Director's corner

Notes from Tim Rutland, executive director

January 17, 2014

Fire inspector certification requirements revisited

It recently came to our attention that there may still be some confusion about fire inspector certification requirements. It is important for our agency to apply the current statutes correctly and appropriately; however, it is equally important that fire departments throughout the state understand our approach so that they can operate as freely as they see fit, within the state's guidelines.

With that said I wanted to touch on a couple items that help you understand the fire inspector certification requirements.


Please let me know if you have additional questions, ideas for addressing the fire inspector issue, or concerns about the information above. Our goal is to help you provide top-rate fire protection services to your community in the most efficient and effective manner possible.




Notes from Don Wilson, [former] executive director

March 25, 2013

Complaint processing

Everyone wants to see more transparency and openness in government, especially when it comes to issues that people feel passionate about – and at every level, the fire service is passionate about fire fighter safety.

We've all felt the frustration of "getting the runaround." Being passed from one individual to another, or from one agency to another, seems like a waste of time, and nothing gets resolved. The plain fact, though, is that a government agency can only address issues that fall within its statutory authority. The methods by which an agency can address stakeholders' concerns are often governed by statute, too.

While this may at times appear to be designed deliberately to slow the process down - or even to stymie someone's ability to get an answer or make a change for the better – agencies have to follow these prescribed processes. And as frustrating as it may be, these processes are not intended to hamper someone's ability to get things done, but instead are designed to protect the rights and interests of all the parties involved.

This is the case when someone files a complaint with the commission. With all complaints, the commission's goal is to address the issue in a timely and professional manner, but the commission is often limited by statute to what it can and cannot look into. (These limitations are defined in the commission's enabling legislation, Chapter 419 of the Texas Government Code, as well as Title 37, Part 13 of the Texas Administrative Code, which are the rules and regulations adopted by the commission.)

Sometimes we can't take any action on a complaint because we don't have any regulatory authority in the matter. If this is this case, we will try to help you find the proper agency or authority having jurisdiction.

If a complaint does fall within the commission's jurisdiction, there may be other reasons why it can't act on the complaint. For example, the commission cannot act on anonymous complaints, nor can it guarantee the anonymity of an individual who files a complaint.

In order for the agency to even begin the process of looking into a complaint, the format of the complaint has to meet a few specific guidelines. These "first steps" are simple, but they're critical:

If these "preliminary" requirements are not met, the commission cannot pursue the complaint under any circumstances.

When a complaint does meet the preliminary requirements, the commission will assign staff to investigate the complaint based on the applicable statutes. The commission is required to keep the complainant updated on the progress of its investigation (see Texas Government Code, §419.011), beginning with an initial notification that the form of the complaint is valid.

While an investigation is underway, the commission keeps all information about the investigation confidential. However, once an investigation is complete, we may be required to release certain information in response to an open records request filed in accordance with the Texas Public Information Act. This information may include the identity of the person who filed the complaint.

The commission deals with complaints in a timely and efficient manner and we always seek to address concerns of fire fighter safety. Investigations can take from a few days to a few months to complete, depending on the depth and breadth of the information needed. Our goals is to assist fire fighters and departments in becoming compliant with state law and rules. The agency seeks to help regulated entities understand and implement required processes, standards, records, and equipment to maintain the integrity of the licenses and certifications we issue. The commission exists to take care of fire fighters so fire fighters can take care of Texas!


December 18, 2012

Continuing education (CE) – enhancing professional development

Maintaining credentials to perform a job is important in any profession, but it is especially important for the fire service. We maintain our credentials through a variety of methods, including on-the-job training and drills, academic coursework, and training by trade associations and peers. Whatever the source, the goal is the continued performance of duties in a professional manner, along with ongoing validation and reinforcement of knowledge and skills.

To enhance the knowledge, skills and abilities of today's fire protection personnel, the commission has adopted new guidelines for continuing education (CE). These changes occurred in part because of the Texas Forensic Science Commission's (TFSC's) report impacting arson investigators, and in part because of the growing recognition that today's fire protection personnel "wear more than one hat."

