"We drove like we were crazy"
From fireground command to PPE to daredevil driving practices, firefighting in decades past was a proud and grimy fraternity with few rules or established procedures—and an alarming number of firefighter deaths and injuries. With the adoption of NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, in 1987, however, all that began to change. Thirty years later, NFPA Journal surveys some of the key architects of the standard to recount its story so far: its creation, controversies, and lasting impact.
BY JESSE ROMAN
IN MAY 1987, NFPA MEMBERS formally voted to accept NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, the first comprehensive national standard addressing the health, safety, and well-being of members of the fire service. Never before in its 200-year history had the nation’s fire service been given such a comprehensive set of minimum requirements to keep its members safe—an amazing fact, considering the profession’s danger and the numbers of firefighters who had been killed or injured on the job.
NFPA Journal Podcast: Riding the tailboards - an NFPA 1500 oral history
The new document addressed requirements for a wide range of safety topics, from equipment and training to fire apparatus, professional qualifications, medical exams, and the development of health records, safety committees, and best practices. For the first time, fire trucks were required to have safety belts, and firefighters were required to ride inside the truck. Fire engine drivers would be given rules and training. Firefighters would get medical exams. Equipment would have to be tested to ensure it met a minimum level of safety. Firefighters would be required to use breathing apparatus, and departments would have to keep health records and investigate and record incidents and accidents.
Photograph: Getty Images
The suggestions seem obvious today, but 30 years ago many considered them to be radical. The document’s technical committee was swamped with public comments, at the time the most ever received by an NFPA document. Some predicted doom and proclaimed its passage would lead to the end of the American fire service. Others hailed the document as a long-overdue attempt to address the service’s poor safety record. Everyone acknowledged it was, at the very least, a bold disruption of the status quo.
The document’s impact has been dramatic. In the three decades since NFPA 1500 was created, average annual firefighter line-of-duty deaths have been slashed nearly 40 percent as the overall number of response calls has more than tripled. Firefighter injuries are down about 30 percent. Meanwhile, equipment, apparatus, procedures, incident command, fireground operations, and more have all developed with firefighter safety in mind. It's all part of what Dr. Denis Onieal, deputy administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration, has termed “the fire service's evolution from a calling to an occupation to a profession.”
The real legacy of NFPA 1500 has been to “cause a cultural shift in the fire service—it caused the fire service for the first time to focus on health and safety, and over a period of years it has had an effect,” said J. Gordon Routley, division chief for the Montreal Fire Department as well as a longtime firefighter in Phoenix and an original NFPA 1500 technical committee member. “We went from an attitude of, ‘This is a dangerous business and we have to accept the risks,’ to saying, ‘It is a dangerous business but we have to go about it as safely as humanly possible.’ I think that culture of safety is there now; it is still evolving, but it’s firmly planted. You can’t go back from it.”
NFPA Journal spoke in depth with Routley and many of the others responsible for crafting the first version of NFPA 1500, as well as some early adopters and longtime firefighters whose profession the document profoundly changed. They reflected on their fire service careers prior to NFPA 1500 and on the creation, reaction to, and legacy of this seminal fire service health and safety standard.
"Depending on who the officer was, you might hear, 'Don't even bother grabbing that SCBA—that's not how we fight fire around here.'" - Scott Kerwood Photograph: Getty Images
The 1960s and 1970s: The Cowboy Approach
“On-scene operation involved a lot of freelance. It was almost a free for all in how we approached fire. Nobody had any accountability. Described roles and coordination were pretty new.”
— Alan Brunacini, former chief of Phoenix Fire Department, original chair of NFPA 1500 technical committee
“It was a cowboy approach to firefighting.”
—J. Gordon Routley, division chief with the Montreal Fire Department, former assistant to the fire chief in Phoenix, and original member of the NFPA 1500 technical committee.
“We wore whatever PPE came in as the lowest bid…You’d see fiberglass helmets with no inserts or shock protection, plastic gloves that would melt on your hands, non-fire-protective pants, maybe two pieces of breathing apparatus for an on-duty crew of six to eight firefighters. Training was minimal and handed down, with no defined knowledge of what we should know.”
