NFPA 1710 Staffing and Legal Mandates

Today’s burning question: Are there any Federal laws or requirements that mandate that fire departments comply with or meet NFPA 1710 staffing levels or response times?

Answer: There are no laws that I am aware of on a Federal or state level that directly mandate that  fire departments comply with NFPA 1710.  There are a few jurisdictions that have adopted 1710 on a local level through ordinances.

However, there are two back-door ways that non-compliance with NFPA 1710 can potentially become a legal problem for a fire department.

The first involves OSHA (which in the case of public entities means state OSHA), and the general duty requirement. OSHA places two important responsibilities on employers (with fire departments being employers). The first responsibility is to comply with all OSHA standards. The second is to provide a workplace that is free from “recognized hazards”. This second requirement is known as the general duty requirement.

An employer’s responsibility to meet the general duty requirement is in many ways more complicated than merely complying with OSHA standards. It requires an employer to look at its injury data and take steps to prevent the reoccurrence of preventable accidents. It also requires employers to be aware of industry-wide safety standards that are based on hazards that are recognized in the industry. If a given industry has recognized that certain practices create a hazard to employees, and have adopted safety standards to address those hazards, then violating those standards can be the basis for a general duty clause violation. As such, understaffing fire apparatus in violation of NFPA 1710 could be the basis for an OSHA general duty clause citation.

The second way that non-compliance with NFPA 1710 could become a legal problem has to do with negligence, and the standard of care. NFPA standards such as NFPA 1710 can be used as evidence of the applicable standard of care in a negligence suit. Of course, the reasonableness of the staffing and response times required by NFPA 1710 could be rebutted by expert witnesses, but just as easily they can be supported by expert witnesses as well. On balance, NFPA 1710 does provide an important objective measure of the standard of care that the reasonably prudent fire department would take.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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