The TFSC report recommended "enhanced certification" for arson investigators:

The primary mechanism for training and education of investigators in Texas is individual certification. The certification process is administered by the TCFP…continuing education requirements promulgated by the TCFP should incorporate NFPA 1033's guidelines.

A couple key points of this recommendation are that in order to optimize performance in a discipline that requires a special "knowledge and skill" set, specific training is required, and that the training must occur on an ongoing basis, not just for the initial certification.

Recognizing this point, our commissioners reviewed the CE requirements for all the disciplines it regulates. To perform any job well, an individual must keep current of changes in the discipline, through sound professional training. The results of this review are the new revisions in Chapter 441 External link, Continuing Education (see particularly §441.5 External link for an overview and the links below for discipline-specific changes).

The most important revision is a change in the required CE hours. Previously, fire protection personnel could renew all of their certifications by completing 20 hours (with additional requirements for Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting (ARFF - see §441.9 External link and Hazardous Materials Technician - see §441.17 External link). The new requirements include a minimum of 18 hours of CE, with two additional hours of CE for each discipline to which the individual is appointed. (As before, there are additional requirements for ARFF, HazMat Tech and Wildland certifications – see below.)

The key to understanding these changes is the term, "appointment." In the commission's rules, an "appointment" is NOT the same thing as an "assignment," and it's important to understand the difference as it applies to the new CE requirements.

The commission defines an appointment as "providing notice to the commission that fire protection personnel have been assigned to a regulated discipline." A fire protection entity "appoints" its fire protection personnel to a regulated discipline in the commission's FIDO system.

An appointment to a discipline is a formal acknowledgement that the fire protection personnel are performing the duties of a regulated discipline, based on commission rules and regulations. Individuals who are appointed to a position can earn time-in-service credit toward advanced certification levels.

The following disciplines require an "appointment" by the employer:

Currently, all other certification disciplines are assignments. The commission defines an "assignment" as making "a particular type of fire protection duty part of an individual's regular and ongoing responsibilities." The commission considers an "assignment" to duties as a local decision.

So, how many CE hours do certified fire protection personnel need? To determine the hours, follow these steps:

  1. Start with the minimum requirement of 18 hours for everyone.
  2. Determine whether the individual is appointed to a regulated discipline. (The individual may be appointed to more than one discipline).
  3. Add two hours of discipline-specific CE for each discipline to which the individual is appointed.
  4. If the individual holds a Hazardous Materials Technician certificate, add eight hours of technician-level CE.
  5. If the individual is appointed to ARFF duties, add CE that meets current FAA regulations.
  6. (Please note, too, that the wildland certification will require four hours of discipline-specific CE; a rule change is currently under review by the commission.)

Examples:

  1. An individual is appointed to Structure Fire Protection only (which is the most common scenario among certified fire fighters in Texas):

    +
    18
    2
    core hours
    hours of structure CE
    20hours total

  2. An individual is appointed to Structure Fire Protection and Fire Inspection:


    +
    18
    2
    2
    core hours
    hours of structure CE
    hours of fire inspection CE
    22hours total

  3. An individual is appointed to Structure Fire Protection, Fire Inspection and holds a HazMat Technician certification:



    +
    18
    2
    2
    8
    core hours
    hours of structure CE
    hours of fire inspection CE
    hours of hazmat technician-level CE
    30hours total

Regarding the "core" hours, Section §441.5(g) states, "The head of a fire department may select subject matter for continuing education appropriate for a particular discipline." This means that the head of department decides what to include in the 18 core hours for his or her personnel based on the department's needs.

How do these changes impact "individual" certificate holders? (The commission uses this phrase to describe fire protection personnel who hold their own certificates; that is, individuals who are not currently employed and who maintain their own certifications.) The annual CE requirement for "individual" certificate holders is unchanged – 20 hours will renew all certificates the individual holds (with the exception of ARFF and HazMat Tech, which require additional hours).