—Ken Willette, former fire chief in Concord, Massachusetts, currently first responder segment director at NFPA
“Depending on who the officer was, you might hear, ‘Don’t even bother grabbing that SCBA—that’s not how we fight fire around here.’”
—Scott Kerwood, current fire chief of the Hutto (Texas) Fire Rescue, who joined the NFPA 1500 technical committee in 1988
“We all had trucks with open cabs, no seat belts, riding on back steps or tailboards. I can remember driving down the road in the pouring rain, and there would be more water inside the truck than outside. Or driving when it was snowing, you’d just hunker down to get away from the biting cold.”—K.W.
“We drove like we were crazy.”—A.B.
“The first firefighter funeral I went to was in Easthampton, Massachusetts, for a firefighter who fell off of a truck while responding. A little later I went to the funeral of a firefighter who died when a brick façade collapsed on his head—he was wearing an aluminum helmet with no shock protection. As a young firefighter, it didn’t cross my mind that those deaths were unnecessary.”—K.W.
“All that said, there was a bit of glamor and romance to it. After a call, you’d take your turnout gear off and throw it into the truck, step on the back, grab hold with one hand and take off. For a young firefighter there was a certain thrill, a certain coolness about it.”—K.W
“Part of the drama of being a firefighter is risking your life, and we still do.”—A.B.
Early rumblings of change
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, things began to shift. While still uncommon, some fire departments across the country began hiring safety officers and creating safety programs. There was a quiet but growing sense that fire departments needed to take more accountability in protecting their employees.
“I think there started to be a general recognition in the fire service in the 1980s that we were injuring and killing way too many firefighters.”
—Phil Stittleburg, Chief of the La Farge (Wisconsin) Fire Department, member of the NFPA 1500 technical committee starting in 1988, and former chair of the NFPA Board of Directors
“By the ’80s, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) been around for a while, but it was culturally difficult to get firefighters to use it … It was all pretty suicidal.”
“I was always concerned, baffled, and agitated at some of the dumb things we did that hurt firefighters. I guess I developed a concern about safety and welfare in our organization and how we did things on the fireground. To be kind, it was not very well organized.”—A.B.
“We were seeing annual firefighter line-of-duty death numbers in the 120s to 140s back then. A lot of them we knew were preventable but it was just the accepted way of doing business.”
“Leading a fire department in a rapidly growing city like Phoenix created a lot of opportunity to do things differently. We started making a lot of changes in the 10 to 15 years before the development of NFPA 1500. A lot what we did in the standard was a reflection of what we’d done here in Phoenix…we were seen as a group of revolutionary wacko safety nuts in the fire service.”—A.B.
“I was assistant fire chief in Phoenix at the time, serving under Chief Brunacini, so I was one of the safety zealots. We had a reputation for this avant-garde approach to safety.” —J.G.R.
“Those early safety adopters out in the desert, their voices grew louder and louder, and more people started saying we need to address this on a national level.” — K.W.
“We realized the ideal process for accomplishing that was the codes and standards structure of NFPA. That is a place you can identify those things we can do differently and connect it to a system that gives it feet—structure it, distribute it, inform people of it, and settle some of these internal conflicts.” —A.B.
“The development of the standard was an effort to plant a flag as far as getting serious about health and safety in the fire service.” —J.G.R.
In 1983, amid a growing chorus of concerns and persistence of those passionate about safety, NFPA assembled a technical committee to spearhead the development of a new standard aimed at developing minimum occupational health and safety requirements for the fire service. The first committee consisted of 19 members and four alternates.
“It wasn’t a bunch consultants who wrote this, it was a bunch of sweat hogs who got together. We were the people who had to live standards we created.” —A.B.
“I was married on Saturday, and on Sunday I was off to Phoenix for our first committee meeting.”
