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Written By The Mountain Eagle on 7/3/24 | 7/3/24

By Michael Ryan

CATSKILL - The routine was disrupted when Greene County Legislature members got the monthly report of county Emergency Services director John Farrell during a Public Safety committee meeting, last week.

Farrell shared the usual numbers from his agency, noting there were 554 ambulance calls in May along with 163 fire calls and 1464 police calls as well as one Fire Investigation Team summons.

Suddenly shifting gears, Farrell gave attention to new standards possibly being enacted by the federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) that are stirring controversy.

Lawmakers were not exactly surprised by the shift from the mundane, having been informed ahead of time by Farrell he was coming, and preparing a resolution in opposition to some of the OSHA moves.

“Last week, I sent a power point out to all legislators which spells out all proposal regulations,” Farrell said, providing a bit of background.

“There is no question [the current regulations] are outdated and lag behind. After 9/11 [in 2001], it was suggested to the OSHA board to start reviewing those regulations. 

“Twenty years later, in December, 2023, the OSHA board put these new regulations out for a public comment period of 90 days,” Farrell said.

“Once agencies such as the National Volunteer Fire Council were aware of these proposals, communications to [firefighting organizations in all States] started to work together.

“Yesterday morning (on June 4) the House Homeland Security Sub- Committee on Emergency Management and Technology held a hearing,” Farrell said.

The hearing included representatives from the National Volunteer Fire Council, New York State Firefighting Associations and the International Association of Firefighters. 

“This was the first time they met at the same table,” Farrell said, on behalf of all volunteer firefighter and professional firefighter levels. 

Dave Denniston represented the combined State fire groups, focusing on his own small fire district, noting their annual budget is $280,000.

“With all the changes in those new [OSHA] regulations, his budget would increase 42 percent,” Farrell said. 

“[Dennison] mentions his rural community covers a population of 2500,” Farrell said, not dissimilar to many Greene County fire districts.

“Our volunteers are our first line of defense,” Farrell said. “How are they going to survive? Taxpayers can’t afford this increase.”

Distant rumblings are being heard about the ultimate survivability of volunteer firefighting, not unlike the potential extinction of volunteer ambulance services, steadily going toward fully paid employees.

The very real fiscal and regulatory bottom line is, “there is a gap between the volunteer and professional firefighters,” Farrell said.

“The OSHA Board needs to understand the vast differences in departments and most importantly, the makeup of our rural fire service throughout the United States.”

While nothing is certain “they are listening,” Farrell said, noting the OSHA Board has forwarded the public comment period to July 22, allowing additional time for rural agencies to bolster their collective stance.

In a subsequent phone interview, Farrell said, “volunteer fire services are not opposed to updates. We all know we need more training and better equipment, but maybe down the road.”

Acknowledging that consolidation of smaller departments is likely the wave of the future, Farrell said, “we need to have a voice at the table,” urging firefighters and citizens to add their voices to that cause.

The Greene County legislative resolution seeks to:

—Ensure equitable and substantive representation of volunteer firefighters in the proposal process, proportionate to their significant contribution to emergency services nationwide (representing 65 percent of firefighters).

—Simplify and expedite the incorporation of referenced standards (22 in total) into the proposed standard  to enhance clarity, accessibility and comprehension across the diverse emergency response landscape.

—Reevaluate the intended audience and scope of the standard to accommodate the varying regulatory frameworks and classifications of volunteer firefighters across different States, ensuring equitable treatment and compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

—Transform the proposed standard into a dynamic, adaptive "living document,” capable of evolving in tandem with emerging national needs, technological advancements and best practices.

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