One other minor note about the Chapter 441 CE revisions: The commission has renamed the former "Track A" and "Track B" as "Level 1" and "Level 2" (see §441.3 External link). This is simply a "name change" for clarification:

Level 1 – Training intended to maintain previously learned skills as stated in the commission certification curriculum manual for the certifications held.

Level 2 – Fire service training or education intended to develop new skills that are not contained in the commission's certification curriculum manual for certifications held.

If you have any questions about the new CE requirements, please contact the commission's certification section at (512) 936-3829 or Send e-mailcertifications@tcfp.texas.gov.


October 15, 2012

Head of department certification considerations

With growth comes change. Change comes to our individual personal and professional lives, and it also comes to the lives of organizations. This holds true no matter the size of the organization, including state, county, city and local governments. Any entity that provides a service to its constituents will experience change as the entity matures.

Growth leads to changes in how an entity provides its services. For fire service entities, one of the most fundamental changes is the addition of paid personnel to perform duties that were previously performed by volunteers. Typically, one of the first steps in managing change is finding someone to direct the changes, or more correctly, to lead the entity through the change process. This is commonly accomplished by an individual traditionally known as the "Fire Chief."

Many other titles may be utilized for this position, though, and titles can be important - this article is an example. Although we're discussing the position and title of "Fire Chief," the Texas Commission on Fire Protection does not offer a "Fire Chief" certification. Instead, the commission issues a "Head of Department" certification. This certification is available in two forms:

Traditionally, the head of department is the executive who oversees the fire suppression, fire prevention and inspection, code development and enforcement, disaster preparedness and emergency medical services for the citizens served. This is the "service" side of the executive's duties. The executive may be able to fulfill the requirements of the position directly as challenges arise, but more often the individual must work with oversight and funding authorities, including elected and appointed officials.

A fire service head of department is an individual who wears many hats, and who must be adaptable. The executive of a fire service entity is charged not only with overseeing the day-to-day functions of the department or division, but also with other operational, administrative and functional duties, including: planning for growth; recruiting, developing and supervising personnel; budgeting and fiscal management; developing standards for the department; and addressing the needs of the community.

Each local community, no matter the size, must find an individual with the right skills to address local needs. The purpose of this article is not to address local requirements and decision-making, but to inform the hiring entity of the state's requirements for that individual once that person is hired.

Needless to say, the state's requirements could impact the recruitment and selection of the individual. The state requirements regarding who is hired are minimal, but the requirements become important with regard to what the selected individual must do in order to serve as a head of department in Texas.

The legal criteria for the commission's establishment of a Head of Department certification are found in Chapter 419 of the Texas Government Code:

Section 419.021 - Definitions.

  1. "Fire protection personnel" means:
    1. permanent, full-time law enforcement officers designated as fire and arson investigators by an appropriate local authority;
    2. aircraft rescue and fire protection personnel; or
    3. permanent, full-time fire department employees who are not secretaries, stenographers, clerks, budget analysts, or similar support staff persons or other administrative employees and who are assigned duties in one or more of the following categories:
      1. fire suppression;
      2. fire inspection;
      3. fire and arson investigation;
      4. marine fire fighting;
      5. aircraft rescue and fire fighting;
      6. fire training;
      7. fire education;
      8. fire administration; and
      9. any other position necessarily or customarily related to fire prevention or suppression.

One thing that should jump out from this list is that the definitions do not actually include the term, "Head of Department" or "Fire Chief." Instead, the law broadly outlines the functional activities of "fire protection personnel." Holders of the head of department certification may perform or oversee any or all of these functions.

To clarify this important point, the commission establishes the rules and regulations governing each of its certifications, including the head of department certification. These rules and regulations are codified in the Texas Administrative Code (TAC). Title 37, Part 13, Chapter 449 of the TAC covers the head of department certification:

Whether the head of department for a given jurisdiction is the head of a department that provides suppression services, or whether the individual is the head of a prevention-only department, if the individual holds only the head of department certification, the individual is limited in the scope of fire fighting activities. As stated in Chapter 449.1:

"(d) An individual certified as head of a fire department under this section may engage in fire fighting activities only as the head of a fire department. These activities include incident command, direction of fire fighting activities or other emergency activities typically associated with fire fighting duties, i.e. rescue, confined space and hazardous materials response."