—Murrey Loflin, firefighter and researcher at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and original member of the NFPA 1500 technical committee
Click to expand
“It was a great group of people. You had thoughtful people, creative people, people who were very bombastic, some very quiet. They were all there because they wanted to make the fire service safer and I think that is what kept us going.” —A.B.
“It was kind of like making sausage. The ideas flowed, and it was my job to capture all the ideas in the room make sense of them, provide structure, and come back and say ‘here’s what we got out of the last meeting.’” —J.G.R.
“Anybody who ever worked with Chief Bruno knows he is a man with vision. He had crystal-clear vision of what needed to happen to improve safety for firefighters and got us moving in the direction.” —M.L.
“People were yelling, screaming, disagreeing. That enthusiasm never upset me—I think that’s the way you resolve things and do new stuff. These were not just physical changes we were proposing, they were cultural changes.” —A.B.
“There was huge pressure on us. At the time I was also chair of the health and safety committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and there was a lot of anxiety at IAFC about the NFPA 1500 project going in too radical a direction. That was like being between a rock and a hard place. I was in the middle of a lot of flack. I think everyone on the committee was. —J.G.R.
“Regardless of the organization you represent, everyone realized the importance of what we were trying to do because it had never been done before.” —M.L.
“When the time came, we got something like 1,200 to 1,400 public comments on the document, which was absolutely unheard of in the NFPA standards making process.” —M.L.
“It was a huge job boiling all the comments down. Some brought out things that we didn’t think of in our approach, and the process did improve the document. —J.G.R.
“When it was time to vote on the final document at annual meeting there was a lot of discussion and people testifying, but as I remember it passed easily. It was the kind of thing that was hard to vote against. For someone to stand up at a meeting and object to the notion that you ought to wear respiratory gear and a seat belt, even if you have strong opinions about it, it’s not the kind of issue people take on in public.” — A.B.
A standard is born
Passage of the document didn’t mean that some in the fire service weren’t enraged by the presence of NFPA 1500. Before, during, and after the vote, the controversy continued. Many people in the fire service loudly voiced their displeasure and predicted doom as a result of the new standard.
“NFPA 1500 was a lightning rod. It raised the discussion to a national level. —K.W.
“People were shocked. Their thinking was, ‘A group of idiots got together in a hotel room and now they’re telling us we can’t do this or that any longer.’ We were violating a lot of traditional practices in the fire service that had been there for 200 years.” —A.B.
“I can’t tell you how many people told us this would be the end of the American fire service, that they wouldn’t be able to do business if NFPA 1500 was adopted.” —J.G.R.
“One of the biggest concerns was what the financial impact would be. Along with that was the concern that non-compliance could lead to liability, that departments would be sued constantly by the public if they didn’t meet every part of NFPA 1500.” —P.S.
“There was concern about if NFPA 1500 might impact operations or prevent us from doing our job and saving lives. The answer was obviously no.” —K.W.
“There was a requirement for departments to maintain a confidential health database, and there was a great deal of concern about how confidential it would actually be, especially in small departments.” —P.S.
“I was very well qualified to do this. I was a change agent in Phoenix for 20 years before NFPA 1500, and I had stood up in front of people for 20 years defending these approaches. As a chief, I was used getting up in morning and by 6 a.m. having 20 guys screaming at me. I had some preconditioning and training for it.”
The final standard said that authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) were responsible for determining a phase-in schedule for departments to adopt the new provisions. Ultimately, the new standard was adopted sporadically and in pieces across the nation. Some departments moved swiftly to incorporate NFPA 1500, while others resisted.
Reception to the new NFPA 1500 varied widely, from departments that embraced it to those who regarded it as a fire service threat. Photograph: Getty Images
“When you’re going from having no concept of safety to a safety zealot’s approach to safety, you don’t do that in one step, you bite off pieces and take it one at a time. I think our goal was for departments to get it all done in a reasonable time. I think that’s what’s happened over 29 and a half years. Things that were once thought of as extremely radical back then are now common practice.” —J.G.R.
“I’d say within eight to 10 years most fire departments had incorporated many elements of NFPA 1500. The changes we made were long overdue, and that helped this move along pretty quickly.” —A.B.
