Addressing Firefighter Deviation from Policy

by | December 7, 2018

Why do firefighters deviate from policy? And when it happens, what is the right way to address the deviation? Before we delve into these questions, let’s look at two recent instances of firefighter deviation from policy that made headlines.

In Dallas, firefighters deviated from a newly instituted policy when they entered a home during a shooting incident. The firefighters knew two people, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, were inside the home. They knowingly deviated from the policy requiring them to wait for police before entering a violent scene. Although the mother died, the baby was later delivered via C-section at the hospital.

In Phoenix, a fire marshal was demoted for violating the department ethics policy after he accepted a $100,000 check, while on duty, from a philanthropist whose business had failed its fire inspection 11 months earlier. The check was a donation to a non-profit organization in which the fire marshal and his family were involved. The City of Phoenix Human Resources Department imposed the discipline even as it concluded there was no indication the philanthropist’s business received any special treatment when it came to a fire code waiver.

Initial Actions

Firefighter deviation from policy is rarely a simple matter for supervisors and administrators. When a member deviates from policy or procedure, don’t accept it as a one-off event or write it off as OK because the outcome was positive. Deviation from policy requires an investigation exploring the following questions:

  • Is the policy/procedure written so it is usable and achieves its stated purpose?
  • Has the member been trained on the policy?
  • Did the policy deviation occur during a time-critical event where the member used recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM)?
  • Did the policy deviation occur during a non-time-critical event where a more classic decision-making process was or should have been used?

Two caveats as you begin the investigation: First, until the reason for deviation from policy or procedure is determined, it should not be categorized differently. Using any other term, such as ignored, disregarded or failed to observe, implies the member did something wrong when, in fact, that determination will be the result of the investigation. By contrast, deviation implies no fault; it’s simply a fact.

Second, don’t overcomplicate your conclusion. Generally, the investigation should have one of four outcomes:

  1. Determination the deviation was the result of poorly written policy or procedure
  2. Determination the deviation was the result of lack of training on the policy or procedure
  3. Determination the deviation was proper under the conditions and was made for an articulable reason, based upon the experience and knowledge of the member
  4. Determination the deviation was improper because it occurred without an articulable reason

With those guidelines in mind, let’s look at each question in detail.

Did the policy/procedure properly account for the situation?

A poorly written policy or procedure is one that does not adequately address law, best practice, current equipment and technology. Importantly, the policy must also reflect the reality of how the organization operates. If your investigation finds the policy or procedure is inadequate, then it needs to be updated before a member can be found to have ignored or disregarded it. It can be as simple as your fire investigation policy failing to require the use of a thermal imaging camera (TIC). If a member fails to use a TIC and the incident commander clears a scene where a fire later erupts, the failure of the policy is glaring.

Was the member trained on the policy/procedure?

Put simply: How can a member be found to have disregarded or ignored a policy on which they were never trained? Initial and continuous training using policy and procedure is a key part of implementation and use. Consistent training reinforces a policy or procedure and makes it a part of the member’s decision-making process, whether that decision is made during RPDM or classical decision-making.

We all know the phrase “go to your training.” Well, a member can’t go to their training if they never had it. Training is a department responsibility and if a member deviated from policy because they were not adequately trained on it, the blame lies with the department.

Did the policy deviation occur during a time-critical event?

If the policy or procedure is found to be valid and the member was trained on it, we can move on to examine the member’s reason for deviating.

When it comes to time-critical incidents, firefighters usually employ RPDM. A member will quickly, within seconds:

  1. Evaluate a situation
  2. Consider a solution based on training and previous experience
  3. Run a quick validation and either accept or discard the solution, repeating this process until an acceptable solution is determined and then implemented

Any hope of following policy or procedure in RPDM requires continual training on policy and procedure so that when a member in a time-critical situation goes to their training and experience, the policy and procedure is included in that process.

A common example of a time-critical policy deviation is failure to perform a 360-degree assessment, per scene-arrival procedures, when confronted with visible smoke and fire upon arrival. Instead, the crew immediately commences operations based on what the company officer sees in front of him or her, leading to a failure to fully size-up the scene and assess location of victims or fire on the B, C or D sides.

Did the policy deviation occur during a non-time-critical event?

Non-time-critical deviations are easier to assess. Here, a member engages in a more classic decision-making process of identification, analysis, evaluation and implementation. Often this process will include asking for advice from other members before making the decision.

In non-time-critical events, it should be second nature that the policy/procedure is followed (remember, we’re assuming the policy is well written and valid and the member has been trained on it). Firefighter deviation from policy in non-time-critical events is likely due to a conscious decision to disregard the policy. Such decisions are usually attributable to lack of emphasis on policy or procedure from leadership, misplaced priorities or the member simply believing they know better. The member may rationalize his or her decision, especially when there is a lack of consequences, but there is rarely a valid reason for disregarding policy or procedure in non-time-critical scenarios.

If a member deviated from policy because they were not adequately trained on it, the blame lies with the department.

Consider the following example of a non-time-critical deviation from the operational readiness policy/procedure: Apparatus operators are required to inspect the personnel accountability materials on the apparatus at the start of their shift. An operator conducts the inspection and finds several tags are missing. Following procedure, the operator reports this to her company officer.

The procedure further requires the company officer to make repair or replacement of missing equipment a priority at start of shift. The company officer receives the information but decides to deal with the missing personal accountability materials after reviewing and finishing incident reports for NFIRS. In the meantime, a structure fire with rescue assignment is received and the company responds. Two members find themselves having to make entry without tagging in.

We don’t need to go further with the example. The company officer clearly made a conscious decision to disregard policy and a chain of events follows. Assuming the company officer was trained on the procedure, his priorities were misplaced.

Digging Deeper

The Dallas and Phoenix examples we started with further illustrate that deviation from policy is rarely black and white. We’ll assume the members were trained on the applicable policies. The Dallas example is a time-critical situation involving firefighters confronted with the knowledge that there were gunshot victims in a house with the shooter in the vicinity and police not on scene. Perhaps the policy needs to be restated to adequately protect the department and its members while accounting for the realities of such incidents. If it is determined the policy is appropriate, should training evolutions include scenarios where members must wait to reach known victims and mandatory post-incident stress debriefing?

The Phoenix example, where the fire marshal accepted a substantial donation while on duty for a charity in which he was involved and as a result was demoted, is non-time-critical. It required a detailed investigation to determine the circumstances. Here, the city of Phoenix deemed it appropriate to demote the fire marshal, while also finding that the business owner didn’t receive favorable treatment.

The bottom line: Each firefighter deviation from policy should be the subject of a thorough investigation that starts with questioning the validity and applicability of the policy or procedure itself. Next, determine whether the member was initially and consistently trained on the policy. Then review the conditions under which the deviation took place. Only then can you properly determine whether the policy needs to be updated, additional training is required, or the member’s actions were proper or improper.

SCOTT ESKWITT is Director of Fire Policy and Training Content for Lexipol. He is an active member of the Fair Haven (NJ) Fire Department, serving as Chief from 2012 to 2015. He is also a member of the Fair Haven First Aid Squad and the Red Bank (NJ) Fire Department. Scott is also an attorney and has spent his legal career advising municipalities and fire departments on risk management, human resources and labor relations issues. His undergraduate degree in Industrial & Labor Relations was received from Cornell University and his law degree from SUNY Law at Buffalo.

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