What does this mean? Simply, the individual can command an incident, but cannot perform the actual duties typically associated with fire fighting. The key to this provision is the entering of an "immediately dangerous to life and health" (IDLH) environment, which would require the individual to have firsthand knowledge and experience using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and proper protective clothing.

While we've provided the legal basis for the head of department certification and briefly touched on the duties and responsibilities of a head of department, another factor that must be understood is that there are three distinct and separate paths to earning the certification:

So far we have concentrated on the appointment and hiring of a first-time paid "fire chief," but this is not the only existing scenario. In the case of a fire protection entity that previously had a volunteer fire chief, the entity will determine the requirements of the position, but once the individual is hired and is receiving a paycheck, the hiring entity must be mindful of the state's certification requirements, as well as how the individual's position is defined in the organization.

For example, an entity that is governed under the rules and regulation of Chapter 143 of the Texas Local Government Code requires a fire chief to also be certified as an intermediate fire fighter within one year of employment. (See Local Gov't Code §143.013(2)(b). Additionally, the individual must be appointed to the position by the entity's governing body.)

Compounding this issue is the overall make-up of the organization. If, the entity is a "public safety organization," for example, which has a "public safety director" who supervises both the Fire Chief and the Police Chief, is the Public Safety Director the head of the department? If this is the case, can that individual obtain the necessary head of department certification by one of the above-mentioned routes within one year, or complete a basic fire fighter certification program and also meet the time-in-service requirements? These are just two factors that local governing bodies must consider when appointing an individual as the head of department.

Due to the nature and evolving complications associated with this certification, the commission, with the support of our various stakeholders, is considering revising this certification. At the commission's September 2012 fire fighter advisory committee meeting, the testing and curriculum committee presented a proposal for how an individual would obtain this certification. The Texas Fire Chiefs' Association also provided input. (Please review the head of department certification discussion from the September fire fighter advisory committee meeting beginning at approximately 4:55.)

Revising this certification will take time, including more discussion and input from stakeholders. Please visit the commission's website to keep up with forthcoming announcements and changes to this certification. In the meantime, if you have questions, please be pro-active and contact us.


September 14, 2012

How the commission budget works - the Legislative Appropriations Request (LAR) process

In our last "Director's corner" we briefly reviewed the programs and services the Texas Commission on Fire Protection provides. In this month's "Corner" we will take a look at how the commission gets its funding.

Many of our customers are familiar with local government budget processes. In a state as large and diverse as Texas, local budget-building takes a wide variety of forms. Most fire protection entities use a traditional "line item" budget process, while others use "zero-based" budgeting. Some entities use a hybrid of many styles.

The State of Texas has its own way, which differs in several ways from traditional municipal, county or emergency services district (ESD) budgeting processes. As a state government entity, the commission's governing body is the Texas Legislature. The commission's relationship to the Legislature can be likened to a local fire department's relationship with its city council, ESD board or county commissioners' court.

The first major difference between the state's process and local government processes is the budget cycle. In some states, the legislature convenes every year, but in Texas the Legislature meets only in odd-numbered years, so the state creates a budget for a two-year period (known as a "biennium") instead of an anual budget. When the commission prepares its requests for funding, we have to project out our revenue and expenditures for two years. If you participate in your fire department's budget process, you know how difficult it can be to project costs for one year, let alone two. The agency does its best to prognosticate how much things like fuel and travel will cost two years in the future.

The budget-building process begins with what is known as "base reconciliation," where the agency reports actual revenues and expenditures for the previous biennium. This begins during the summer of even-numbered years, in preparation for the Legislative session that begins in January of the odd-numbered years. Each state agency prepares a series of reports and accounting statements that are entered into a statewide accounting system.

