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Do We Really Need Policies?

A well-written policy manual will go a long way to protect the department and its staff. Drafting policies, however, is difficult. To draft an effective policy, you must be able to predict all the possible issues that could arise without the policy and then address those yet-to-happen issues.

Let’s review first what a policy is and is not and how policies should be drafted.

  • Policies involve nondiscretionary acts – They use terms such as shall, must and will. They don’t use terms such as may, should or might. They’re not discretionary; “All firefighters shall wear their seatbelt when the vehicle is in motion” is mandatory, not discretionary.
  • Best practices are operating procedures or practices that aren’t mandatory – They’re suggested procedures, but not required. For example, “The first engine should secure a water source” may be the suggestion on most calls, but you can bet it’s ignored—properly so—when someone’s hanging out of a burning building.

Policies are critical because they clearly state what conduct is required, permitted or prohibited. They tell everyone what’s required of them; they give leaders the ability to ensure consistent treatment of firefighters.

So where do we start?

First, let’s get the names of the documents correct. A department should maintain both a policy manual and a best practice manual, which is frequently but incorrectly titled Standard Operating Procedures.

Consider the following actions.

Change the name of your department’s Standard Operating Procedures to Best Practices – Most states don’t permit the introduction of a best practice when it’s stricter than the recognized standard of care.

Never label operational guidelines and procedures as policies, as they would then be nondiscretionary. A department may be held liable for failing to follow a nondiscretionary policy, but is rarely held liable for failing to adhere to a best practice that only suggests what we hope will happen.

Insert introductory and disclaimer language in your best practices – Here’s an example of this kind of language:

This document represents a series of best practices. It’s intended only for the use of this agency and not for any other agency. It’s not intended to be relied on by any other individual, public or private, or agency. The document may not be utilized in court or in any other forum against the agency or against any individual other than use by the agency.

The imposition of discipline by the agency against any individual under control of this agency isn’t proof of failure to comply with the standard of care, but only with this agency’s practices. In many cases, these best practices strive to exceed the standard practice.

Adoption of NFPA, when done so, isn’t a recognition of the standard but an attempt to achieve the best practice. Failure to adopt the NFPA is not the failure to meet a standard of care but a conscious choice of which practices are the best for this agency.

Choose the right words – Eliminate words such as must or shall from best practices and utilize words such as should and may. Words that indicate there’s no discretion might permit the introduction of that procedure as a standard, leading to a finding of negligence for failing to adhere to the standard. Firefighters are rarely held liable for making the wrong decision in an emergency event, so long as that poor judgment didn’t violate a policy.

Separate policies from procedures – Keep them in separate manuals or sections of a manual. Determine which are policies and which are best practices. Generally, all issues involving firefighting are discretionary and should not be policies. Examples of policies include:

  • Wearing seatbelts while in a vehicle
  • Using a spotter to back up a vehicle
  • Avoiding engaging in sexually harassing conduct
  • Keeping medical information confidential

Breaches of policies usually involve some sort of discipline. Breaches of procedures usually involve retraining or reviews of decisions.

Which policies should I draft first?

Start with the organizational statement required by OSHA and suggested by NFPA. Then conduct a risk-management evaluation. After the risk evaluation is complete, provide a list of required training, including skill-competency tests to limit the risks identified.

The list of potential policies is long, but a few good policies address:

  • Driver training and recertification
  • Physical and mental abilities
  • Photography
  • Light duty
  • Discipline (define misconduct and provide the discipline process)
  • Drug and alcohol use and drug testing
  • Any policies required by law, such as OSHA policies

A policy manual is a living document; you should constantly update it to reflect new issues that have or almost have occurred, dictating the required conduct in the future.

As everyone knows, if we ignore history, it’s sure to repeat itself. Don’t let your policy manual just be a book on the shelf.

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