Pleas for resources from fire chiefs may soon resound much more loudly across the country. The National Fire Protection Association is likely in July to adopt a new, more rigorous standard for fire prevention staffing and response times. The association's recommendations are not binding, but local governments take them seriously, for fear they'll be legally liable if a building burns down and their town or city does not meet acknowledged national standards.

The proposed standard 1710 calls for paid companies to be staffed with at least four fire fighters, for fire companies to turn out within 60 seconds of an alarm, for firefighting apparatus to be on the scene within four minutes and for fire fighters to be fully engaged in battling a blaze within eight minutes.

Every major municipal organization is opposed to the standard. "We think local officials should make the hard decisions," says Jeff Fletcher, director of member programs for the National League of Cities. "There shouldn't be some sort of master program imposed from on high."

Concern over the cost of meeting the standards is an even likelier reason for the official dismay. There is no reliable estimate on what the price tag would be to bulk up fire-fighting teams to implement the standard, but opponents are sure it would be substantial. The city manager of Fremont, California, for instance, assumes that her city's first-year compliance costs would top $5.5 million. The Wall Street Journal estimated recently that the standard could lead fire departments nationwide to hire 30,000 more fire fighters nationwide, an 11 percent increase.

The standard's authors say city managers and mayors are just afraid of being held more accountable. They note that similar standards apply in other industrialized nations. "The purpose of the standard is to be able to tell your taxpayers that this is what the industry believes are the minimum performance benchmark standards," says Nick Russo, fire chief of Hull, Massachusetts, and a member of NFPA's 1710 drafting committee. "We've never had that, and I can see where that would be of concern."

Opponents of standard 1710 see it as a way for politically powerful fire departments to drain resources from other city functions. They even warn that fire-prevention budgets may have to be cut in order to meet the new NFPA fire-suppression guidelines. And they have charged the International Association of Fire Fighters with packing a May NFPA meeting that gave the standard preliminary approval.

Ultimately, however, the new standard may not swell the ranks of the fire fighters' union. The NFPA is also planning to adopt a new, less prescriptive standard for volunteer fire companies. Some NFPA members who worked on that standard believe that, as in England, the association may eventually adopt separate standards for urban, suburban and rural areas, with most manpower shortfalls to be made up through volunteer help.