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Federal plan a threat to Shelter Island Fire Department: Commissioners ask Town Board for help

Thanks, but no thanks is Fire Commissioner Andy Reeve’s response to a 600-page proposal from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for revisions the federal agency would like to impose on volunteer fire departments and emergency medical service units.

Mr. Reeve shared an overview of the proposed new requirements with the Town Board at Tuesday’s work session.

“We’re not against safety,” Mr. Reeve told the Board. But implementation of the proposal “would be detrimental” to the Shelter Island Fire Department. “This would devastate the Fire Department,” he said. “This is coming down soon and we’re appealing to the Town Board to write a letter in opposition.”

Clearly, he didn’t outline 600 pages, but presented a succinct two-page review of requirements the proposal would require.

Currently, standards call for firefighters to take 100 hours of training per year. The new proposal would require between 300 and 400 hours of training each year. For Shelter Island firefighters, training means traveling to Yaphank or farther at night after working their day jobs.

The training proposed by OSHA isn’t offered in Yaphank, so a program would have to be established, he said.

With many experienced firefighters advancing in age, they have acknowledged they can no longer do some of the work they once handled. Recruiting younger members is difficult because many work off-Island and simply don’t have the time for the demands of the existing intensive training.

Older members have talked about how their training was on the job where they learned to fight fires that flared on the Island or in nearby communities, where local volunteer fire departments back up one another to handle serious blazes.

Also, equipment that would be required under the new proposal would be expensive.

The proposal would require every Island business owner to provide a written inventory of what they have on their property and information about any hazardous materials they store, so Fire Department personnel could determine any special needs if a fire breaks out in any of those establishments.

Fire Department personnel would have to assess any environmental or structural damage to those properties.

Every homeowner would be a required to provide an annual written professional report to be used by the Fire Department in preparing a plan if there’s a fire in any structure.

To complete any of these requirements could mean having to hire four professional firefighters and a  professional chief to even begin to address the requirements, Mr. Reeve speculated.

He anticipated it could cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

Firefighters would have to meet health and fitness requirements with a mandated fitness program in place. New operational standards would have to be implemented. Officers would have to take special command training and annually demonstrate they remained qualified for the job.

Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams said she added Mr. Reeve to Tuesday’s agenda because on Wednesday she was scheduled to meet with members of the Suffolk County Supervisors Association to discuss the OSHA proposal.

Speakers at that meeting to discuss the proposal were to include the executive director of the Suffolk County Fire Academy, the attorney for the Association of Fire Districts in New York State, and the Deputy Commissioner of the Fire Rescue and Emergency Medical Services.

The public comment period on the OSHA proposal is open through June 6 and Ms. Brach-Williams said she thought a letter in opposition to the proposal might be written by the Suffolk County Supervisors Association. 

The National Volunteer Fire Council has issued a statement on its website saying if the OSHA proposal is enacted, it “would bring immense challenges to volunteer departments, and some may be forced to shut down.”