at a burning home, their only recourse would be to apply water from the outside.

"There are times there could be three firefighters standing there watching a building burn. They could put water on from the outside, but that's not as good as an interior fire attack," said Gary Hawbaker, chief of the Hagerstown Fire Department.

The two in/two out method has been standard procedure for Hagerstown departments for the past five months because officials knew the regulations would be going into effect soon, Hawbaker said.

The new standards also require firefighters to undergo thorough medical evaluations annually. A stress test to monitor cardiovascular and pulmonary systems is required.

"This thing will have a tremendous impact on the availability of firefighters in the county," Kroboth said.

He estimated 25 percent of volunteers in the county could fail the medical exams.

"We absolutely know we have people in our fire departments who probably won't pass the criteria," said Jay Grimes, president of Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

Medical evaluations could cost between $500 and $600 per person, an expense the fire departments must cover.

For Halfway's fire department, which has 45 people, medical evaluations would cost more than $20,000, Kroboth said.

OSHA's new respiratory protection guidelines state each firefighter must undergo tests to insure masks on the self-contained breathing apparatus fit properly.

That means most local fire companies will have to get rid of their "one size fits all" masks, Kroboth said.

The guidelines also state each breathing unit must have a "buddy breather" attachment, which would enable a firefighter to hook into another firefighter's respirator should one fail, he said.

Breathing unit upgrades would cost between $500 and $600 each, Kroboth said.

The association intends to ask the Washington County Commissioners for funding help to meet the requirements, Grimes said.

"This is a tremendous amount of money I don't think we're capable of handling," he said.

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