It’s that time of year when many of us air out the house, clear out the clutter and do a top-to-bottom cleaning. Spring cleaning probably dates to the ancient Jewish practice of thoroughly cleaning one’s home before Passover, although the tradition is found in many cultures. Iranians call it “shaking the house” and they do it on the first day of spring.
Regardless of how it started, the idea behind spring cleaning has applicability far beyond our homes. For instance, when was the last time you conducted a “spring cleaning” of your fire department policies?
Depending on how your department stores and distributes policies, the idea of spring cleaning policies may be more than just metaphor—it’s too easy for those big three-ring binders to gather dust at the bottom of our lockers! But today I want you to think about cleaning from a different angle.
Every public safety agency needs effective and current policies and procedures—now more so than ever with the ever-changing regulatory framework and development of threats that did not exist even a few years ago. Insufficient, outdated and non-existent policies pose a legal threat to fire departments regardless of size.
And yet, in many public safety agencies, policies are seldom updated—even on a yearly basis. Even if your department has an applicable policy or procedural content, members often don’t refer to the documents until after an incident has occurred. That can expose your department to liability—or as Gordon Graham says, create “a problem lying in wait.”
Following are some signs that your fire department policies may be overdue for a spring cleaning:
• New and existing employees don’t fully understand the organization’s expectations and requirements. Employees need to be aware of their specific roles and responsibilities to ensure a fair, equitable and safe understanding of the department’s goals and mission statements. Further, consider that people will do what’s expected of them when they know what’s expected of them. And in turn, morale and productivity will increase.
• You’re not confident that you’re in compliance with applicable laws and regulations. As you read this, incidents are happening that will make local, state and federal changes in what we do. From HIPAA to OSHA to NFPA and FLSA, there’s an “alphabet soup” of regulatory requirements to keep up with. Do your department’s policies reflect these requirements? And are you updating your policies as laws, threats, and regulations change, or are they the same as the day they were first created?
• You’re not regularly reviewing and studying policies. Many agencies create what they believe is a comprehensive policy manual, distribute it to their personnel and never mention it again. Do you really think your employees are reading the manual and identifying the specific roles and responsibilities that apply to them and their positions within the organization? Personnel should be reminded and trained on an ongoing basis about your department’s policies and procedures.
• You can’t produce documentation showing that your members read and acknowledged policies or completed policy-based training. When Gordon Graham speaks to law enforcement groups, he often describes the dreaded feeling a police chief has when he’s on the witness stand and is asked when the last time his officer was trained on the Use of Force Policy. That’s not a comfortable question if you can’t produce documentation! As firefighters, we face far fewer lawsuits than our brothers in blue, but just imagine having to answer a similar question from the mother of a firefighter who has been hurt or killed. You must have documentation and proof that your members have read, understood and acknowledged the policy. And just blasting policies out to personnel in e-mails and memos don’t suffice. We’ve all heard (and even used) the “I never got that email” excuse.
• Your policies don’t match your operational practices. Nearly every agency has outdated policies or policies that are simply ignored because they never made much sense in the first place. You may think this is harmless if everyone knows the policy isn’t in effect, but it can expose you to expensive and embarrassing lawsuits. If an accident or injury happens and lawyers get involved, you can be sure they’ll reference the policy book. “Yeah, but everyone knows we don’t do that” won’t sound so good then.
The bottom line: Your department can be liable for policies you don’t have, the policies you have but are being ignored, and policies that are out-of-date. If any of the above warning signs hit home, it’s time to get cleaning!