Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on March 1, 2016.

Helping Hands

Should the fire service consider a two-tiered approach to firefighter qualifications?


Do all firefighters need to be trained and certified for interior fire attack, or can some be limited to logistical support outside a structure during a fire?

That’s the central question in a discussion taking place among the members of the Technical Committee on Firefighter Professional Qualifications, which oversees NFPA 1001, Firefighter Professional Qualifications. A proposed revision for the 2018 edition of the standard would recognize a basic or support firefighter who is trained and certified but could only operate outside of a structure during a fire. This would be a departure from the long-held intent of the technical committee, which is that the requirements of NFPA 1001 call for all firefighters to have the ability to perform interior fire attack.

Since the first edition of the standard in 1974, NFPA 1001 has required that all firefighters serving on the fireground, regardless of the role they perform, be equally equipped, trained, and certified, and capable of engaging in interior fire attack. The rationale has been that firefighting is an intensive, high-risk endeavor where conditions can change in an instant, resulting in injury or worse to personnel. As a result, all firefighters assembled on the fireground should have the ability to assist or rescue their colleagues during an interior fire attack.

Achieving that level of certification requires attending anywhere from 100 to 300 (or more) hours of training, the length of which is determined by the authority having jurisdiction. Career firefighters are able to achieve this through their employment, but filling the vacancies while they’re receiving that training can place financial burdens on their fire departments—simply put, more hours, more cost. For on-call and volunteer firefighters, the hours needed to complete this training may come at the sacrifice of time spent at work, with family, or engaging in social activities. Recent media accounts have highlighted how some fire departments cite this sacrifice as a disincentive to people who might otherwise volunteer to serve their communities.

Some observers argue that having personnel dedicated to support roles during firefighting—driving apparatus, operating fire pumps, assisting in the exchange of self-contained breathing apparatus air bottles—is critical to a successful outcome. Media reports have illustrated how some fire departments have a small group of members restricted to operating fire apparatus. In many cases, these are firefighters who were unable to meet the criteria for interior fire attack, but are still able to provide essential firefighting functions.

This two-tiered approach to firefighter qualifications is also raising concerns. What is the risk to firefighters inside a burning building if their exterior support teams are not capable of entering the structure to assist or rescue them? Would this multi-layered approach to qualifications create divisions between those who provide interior fire attack and those restricted to exterior support activities?

The technical committee discussed the matter in January, and its action will be available for review and comment. Let us know what you think—does NFPA 1001 adequately address the needs of the fire service, or is it time to consider a two-tiered approach to firefighter qualifications? Visit the NFPA 1001 document information website and click on the Next Edition tab to find the action of the technical committee. Use the Create a Comment link to share your thoughts.

KEN WILLETTE is division manager for Public Fire Protection at NFPA. Top Photograph: IStockphoto