One of the reports that each agency prepares is the Strategic Plan Link to PDF file, which outlines the agency's goals, objectives, performance measures and benchmarks. The performance measures and benchmarks are tied to the budget. The next important document is the agency's Legislative Appropriations Request Link to PDF file, in which the agency identifies the specific dollar amounts it will require to meet its targeted performance measures and benchmarks.

These reports go to the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) and the Governor's Office of Budget, Planning and Policy. The LBB is a permanent joint committee of the Texas Legislature that develops budget and policy recommendations for legislative appropriations for all agencies of state government. The LBB also prepares fiscal analyses for all proposed legislation and conducts evaluations for the purpose of identifying and recommending changes to improve the efficiency and performance of state and local operations and finances.

The LBB is officially made up of the following legislators:

Joint-Chair Lieutenant Governor
Joint-Chair Speaker of the House of Representatives
Automatic Members Chair, House Committee on Appropriations
Chair, House Committee on Ways and Means
Chair, Senate Finance Committee
Appointed Members Two House members appointed by the Speaker
Three Senate members appointed by the Lieutenant Governor

In addition to its elected officials, the LBB employs staff members who conduct the board's daily business. Each state agency is assigned a staff liaison from the LBB and the Governor's Office. These liaisons assist agencies with their requests and serve as a conduit to convey information between the agency and the Legislature.

In the fall of even-numbered years, after the required reports are completed, each agency appears before a formal hearing with the LBB and Governor's Office liaisons to plead their case for funding for the upcoming biennium. At these hearings, the agency's board members and executive staff provide testimony about the needs of the agency for the coming two-year period. (The commission is scheduled to testify on Sept. 14, 2012.)

Once the agency has submitted its request and plead its case, the LBB and Governor's Office prepare their own budget proposals. These proposals sometimes mirror the agency's requests, but often they don't. The state's elected leaders, after all, have to prioritize the requests of all the agencies, in accordance with the state's overall projected revenues and expenses, while addressing the needs and desires of all the citizens of Texas.

A third partner in the budget process is the State Comptroller of Public Accounts. The Comptroller's Office is the state's finance department. (To draw parallels between the state and local government structures, the LBB can be considered as similar to a local government's budget department, while the Comptroller is similar to a local government's finance department.) Before each legislative session, the Comptroller releases the state's overall budget, which provides the Legislature with fiscal targets. (Last session was grim: the Legislature had to trim roughly $20 billion from the budget from previous years. Before the session even began, the LBB and Governor's Office instructed all agencies to prepare their budget requests at a level 10 percent lower than their previous biennium's. The LBB and Governor's Office opened the last session with various proposals to consolidate or eliminate agencies. For example, the LBB proposed "attaching" the commission to the Texas Department of Insurance and eliminating up to 17 commission positions; the Governor's Office proposed creation of a new, consolidated "public safety" agency, combining several smaller agencies.)

When the Legislative session opens, the Legislature and the Governor's Office both propose budgets. The Legislature rotates the budget bill between chambers from session to session; if the Senate leads the process in one session, then at the next session two years later the House will take the reins.) The budget is always the first bill introduced each session, either as Senate Bill 1 (SB1) or House Bill 1 (HB1).

For the rest of the session, the Legislature works on building and reconciling the various budget proposals. This often involves hundreds of hearings, committee meetings and joint sessions over the session's 120 days (and sometimes more, if "special" sessions are called to resolve critical issues.)

Upon its final approval by both chambers, the budget bill is sent to the Governor for his signature. Once signed, the state budget is then published as the General Appropriations Act (GAA) Link to PDF file. Whatever is in the GAA is the agency's budget for the next two years.

(Note: If you're interested in learning more about the inner workings of the Texas budget process, the Senate Research Center has prepared a booklet, "Budget 101 - A Guide to the Budget Process in Texas" Link to PDF file, which explains and illustrates the Texas budget process in much greater detail.)

The commission does an excellent job of staying within its budget. This year the commission returned nearly $31,000 to the General Fund. In the grand scheme of the Texas budget, that doesn't sound like a lot, but for a small agency like ours, it's huge. (That amount represents half of a full-time equivalent staff person, or FTE.)

