In many fire departments, it’s easy to point to a policy or procedure and trace it back to a specific individual or incident. Sometimes these documents are even referred to by a person’s name!
While this approach to policy is common, we don’t have to give it much thought to expose some problems: It runs the risk of punishing all members for the actions of one. It creates policies that are unnecessarily specific, which in turn can create inconsistencies across the department’s approach to policy—getting highly specific on some topics but remaining broad-based on others.
Perhaps most importantly, however, this approach places the department and its leadership in reactive mode. “Behavior should be created by the policy,” not the opposite, says Scott Eskwitt, director of fire policy and procedure content for Lexipol and former chief of the Fair Haven (N.J.) Fire Department, where he remains an active member. “Policy should anticipate the need before it arises. You don’t want to institute the sexual harassment policy after you’ve already been sued.”
Eskwitt’s remarks are part of a recent episode of the Smart Firefighting podcast, hosted by Kevin Sofen. The podcast covers technologists, innovators, companies, and forward-thinking public safety agencies with real-world deployments of smart technologies.
“Policy should anticipate the need before it arises. You don’t want to institute the sexual harassment policy after you’ve already been sued.”
Although policies might not seem to fit into this high-tech realm, Kevin and Scott discuss how essential it is for policies to precede the deployment of new technologies—such as drones—and to address even the technologies in widespread use—such as thermal imaging cameras.
“A lot of departments started using drones before they had a policy for it,” which in some cases created problems, Eskwitt says. “There are potential constitutional rights violations, FAA and DOT guidelines and regulations that must be followed,” not to mention aspects such as training and record-keeping. “The policy should be in place before the drone is deployed.”
Using policy to drive behavior, rather than the other way around, is connected to two other topics Sofen and Eskwitt discuss in the podcast: using policy to reduce risk and how policy can influence behavior without threatening fire service culture.
“Do you really want to try to change fire service culture?” Eswkitt asks. “What you want to focus more on is the behavior—the way a member of the fire service acts. That’s a much easier task for the fire officer because you can focus on training and specific behaviors,” rather than wholescale cultural change.
He uses hazing as an example. Prohibiting hazing without having a policy in place can lead other firefighters to feel new recruits aren’t truly being integrated into the department. When a fire officer stops or prevents hazing activity, it can leave them open to accusations of favoritism or “being soft.”
“But if you have a policy that prohibits bullying and hazing, you can train on that policy, so that members are learning a different behavior,” Eskwitt says. “There are scenarios you go through to demonstrate what’s right and what’s wrong, there’s an avenue for reporting of the behavior that is not going to result in any kind of retaliation, and there is a disciplinary procedure for violation of the policy—and you’re applying that policy consistently. That’s how you’re driving a change in behavior.”
The bottom line, Eskwitt says, is that fire service leaders should look at policy as a proactive rather than reactive tool in their quest to minimize risk. Ideally, policy is not something you “put in place to try to solve the problem”—rather, policy reduces the chance the problem will arise in the first place.