FDIC 2019 Quick Take: 10 policies your fire department needs

Fire department policies go beyond liability to increase firefighter safety and reduce the risk for preventable injuries and line of duty deaths


INDIANAPOLIS — Policies and procedures have become increasingly important tools for fire service leaders in our complex, litigious society. Effective policies and procedures reduce liability, improve operations and enhance the health and safety of firefighters. Yet, a lack of policies is frequently cited as a contributing factor in firefighter fatalities in National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) firefighter fatality reports.

Curt Varone – attorney at law, deputy chief with the Exeter, Rhode Island, and deputy assistant chief with  Providence, Rhode Island (Ret.) – presented “10 High-Risk Policy Areas in the Fire Service” at FDIC 2019.

Varone dove into several high-risk policy areas associated with more than 75% of fire service litigation and an even higher percentage of firefighter line-of-duty deaths that should be the focus of a fire department’s policy set.

Curt Varone – attorney at law, deputy chief with the Exeter, Rhode Island, and deputy assistant chief with  Providence, Rhode Island (Ret.) – presented “10 High-Risk Policy Areas in the Fire Service” at FDIC 2019. (Photo courtesy http://www.firelawblog.com/)
Curt Varone – attorney at law, deputy chief with the Exeter, Rhode Island, and deputy assistant chief with  Providence, Rhode Island (Ret.) – presented “10 High-Risk Policy Areas in the Fire Service” at FDIC 2019. (Photo courtesy http://www.firelawblog.com/)

Key quotes on fire department policies

Varone had attendees laughing at points and shaking their heads at others. Here are some quotes that stood out from his presentation.

 “What is more likely to prevent a preventable crash, having a policy that says you may stop or you will stop?”

“Liability closely tracks safety.”

“Lawyers are overly concerned with having a good defense after the fact.”

“The role of policy is to help you avoid icebergs, not to hit an iceberg and then avoid liability.”

Top takeaways on fire department policy

Varone shared his top takeaways from his years-long research into the types of incidents that result in firefighter injury, death and litigation.

1.  Policies are in place to prevent preventable injuries, not reduce liability

The old school mentality of “less is more,” “don’t put it in writing” and “wiggle room” stem from an antiquated belief that policies can get you in trouble, Varone noted. But what are we actually trying to avoid?

Varone presented the analogy of an airline. Imagine an engine falls off an airplane mid-flight and lands on a house. The homeowners promptly sue the airline for damages and emotional anguish. An investigation identifies an airline policy dictating maintenance procedures to check the torque on engine bolts at 40 hours of runtime intervals. A systemic breakdown means mechanics and supervisors were not following the policy.

The question often asked is “would they have been better off without written procedures?” What if they called them “guidelines” or “best practices” rather than policies – would that reduce liability? Varone turned the question back on the audience. “What caused them to be liable? Was it their policies? The engine fell off the plane! That’s what caused them to be liable. Not guidelines or policies.”

Varone noted many fire departments are afraid to have a written policy in place mandating fire apparatus operators stop at red lights even while responding to an incident. “We want to give them wiggle room and avoid liability,” he said. “What makes you liable? The crash.”

Look at the Titanic. “Managing liability after we hit the iceberg is largely an illusion,” Varone stressed. “You cannot expect to take 1,500 people out into the North Atlantic, hit an iceberg and kill 600 people, and not expect to be sued.” Similarly, “if one of your engines runs a red light and kills a family of four, you’re going to be liable.”

The goal of fire service leadership is to prevent preventable crashes, Varone noted. “When we’re focused on safety, we can prevent the accident and prevent the liability. If you are sincerely concerned about liability, the best way to minimize liability is to prevent liability-creating events from happening. That is our solemn resp as fire chiefs and leaders.”

2. 5 operational fire department policies you need

Varone identified these five top high-risk areas of operation that require sound fire department policies:

  • Apparatus safety. Your department should have policies in place for emergency response, non-emergency response, routine traffic driving, driver training/certification, maintenance, accident investigation, operation of personally owned vehicles and operations at highway traffic incidents.

    Varone’s example of the mandatory stop at red lights isn’t just anecdotal; it’s NFPA national standard. “The more prudent course is to say mandatory stop at red lights; it’s more likely to prevent an accident,” he advised. Other areas to consider include speed limits, stop signs, direction of travel, lights and sirens

Level up: Once you update your apparatus operation policies, get buy-in from police. You don’t want your deputy and your engineer debating policy on the side of the road. That needs to be worked out at the chief level.

  • Structure fire operations. Structure fires are the most dangerous place for firefighters in terms of safety, Varone noted. NFPA and OSHA require fire departments to have an organizational statement.

    Identify the common types of incidents your department responds to, common evolutions, how personnel and apparatus will handle these incidents. Consider two in/two out, accountability, building evacuation, RIT, mayday, ICS and communications.

