Fire rules may affect volunteers


Published: Monday, January 20, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 19, 2003 at 11:39 p.m.
OCALA - Dave Casey's job titles at the Florida Fire College are "superintendent" and "bureau chief of fire standards and training," but lately it might be more appropriate to call him the "quasher of rumors."
Most of the phone calls and e-mails Casey has been getting this winter involve inaccurate stories about what it will cost in time and money for volunteer firefighters to meet new state minimum training standards this year.
"I don't know how some of these stories have gotten started," Casey said, "but we try to put a stop to them as soon as we can."
The rumors center around how the new Florida Firefighter Occupational Health and Safety Act will affect current and future volunteers.
"What's really in the law is that firefighters be trained before they respond to a fire," Casey said. "The standards are that they be trained commensurate with those duties and functions that they are expected to perform, before they are expected to perform those emergency activities."
To meet that requirement, the State Fire Marshal's Office has proposed adopting the standard set by the National Fire Protection Association; the standard requires 160 hours of training for someone to be designated a minimally trained firefighter able to work safely under direct supervision.
"That is what is getting some people upset," Casey said. "They think that every volunteer will have to go back for the 160 hours of training, and that is just not true.
"Volunteers with the equivalent training do not have to take it over again. Instead we want them to document the training they have already had."
In even some of the smallest departments in the region - like in Gulf Hammock, with its two qualified firefighters and three trainees, and neighboring Otter Creek, with three qualified firefighters and five trainees - volunteers said the new requirement is not an overwhelming obstacle.
Previously volunteers were required to complete only 40 hours of training as a minimum for certification.
"You have to ask yourself, 'Do I want to be standing next to someone with 40 hours of training or next to someone with 160 hours of training when I am going into a mobile home fire?' " said Otter Creek volunteer chief Victor Scott. "Training is something that we do once a week and the hours add up in a hurry."
On a recent chilly evening, Scott arranged for the two departments to train together on how to find and remove unconscious victims from a smoke-filled garage, a scenario similar to those used in career and volunteer departments nationwide.
Within minutes, the crew had found both of the filled duffle bags used to simulate bodies on the floor. The group then headed into the Town Hall to critique their exercise.
"Because we have a certified training officer here, everybody who participated can get credit for these training hours," Scott said.
Casey said the ongoing training offered by volunteer departments is something that is being taken into account.
"We want to make the accreditation process as accessible as possible and keep it credible. What we are working on is that if a certified instructor signs off on someone as having the knowledge, that person wouldn't even have to show the prior training paperwork," Casey said.
The Fire College is also looking at places where experienced volunteers would be willing to take the state-mandated instructor courses to make it even easier for them to quickly accumulate training hours.
The president of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association, Bob Pudney, has been a participant in the rule-making process and said the statewide minimum training standard is important.
"There are more volunteer personnel and departments statewide than there are career departments and personnel," Pudney said. "While a majority of the state's population is protected by career personnel, more of the land in the state is protected by volunteers."
Pudney, who has been a firefighter for 28 years and involved with statewide fire issues for the past 15, said the Plantation department where he is chief includes career and volunteer firefighters.
"What is going on here for the volunteers is what happened for the career firefighters 25 years ago," Pudney said. "For instance, I took a 200-hour course to become a career firefighter and today the course is 360 hours long.
"I was never called back, and thousands of others were never called back for more training when the standard changed. I don't expect longtime volunteers to be called back either."
A stumbling block to getting correct information to statewide volunteer departments is that there is no comprehensive list of those departments, Casey said. His office is trying to remedy that.
"Statewide, when we started establishing the Domestic Security Task Forces, we could only find 6,000 firefighters, and that is maybe a third of all of them out there," Casey said. "What happens is that we tried to communicate with the volunteers about these changes and we didn't have a good way to do it."
The Fire College has set up an e-mail list for volunteers who sign in on the school's Web site at www.fsfc.ufl.edu.
"We want to encourage volunteers to go to that Web site and let us know about their department, and to take a look at the news and public comments and proposed rules," Casey said. "The volunteer firefighters are important to the entire state, and we need to make sure everybody has the same basic information."
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or karen.voyles@gvillesun.com.

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