As you may recall from previous discussions, the commission is currently required to generate revenue through fees for services that cover all of the costs of the operations of the commission for the biennium, roughly $3.9 million. In addition, during the last session the commission had a "rider" written into its appropriation. (A rider is a restriction or explanation regarding how the agency can spend certain funds.) The commission's Rider 4 states the agency must cover all its own costs AND generate an additional $3,383,385 over the biennium. (Yes, the rider requires the agency to cover all its own costs PLUS return $3.4 million to the general fund of the state. In the last post we talked about what you get for $85 dollars, and hopefully now know you why it's $85 instead of $35, $50 or $65.)

We hope this posting helps to clarify at least the general budget process for the commission. Please contact the staff or any of the commissioners if you have any questions, or if you would like additional information, please e-mail us at info@tcfp.texas.gov.


August 20, 2012

What do I get for $85?

The Texas Commission on Fire Protection collects fees for testing and certification; the fees are set by state law. The agency also collects fees for services such as record reviews, copies of documents and late fees. These fees are applied toward the expenses of operating the agency. There is a fee for the fingerprint-based background check required by statute, but our agency does not collect or receive any of these funds.

We are often asked where the money goes, or more specifically, why so much? In today's posting we will discuss the services the agency provides. Hopefully, this will help illustrate where the money goes. (In a future post, we will discuss the agency's budgeting process.)

The agency provides comprehensive services to the fire fighters of Texas, including:

Curriculum development, training approval and testing

The commission's curriculum development process includes the review of each and every standard that applies to each and every certification curriculum. The commission purchases test banks from an approved vendor, and the commission's curriculum and testing committee works with the agency staff and ad-hoc committees to review every question prior to including it in a state test. The committee also reviews skills for each job performance requirement (JPR) identified by the adopted National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.

The curriculum and testing committee, as well as the ad-hoc committees, are comprised of subject matter experts from across the state, representing all sizes and types of entities. Approved training facilities use the curricula these groups develop as the framework for courses to prepare fire fighters for the state certification exams. Prior to providing the training, training facilities must pass a rigorous review of their proposed courses and training processes. When the facilities deliver the courses, they are subject to inspections and audits by agency staff.

Testing of fire protection personnel is required by statute. The agency facilitates the testing at regional testing centers, and the tests are proctored by agency staff or approved adjunct proctors. The examination process includes verification of skills required for the discipline, as well as a written test. The agency staff continues to monitor, review and validate exam questions for content and accuracy.

The commission's certification exam processes are further validated by an independent organization, the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC). This organization conducts periodic site inspections of the agency and looks at all aspects of the exam process, including but not limited to test bank security, the process of vetting and validating the exam content, and agency policies and procedures for testing.

Initial issuance and renewal of certifications

Upon successful completion of the testing process (and other requirements as applicable, depending on the certification being sought), the fire fighter is eligible to apply for certification. For first-time applicants, the agency conducts a criminal history background check and reviews the documentation of any other requirements required for the certification. (Prerequisites may include items such as time in service, formal education or additional training for higher levels of certification.) When the applicant has met all state requirements, the agency processes the application and issues the certificate, which is available to the applicant via the individual's online FIDO account.

Ernest A. Emerson Fire Protection Resource Library

The agency maintains an extensive library of resources related to fire protection and emergency services. These resources include items like manuals, books, periodicals, videos and sample standard operating procedures. (A comprehensive list of resource materials is available on our web site).

The agency's library program specialist also provides research services for those who request it. Staff has conducted research on things like SOPs, resources for Executive Fire Officer (EFO) papers, statistics on emergency services, and fire prevention and public life safety education materials. The agency does not charge a fee for these services, but we should note that part of the fees collected for testing and certification pay for them.