Level up: Consider the need for separate policies on residential, commercial, high-rise and special occupancies structure fires.

  • Tech rescue. Consider confined space, trench, hazmat, high-angle, swiftwater, flood water, ice, collapse, cave, mine, dive, surf and mountain operations. Have a separate policy for each discipline you’re going to respond to at the technician level.

    Where you’re going to enlist outside assistance, have a policy for where you’re getting the help.  

Level up: Not only do you need to specify the minimum amount of training needed in your policies, you also have to live up to it.

  • SCBA/PPE. While SCBA and PPE policies both require a lot of heavy lifting from OSHA and NFPA, these areas are highly scrutinized after a firefighter LODD, Varone noted. Departments have been cited for lacking policies in this area even when they weren’t related to the cause of death.

    Areas to include in policy writing encompass hazard identification, respirator selection, training, care/inspections, cleaning/decon and medical surveillance.

    Level up: Think long term. Include policies for repair, storage and retirement disposition.
  • EMS. EMS accounts for 70-90% of responses, and as such, is a huge area for liability. Consider policies on infection control, quality assurance and personnel training.

    Level up: Don’t forget about policies on documentation – both incident documentation and documenting training.

3. 5 areas of administrative policy your fire department should address

  • Computers, internet and electronic communications. “You absolutely need a policy on computers, internet and electronic communications – today,” Varone noted. “This is not something that can wait.” These invaluable tools but a liability trap. If you have computers but lack a formal policy on computers, the internet and electronic communications, you are probably in violation of state and federal laws.

Level up: You also need employees’ consent to copy electronic communications, something your devices do automatically. Without a waiver or signature as a condition of employment, you could be violating wiretap laws.

  • Digital imaging and social media. When we hire someone, we don’t assume they know how to stretch hose or wear SCBA, so we teach them, but we assume they know where the boundaries are for social media, Varone pointed out. Train new members, provide ongoing training and effective supervision.

Take the First Amendment, concerted activity (if you’re in a union/collected bargaining agreement) and whistleblower laws into account when creating your policies on social media.

Photographs and digital images get us in trouble in three ways: They are embarrassing, illegal or violate privacy or confidentiality.

Level up: As firefighters responding to emergencies are public officials engaged in a public function, digital imaging taken on a fire scene fall under public record laws, and it could be a criminal offense to delete them. Manage all photos taken, establish a procedure to collect and archive them, and treat photos as a public record and possibly evidence.

  • Discipline. Over a quarter of HR law suits in the fire service involve discipline, Varone reported. “We don’t do discipline well. We’re absolutely terrible when it comes to discipline.”

    “As leaders, we’re conditioned to want to have our firefighters’ backs (and we should). If were not convinced one of our firefighters did something seriously wrong, we don’t want to investigate.” Varone said. “The result is misconduct is ignored and tolerated. On other side, if we believe the accused is guilty, we aggressively pursue.”

    Find a balance between unchecked outrageous behavior (through too little discipline) and an unbearable workplace for those who are risking their lives every day (through too much).

Consider discipline policies on sexual misconduct, alcohol, larceny, social media, arson, drugs and photo/imagery.

Level up: Use the index card metaphor for implicit bias. On one side, write the initials of the firefighter you have the utmost respect for. On the other, write the initials of someone you detest. When you’re evaluating a situation, consider what you would do if it was the person on one side versus the other. If it’s consistent, that’s what you should do. Where it differs, you have an ethical gap.

  • Sexual harassment and misconduct. Despite four decades of sexual harassment lawsuits in the fire service, there is no indication of improvement, Varone pointed out. Adopt a clear sexual harassment policy, take all complaints seriously and fully investigate them.

Level up: The policy is necessary but is not going to solve the problem. Train all personnel, and train officers separately from firefighters on this issue. Training them together sends the message that they are the same, but they are not when it comes to harassment, Varone stressed. Officers cannot passively observe and ignore it.

  • Hazing, bullying, harassment and discrimination. This area needs a policy especially one that outlines what “pranks” are not acceptable, namely those that violate a law, disable equipment or impede readiness to respond (e.g., filling boots with water). The policy also needs to prohibit pranks directed at a person based on their protected status (e.g., race, gender, sex). There’s no place for hazing, bullying and harassment in the fire service,” Varone said.

    Level up: Look to military standards on rites of passage and differentiate between what’s allowed when you’re training new recruits versus what is harassment.

Look at your current policies and evaluate those for which:

  1. There are no safety concerns
  2. Being consistent is not a concern
  3. There are no liability concerns

If all three of these criteria are met, we don’t need a policy, Varone explained.

Learn more about firefighter policy and procedure

Learn more about how policies and procedures impact liability and, more importantly, firefighter safety with these resources from FireRescue1.

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