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Fire Department Policies and Procedures are Important Documents

Posted on 1st Jul 2020

Imagine starting your new job at the Acme widget company and on your first day at the plant the foreman takes you over to a huge machine points to the start button and says “Push that, and have a nice day.” Or rather you took a job at the Acme Chemical plant next door to the widget factory and on the first day your supervisor takes you into the lab, hands you a beautiful white lab coat and says, “Okay get in there and mix up five gallons of itsgonnablowupifyougetitwrong.”

Sounds ridiculous right? But for many new firefighters across the country, more often in small or volunteer fire departments that is what is occurring. Young firefighters are joining their local fire departments, being handed a set of protective firefighter gear and told when the bell rings, get on the truck. The above is the most extreme scenario, but let me share the following with you.

An analysis of twenty years of historical data from the USFA indicates volunteer firefighters are dying in larger numbers than career firefighters.
(U.S. Fire Administration. 1998 – 2017)

All Career and Volunteer Firefighter Deaths from 1998 - 2017


It is the responsibility of fire department leadership, fire service policy makers, chief officers, company officers and senior level firefighters to more fully understand and improve conditions that lead to firefighter fatalities. Leaders within the firefighting community must seek out training and experiential opportunities to better prepare firefighters. Volunteers that enter community fire departments require training, development, and the support of those in leadership positions within the department. It is incumbent upon all those that hold leadership positions within the fire department to fully prepare those individuals that have willingly volunteered to place themselves in harm’s way. Gordon Graham, a well-known public safety speaker says it best, “What is predictable is preventable (Graham, 2016).

When a firefighter fatality occurs and an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the fatality is conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH), fire department leadership will be questioned. This line of questioning and deeper investigation will include the request for a department’s written policies and procedures. A fire department that does not have written policies and procedures that address what is expected of their firefighters and what it is that firefighters are expected to do and do not do demonstrates that the fire department leadership is indifferent to the health and safety of their firefighters. The lack of policies and procedures demonstrates substandard leadership by the fire department officers

Policy-making can be hard work but hard work dedicated to developing meaningful safety policies can have generational effects. Well developed and thoughtful polices can save lives. Firefighters that are kept alive because of well developed policies that are enforced within the organization affects families, fathers and mothers with children and grandchildren. Shouldn’t we expect fire department leadership to develop, implement and the annually review the operational procedures within the department? Yes. New firefighters should be trained and exhibit understanding of a department’s procedures. All members should know their department has a zero tolerance policy on alcohol and drug use in and around the fire house or while on departmental apparatus. Every firefighter should know and understand that seat belt use is mandatory within their department and that failing to comply with this fundamental safety procedure can be both fatal and result in disciplinary action against the firefighter. Any firefighter should be able to walk over to a bookcase or file cabinet and pull out a current set of departmental policies and procedures.

Having policies and procedures is one thing, but the failure of departmental leadership to ensure they are followed is extremely important. Consider this…

The 2016 Annual report from Firefighter Near Miss (www.firefighternearmiss.com), a web site launched in 2005, in cooperation with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This site is designed to provide a public, anonymous reporting system for firefighters to share incidents in which actions during fire operations, including active fire grounds and training evolutions in which circumstances where firefighters were confronted with serious injury or death, yet through a lucky break in the chain of events, dodged such a terrible fate. This program provides for a non-punitive place for firefighters to share their experiences with others in the hope that their near-death experiences can be used as tools for others to learn from and therefore not repeat the same mistakes. This firefighter site is modeled after the aviation industry’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) that was developed as early as 1976 (Hagen, 2013).

Some interesting data are contained within the report. In forty-five (45%) percent of the reports submitted to the site were from fire departments other than full-time career departments. Those departments were comprised of volunteer (5%), combination volunteer and paid members (22%), other (8%) and not specified (10%). Among many eye-opening data points contained within the 2016 report was that firefighters were permitted to select what they felt were contributing factors to their near miss event.

The overwhelming contributing factors were: human error (1st), situational awareness (2nd), decision-making (3rd) and individual actions (4th) (2016 Firefighter Near Miss Report). Further, the report states that of all the incidents reported, unintentional human error comprised 42% of the incidents, a willful disregard for best practices, operating guidelines or procedures comprised 13 % of the total reported unsafe acts. The remaining 45% did not specifically indicate if the action was intentional or not (2016 Firefighter Near Miss Report).

Almost half of the near-miss incidents were related to unintentional human error which should be alarming to any fire service leader. More alarming is the fact that, of the near miss incidents, 13% were attributed to intentional and willful disregard for best practices, operating guidelines or procedures. Firefighting is a risk industry, but willful and intentional disregard for best practices puts firefighter and civilian lives in unnecessary danger. This overt disregard for safety must be swiftly addressed by fire service leaders so the negative behavior is not emulated by others within the organization.

Policies and procedures provide a framework for new and seasoned firefighters to work within. They establish boundaries, provide “how-to” direction and allow for a common approach to a problem by all firefighters within the department. Every fire department must have a set of policies and procedures to guide them. There is no excuse for not having a set of procedures and policies to guide the department. All fire service leaders, Fire Chiefs and Company officers should be working to ensure a procedures manual exists within their departments. In the event of a serious injury tofatality to one of your firefighters, NIOSH among others will be asking for a copy of them.

If you need assistance or wish to discuss formulating a set of policies and procedures for your department, please contact me, I’ll be glad to help. bobkrause@bex.net or 419-705-2437