“As a safety officer in Tulsa, when NFPA 1500 came out this was my document to work with, and it made my job easier—it validated my job. But I would run into resistance. I got a lot of ‘Oh, it’s the safety guy again, why is he on my fire scene?,’ or ‘What do you mean I have to use my SCBA?,’ or ‘We’ve been doing it this way forever, just let us do our jobs.’” —S.K.
“The departments that adopted NFPA 1500 early became the models—they expressed the art of the possible. Other people see it and say, ‘Hell, I can do that.’ It turns out you can ride on the inside of a truck just as easy as on the outside. It sounds stupid to even say that, but that was a huge change for us. A lot of people went to fully enclosed cabs and life went on.” —A.B.
“After NFPA 1500 came out, many firefighter unions used it in collective bargaining negotiations to make sure that the equipment the department purchased met NFPA guidelines. I still remember being part of our bargaining committee that got language in the agreement, so going forward the chief would have to consider NFPA-compliant equipment and couldn’t dismiss it because it cost more.” —K.W.
“People said we would go to hell in a hand basket, then you saw somebody who made those changes and they didn’t go to hell, and they couldn’t find a hand basket. In fact, they were doing a lot better. They weren’t killing themselves, and they were a lot healthier.” —A.B.
A cultural shift, and new challenges
“In the 30 years since NFPA 1500 came out, there has been an entire cultural shift, so much so that the kids today think that the way we do it is the way it’s always been, and that’s really a good thing.” —S.K.
“Operationally almost everything we do today has something to do with NFPA 1500. It has affected practices, systems, procedures, and technologies.” —A.B.
“So many things in NFPA 1500 are just common practice now—fully enclosed cabs and seat belts in trucks. Having a structural approach to incident command and not trying to do things unless you have enough people to do it safely. Insisting that people have appropriate levels of training for things they’re expected to do. Using breathing apparatus all the time. Routine medical exams. Making sure people are medically and physically fit to do the job.” —J.G.R.
“When I got involved with NFPA 1500, if it was mentioned anywhere in a fire station or around fire chiefs it was, ‘don’t talk about that document, it’s going to break the fire service.’ Now it’s ‘of course we meet NFPA 1500, it’s the right thing do. Of course we protect our people and make sure they have the right PPE.” —S.K.
The work to refine and update the standard continues. The 2017 edition of NFPA 1500, the document’s seventh edition, will be released later this year.
“From its inception, NFPA 1500 has continued to evolve and grow. Who would have thought that today the standard would need sections on responding to active shooter events, or exposure to pandemics?” —K.W.
“The issue jumping out today is the firefighter cancer issue. We have to change our way of doing business to reduce our cancer exposure.” —J.G.R.
“We are addressing the cancer issue now in NFPA 1500, talking about making sure decontamination is done on the scene of the fire before you get back to the station. You’re going to see changes in technology, in PPE, even in apparatus.” —S.K.
“We always prided ourselves in being dirty, but we need to clean our clothing and keep it clean. Those are the radical crazy ideas coming out today.” —J.G.R.
“Behavioral health is also an area where I think changes to NFPA 1500 can have the most change across the response community. It is such an under-acknowledged problem right now.”
—John Montes, longtime Boston paramedic and NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 1500
“This last edition we started looking at professional development, which is very important. You don’t want to promote a firefighter on a Friday, and on Monday he’s wearing a white shirt and you’ve given him nothing for the hard drive upstairs. We’ve got to make sure that happens.” —M.L.
“Another big issue is the use, application, and sensible implementation of technology. How do we use it in a practical way that makes humans safer and more effective?” —A.B.
“There’s no doubt that we are light years ahead of where we were, but there is still a long way to go—we are still killing almost 100 firefighters per year and we’re still seeing unacceptable levels of injuries. The generation coming into the fire service now will be able to push it to an even higher level.” —S.K.
“We’ll never be done. The more you learn, the more you learn what you don’t know. We need to keep being students, thinking, reading, writing, and listening.” —A.B.