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Fire department policies: When you need them

Striking the right balance of policy and freedom to decide makes for a better-running fire department

There has become a very fine line between having a policy for everything and trusting our officers to use their own judgment. Many departments have even gone so far as to have different classifications for policies, guidelines and business rules to provide for variation, which sometimes has turned into more confusion.

The question is how do you find a balance that allows for appropriate judgment but also keeps all members safe and prevents potential liabilities?

There are certain policies and procedures that absolutely have to be in place. As an officer it is our duty to make sure that all of our staff have the equipment, training and capabilities to do the job. This includes physical testing, medical screenings and other test of readiness for each individual.

Tone setting
Additionally, minimum training standards such as the Firefigther I training or the like must be set to assure a base level of knowledge across the complete team.

The base level policies are so important because they set the tone for your entire standard operating policies or guidelines. If your people are properly prepared and equipped, there can be more room for decision making in your policies.

This is important because the fire service is ever changing and there is no way to plan for every possibility. Without the proper base in your members, the officers will have to direct every potential step, leading to inefficiencies and possible errors.

There is still a place for a set of daily policies or checklists. There are certain areas that should be exactly the same every time. This includes response protocols, preparedness and recovery after events.

Many say that checklists do not belong in the fire service, but if they can work in airplanes and operating rooms, they can work in the fire service. For a great read on the topic, take a look at Atul Gwande’s “Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.”

The other challenge in writing policies is that you tend to have two types of staff. There are those who want a policy for everything and those who want a policy for nothing.

The problem is that those who like policies will use them to their advantage, even if that is not the intent of the policy. Those who hate policies will ignore them, resulting in problems that have to be addressed by management if they are going to enforce the policy.

Guiding principle
Another option is to set up a guiding principle, or prime directive, for all decision making. This is much the same as the way the Constitution frames the U.S. government. Each department has to determine its own prime directive, but it needs to balance the health and well being of its members with the service that it provides to the community.

The goal is to provide a test for decision-making that can be used in all types of environments and emergencies. This test should bind your mission and your policies into one guiding principle.

The bottom line is that if your policies develop a good foundation to start and assures the members are prepared, then they can apply the guiding principle everywhere they go.

Creating a guiding principle can even bring your department into focus and may get around all of the policy fights. Share your guiding principle widely and all will benefit from it.

Volunteer fire departments face a unique set of challenges. Learn how to manage or serve on a volunteer department with Jason Zigmont, founder of, in his FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘Volunteer Professionals.’