Public Safety Policies and Performance Reviews

Few enjoy giving them, much less receiving them. Preparing to give a performance review can be more stressful than studying for a promotional exam. I don’t like receiving or giving them, but I know they must be done. Performance reviews can be a lot easier if clear, effective policies are in place and everyone in the organization understands them, trains for them and follows them.

It’s important for leaders to ask, “Do our performance reviews reflect our policies?” It is also critical that agency performance reviews follow departmental policies. This will provide effective criteria for good job performance and evaluations. It can also keep your agency out of the “legal limelight.”

Old-School “Standards”

I still remember my very first performance review. As a relatively new firefighter, I felt like I was being called into the principal’s office — that I was in trouble. My captain was a very firm but fair supervisor and I really enjoyed working under his direction. Though I had a few areas he recommended for improvement, I was quite happy with the review.

Six months later, while still a probationary firefighter, I was assigned to a new shift. I also had a new captain who was known for being extremely hard. Of course, I dreaded the fact that I was being transferred to a new spot, even more so because I would be under the command of this leader who everyone seemed to fear. Though I tried double hard with my new captain, I somehow failed miserably at everything I did. Nothing was up to his standards, though as it turned out, his standards didn’t quite square with department policies. Thirty years ago, you could get away with something like that. In today’s world … not so fast!

Later, I moved on to a new shift and a new captain to finish my last six months of probation. This third captain was less engaged, and his “standard” was basically that he didn’t want to be bothered. I realized then we had the A-shift fire department, the B-shift fire department, and the C-shift fire department — all under one roof. Instead of working from the department’s standard operating policies (SOPs), we were operating from shift to shift based on personal bias. You can probably guess how ineffective this was, not to mention the amount of liability this created for the department.

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“Standards” and Performance Reviews

Poor performance reviews should never come as a surprise. If an employee is clearly not acting in accordance with department policies, they need to be informed as soon as the problem behavior is recognized. This needs to happen well in advance of a formal performance review to provide ample time for the employee to fix problem behaviors.

When the time for performance reviews rolls around, the actual review should be a chance to assess the employee’s behaviors and attitudes, paying particular attention to areas they have been asked to work on during the review period. Though they should be fair, the bigger question is whether the performance review should be based on department policy or personal preferences. The answer, of course, is that department policy should dictate both everyday workday activity and performance reviews.

In the fire service, personnel are hired, go through the probationary process and are eventually tested on their skills and abilities. Too often, though, retention in the organization drops because employees (both new and tenured) do not train and practice based on department policies.

When the time for performance reviews rolls around, the actual review should be a chance to assess the employee’s behaviors and attitudes, paying particular attention to areas they have been asked to work on during the review period.

Train the Way You Fight

There’s an old army saying: “You fight the way you train, so train the way you fight.” This is true whether you’re fighting wars or fighting fires.

In his article, “Improving Personnel Performance Through Evaluation and Training,” law enforcement veteran Rex Scism emphasizes the importance of effective employee training and performance evaluations in enhancing operational performance in public safety agencies. Recognizing the critical role both training and evaluations play in employee development, Scism highlights the need for command staff to dedicate substantial time and effort building processes to boost their value.

By focusing on engagement, communication, and accountability, Scism says, good leaders help create a culture that promotes continuous improvement and prepares employees for future challenges. Doing so can contribute to the overall long-term success of the organization.

Types of Training

When it comes to employee development, effective training strategies play a pivotal role in integrating new personnel, teaching job-specific skills and fostering career growth within an organization. Public safety leaders do this by implementing three distinct types of training:

Orientation training: For staff members who recently joined the team (either as a fresh recruit or a recent transfer), agencies provide orientation training aimed at familiarizing them with the operational setting as well as the coworkers they’ll be serving with. For this type of training, it’s imperative to clearly outline performance expectations and introduce trainees to standard operational policies and procedures.

Instruction training: From time to time, it’s necessary to introduce new responsibilities or procedures to employees. Instruction training sessions focus on job-specific tasks and/or instructions. Similar to Field Training Officer (FTO) programs in law enforcement, this type of training incorporates an element of inspection and evaluation, also eliciting feedback from the subordinate to help assess the effectiveness of the training program.

Career development training: Good public safety leaders work to foster growth within their organizations. With career development training, they assess employee knowledge, skills and abilities while also gauging advancement potential. Leaders may also delegate specialized duties, enabling subordinates to assume additional responsibilities.

As public safety leaders, we train our team members with the aim of enhancing their ability to accomplish agency objectives. When done strategically, Scism says, this kind of training:

  • Reduces time spent on direct supervision
  • Reduces agency liability
  • Reduces the propensity for errors and mistakes
  • Is a major responsibility of agency leadership
  • Creates a better, more well-rounded and prepared employee

Policies and Performance Reviews

Once everyone on your team has been introduced to the job, trained on the skills required and allowed to perform for a while, performance reviews are a helpful way to evaluate how well things are going. The goal of any performance review should be to identify employee strengths and weaknesses, and come up with ways to boost the former and mitigate the latter. Regardless of whether the process is formal or informal, it’s important to do the following:

Ensure transparency: To establish clear expectations and address performance strengths and weaknesses, communicate at least quarterly with your employees about how they’re doing so far. Regular, timely feedback ensures employees are never caught off guard when performance reviews are held.

Allocate sufficient time: Avoid the last-minute rush by planning ahead and taking time before you meet with your employee. This allows you to recall specific details and tie them back to agency policy. For best results, prepare an agenda and follow it.

Conduct reviews face to face: Schedule dedicated time with your employees to go through each dimension of the evaluation in person. Encourage questions and open dialogue to help foster accountability and explore solutions for improvement.

Here’s the scary part: When conducting your employee performance reviews, it’s critical to remain open to criticism from the people you supervise. True leadership requires continuous learning and improvement, and there is almost always something you can take away from a review — a change or two you can take to heart to make things better for the people you lead. Be sure to have copies of your agency’s current policies on hand to review if questions come up during the review process.

Reviews Are Your Responsibility

Remember: You signed up for this. Policy training and performance evaluations are an integral part of a public safety leader’s job. These processes help ensure members of your team are not only familiar with the guidelines and procedures critical to their roles but also follow them consistently.

By setting clear expectations through policy training, first responders learn the knowledge and skills necessary to function in complicated, high-stress environments. Meanwhile, performance evaluations provide a structured mechanism for feedback and improvement, highlighting areas of excellence and identifying those where they may need further work. Together, these elements foster a culture of accountability, continuous learning and operational efficiency, which are vital for maintaining public trust and ensuring the safety and well-being of your community.

If your agency subscribes to Lexipol’s policy manual, refer to the Performance Evaluations policy for more information about conducting effective reviews.

Sam DiGiovanna

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 40-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department, and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale. He also is also a Senior Consultant for Lexipol and the Cordico wellness solution.

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