Fire fighter injury reporting

The Texas Legislature recognizes the hazardous conditions fire fighters operate in on a daily basis. The Legislature directed the agency to collect data on fire fighter injuries, analyze the data, and develop recommendations for the prevention of future occurrences. Our injury reporting program specialist spends every day following up on injury reports, working with fire protection entities to complete their reports, analyzing the data collected and working with fire service stakeholders to develop recommendations for the prevention of future fire fighter injuries. The agency generates an annual report, which is included with the State Fire Marshal's annual report.

The commission has designed the injury reporting program to be non-punitive and, and we redact any information that would identify individuals who are injured.

Again, it should be noted that the legislature did not create a revenue stream to pay for this mandate, so the fees charged for certification and testing go toward this program as well.

Compliance inspections to assure fire fighter safety

Chapter 419 of the Texas Government Code and other statutes established the requirement for the agency to perform biennial inspections of regulated entities. We currently have six regional compliance officers to conduct these inspections throughout the state. (The agency currently regulates over 800 fire departments and training facilities, and approximately 33,000 certified fire fighters.) The agency's compliance inspections help verify that training and skills, continuing education, fire fighter safety equipment (including PPE and SCBA), standard operating procedures and required certifications all meet the state laws and standards. When we find deficiencies, the agency works with the entity to develop corrective action plans with the goal of assuring fire fighters' safety while they continue to perform their jobs. In the history of the agency, we have only rarely assessed monetary penalties from entities or individuals. Our general practice has been to encourage departments to correct violations voluntarily, in a timely manner, or to enter into an agreed "consent order" where we probate the administrative penalty while the entity corrects the issue. Therefore, revenue to cover the travel and other costs of these inspections typically comes from the fees we collect for testing and certification.

Certification of training facilities

As mentioned earlier, training facilities must meet stringent standards. Each training facility that provides classes for fire fighters to become certified must be certified by the commission, and the facilities are subject to unannounced biennial and risk-based inspections. During these inspections, training facilities must provide proof that its instructors are qualified, that certain equipment and resources are available, that they have procedures that provide for trainee safety, and that they are in compliance with curriculum and skills evaluation rules. Training providers pay an annual fee of $85 to maintain their facility certification.

Other activities

The Legislature mandates that state agencies must be accessible and available to the citizens of Texas. The commission strives to communicate with the Texas fire service and employ a variety of methods to do so. We receive and send communications in the traditional ways, such as telephones, faxes and e-mail. We have also put a lot of time and effort into updating our website. In addition to the website, the agency maintains a Facebook page, a blog on avoiding injuries, and an e-newsletter from the library. We provide staff contact information on the website, including e-mail addresses and phone numbers, and we conduct periodic surveys to seek feedback from the fire service. All of these services are funded by the $85 fee.

This article would be incomplete without mentioning the cost of staff support services. As with most fire departments and other public entities, there are costs associated with providing the agency with human resource services, budget and accounting services, information technology services and administrative services. At the risk of being redundant, the fees for testing and certification go toward these costs as well.

We hope this article helps explain where the $85 fees go and what they are used for. In a future article we will provide details on how the Legislature appropriates money collected in fees to the agency.


June 8, 2012

When does a volunteer become a regulated fire fighter?

The Texas Commission on Fire Protection truly appreciates the dedication and service that volunteers contribute to the safety of citizens throughout Texas.

You may have heard that the commission is exploring the issue as to whether a person who is hired, works and is paid with taxpayer dollars as a full-time fire fighter falls within the traditional definition of a "volunteer."

With the decline of volunteerism throughout the state, along with our ever-growing population (and the resultant need for more and better fire protection services), we are finding more communities every year that are creating new funding mechanisms that allow them to hire personnel to keep their fire departments staffed 24/7. Many communities are converting their volunteer fire departments to "combination" departments, where the department deploys volunteers alongside paid staff. These "combination" departments come in a variety of configurations; often, the departments will hire a crew to cover day shifts, or they'll hire a fire chief to manage the increasingly complex operations of a modern fire department.

