Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on January 2, 2018.

Safe Space

As the first class from NFPA's Responder Forum graduates, one particpant reflects on the experience


In November, 28 fire service leaders from the United States and Canada became the first graduating class of the NFPA Responder Forum, a three-year fire service education and networking program that began in 2015. The graduates came from communities of a few thousand people to ones with populations over 1 million.

One of the graduates was Joe Maruca, a fire chief from West Barnstable, Massachusetts, a small town on Cape Cod. Maruca, a longtime NFPA technical committee member and advocate for the rural fire service, recently spoke with NFPA Journal about his experience in the forum and how NFPA can better its relationship with smaller departments like his.

I’ve heard you speak a couple of times, including at this year’s Responder Forum, and each time you’ve described how you used to think NFPA was “the enemy.” Tell me about that.

It’s not an uncommon viewpoint in smaller departments. They can see NFPA as this organization that tells them what they’re supposed to be doing without having a clue about reality. One of the reasons, I think, is that NFPA could do a better job of explaining its standards—they leave that up to interpretation by the people who adopt them. How is a department of 12 volunteers in a town of 800 people supposed to read and understand all of these standards?

They lack the skills and resources, and what happens is information trickles down through rumors. Fire chiefs from neighboring small towns will run into each other at the gas pump and say, “Would you believe what NFPA has done now?”

How do we fix this?

The Responder Forum is a good first step. It’s still a small group of people, though—it’s a big fire service and the forum is just the tip of the iceberg. So NFPA needs to keep pushing its outreach and providing analysis and explanations of its codes and standards. And we, as graduates, need to become educators as well.

What was your experience like at the Responder Forum?

The Responder Forum was the first gathering of fire service leaders from all over that I’ve been to where I felt it was a safe space. What I mean by that is I felt comfortable expressing the unique concerns of small fire departments without being judged, without people telling us we were bad or inferior or don’t deserve to exist. Everyone was truly open and willing to consider others’ situations and figure out how we can make NFPA codes and standards work for everyone.

What was an example of how that worked?

In our department, we do medical exams but we don’t do them annually. We do them every other year. At other forums I’ve been to I’ve brought that up and they’ve told me we’re bad for that, we’re not meeting the NFPA standard [NFPA 1582, Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments]. At the Responder Forum, people were like, “OK, let’s listen to this.” They recognized that doing it every other year is better than not doing it at all, and that maybe it even makes sense.

Why would doing it that way make sense?

The reason we do biannual medical exams in my department is because we only respond to a fire once every three years or so. So the risk profile is very, very different than in a big city where fires happen daily. You have to realize that it’s OK to take an NFPA standard and modify or adjust or amend it as long as you have a rational reason for doing it. Making departments aware of this, as well as providing plain-language explanations of the codes and standards, will go a long way in making them more accessible to the rural fire service.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images