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Audit finds Fire Department safety standards inadequate

Thursday, December 13, 2012 by Michael Kanin

An audit of the Austin Fire Department’s worker safety efforts reveals gaps between the department’s safety programs and standards set forward by the National Fire Protection Association. 


The department’s shortcomings include a not-fully developed “comprehensive occupational and health safety program,” a lack of assurance that protective fire gear is “maintained in accordance with mandated (fire protection association) requirements” and the fact that the department “does not appropriately manage and analyze occupational safety injury data,” according to the office of City Auditor Ken Mory.


Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr told Council members on the Audit and Finance Committee Wednesday that the department was acting to correct the issues. However, she also suggested that association’s standards are not necessarily a baseline.


“We concur that the (association) standards are the gold standards,” Kerr said. “But they are very comprehensive and very difficult to implement and adopt in (their) entirety.”


Though the audit concedes that Kerr’s department established a 24/7 health and safety office, it also concluded that other key elements of “a best practice safety program” were lacking.


According to the auditor, the fire department has no “comprehensive written risk management plan,” no “specific safety and health policy,” no “dedicated Health and Safety Committee,” and no regular evaluation of its occupational safety and health program.


The report also cites a lack of certainty over whether “clothing is maintained in accordance with mandated (the fire association’s) requirements.” That factor, the audit says, possibly exposes firefighters to “a higher risk of injury in the field.”


Mory and his colleagues also found that the department “does not appropriately manage and analyze safety injury data in accordance with (the association standards).” This issue, they say, “limits (the department’s) ability to reduce injury occurrences and related costs.”


Council Member Bill Spelman wondered if the shortcomings could lead to an array of consequences for the city. Spelman offered that the city’s risk could be more “substantial” than liability stemming from an injury lawsuit.


He noted that the lack of information about on the job injuries could put the department behind in its efforts to prevent them. “I want you to be on top of this,” Spelman told Kerr. “It seems important to me not just from a liability standpoint, but from an operational standpoint.”


Kerr suggested that upcoming software purchases and the addition of staff would address concerns in the audit. As for the equipment issues, she said that no firefighter was suiting up in inappropriately maintained gear. “I want to assure you that none of our firefighters are out there in gear that is putting them at risk,” she said.


The department will be back before the City Council’s Audit and Finance committee with a status report on the safety issues in six months.

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