The June 7 fire fighter advisory committee meeting included a discussion item to address this topic. (A recording of the meeting is available on the commission's website at http://www.tcfp.texas.gov/calendar/archive/2012/ffac0612.wma. The discussion related to this item begins at approximately 53:30 of the recording and runs through approximately 1:22:15.) This wasn't an action item — we are not drafting any rule changes at this point — but a discussion item. We want to provide an open, public forum to discuss this issue and to let everyone in the fire service know what we're doing.

The question isn't whether the commission will try to require all volunteer fire fighters to meet the same requirements as paid fire fighters. The commission is not trying to take anything away from volunteer fire departments, nor to impose greater requirements on truly volunteer departments. The commission is well aware of the kind of impact that would have on the Texas volunteer fire service and on rural communities throughout the state. Several of our commissioners are volunteer fire fighters, and we work closely with the SFFMA, the Texas Forest Service and other agencies to better understand the needs of the volunteer fire service.

The citizens of Texas and their elected officials have long drawn a distinction between paid and volunteer fire fighters. Current state laws make it clear that if a community uses tax dollars to pay its fire fighters, the department must comply with the commission's minimum standards pertaining to the training the fire fighter receives, how the fire fighter is deployed, and what kind of protective gear it issues to the fire fighter. (We'll leave aside for now the fact that state laws make no such distinction with regard to EMTs, paramedics, or law enforcement personnel. There's no such thing as a volunteer paramedic or a volunteer police officer. In those careers, you either are one or you're not, and the state regulates your training and other aspects of your career, regardless of whether you get paid for doing what you do.)

While an individual may claim status as a volunteer, the individual may not claim exception from the requirements of Chapter 419 if he or she gets paid an amount that would be construed to be a full-time fire protection employee. This is addressed in Texas Government Code Section 419.0322, which states:

(a) Each person who is assigned by a fire department to perform one or more duties listed under Section 419.021 (3) (C) must be:

(1) fire protection personnel;

(2) a part-time fire protection employee; or

(3) a volunteer or other auxiliary fire fighter.

(b) Each fire department shall designate each person who is assigned by the department to perform one or more duties listed under Section 419.021(3) (C) as fire protection personnel, a part-time fire protection employee, or a volunteer or auxiliary fire fighter, but a department may not designate the same person under more than one category under this section. The designation shall be made on the records of the department and the designation shall be made available for inspection by the commission or sent to the commission on request.

(c) A fire department may not compensate, reimburse, or provide benefits to a person the department has designated as a volunteer or other auxiliary fire fighter to the extent that the person would be considered fully paid fire protection personnel.

To define the level of compensation, the commission follows the legislative intent of SB 1110 [Senate Comm. on Economic Development, Bill Analysis, Tex. S.B. 1110, 73rd Leg., R.S. (1993).] which states:

In this subchapter, an officer or employee of a fire department or other department of a local government is considered fully paid if the officer's or employee's annual compensation for performing one or more duties listed under Subsection (a) (3) (B), including the value of benefits and reimbursement for expenses, is at least equal to the amount of compensation a person would receive working 2,080 hours at the federal minimum wage.

This passage suggests that the legislative intent was to define an upper limit of compensation for individuals. Once an individual's compensation exceeds these limits, the individual should no longer be considered a volunteer. Instead, the commission would then consider the individual to be a "career" fire protection personnel who would thus be subject to the requirements of Chapter 419.

Though we don't regulate volunteer fire departments or volunteer fire protection personnel, the commission extends many of its services to volunteers. VFDs and volunteer personnel can access our fire protection resource library services, including our training and educational materials as well as our research services. VFDs and volunteer fire fighters can participate in our state certification program or acquire IFSAC seals through our testing processes. And though the commission no longer offers emergency funding to VFDs (the state transferred the funding program to the Texas Forest Service a few sessions ago), we can help point you in the right direction to find federal and state grants for equipment and training for your members. Additionally, we are encouraging all fire departments – including volunteer departments – to participate in our injury reporting program. The more data we get from all branches of the Texas fire service, the more we'll be able to help identify ways to keep all of our fire fighters safe.

I and several other commission staff members will be at the SFFMA convention in Houston next week. Let's talk!

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Friday, August 29, 2014, 7:08:41 PM