The Danger of Drifting—And Why Fire Department Policies Help

by | October 12, 2018

I recently read a story about two teenage boys who came upon an abandoned boat floating in the river. The paddles were broken, but that didn’t deter them. They jumped in the boat without much thought:

We shoved off and drifted downstream talking, joking, and carrying on. I’m not sure how much time passed as we floated aimlessly along, but we knew we were in trouble when a loud roar reached our ears. Up ahead, water was rushing over the dam. Panicked, we grabbed the broken paddles and pulled hard against the current. We managed to get close enough to the shore to safely jump out into shallow water, but the boat went over the edge. What started out as pure fun nearly ended in disaster.

While the boys may have learned a valuable lesson about boating safety, there’s a deeper message to this story as well: A good set of paddles can help us avoid danger. With the right paddles, we can move faster when we need to, slow down when the terrain requires it, and correct our direction when it turns out we’ve drifted into danger. Operate with broken paddles, and you might just lose the entire ship.In our fire departments, policies are a lot like those paddles. They’re designed to help us navigate the currents of training, preparation, civilian interactions, incident response, station maintenance and everything else that goes along with being part of a fire department. Yet too many of us operate day to day with department policies that are outdated, inconsistent or not legally sound. In other cases, we have good policies, but they never make it to those manning the boat. Instead they’re buried in lockers or binders where we quickly forget about them.This is a mistake. We need sound policies to keep us out of harm’s way. What can begin as a routine call or firehouse fun often ends in shipwreck because we drift along, neglecting to think ahead or notice how quickly we’ve moved away from what our policies dictate.

Like the boys drifting along in the boat, we often feel policies aren’t needed as long as the stream is running smoothly. In other words, when things are good, everyone is safe and we’re not experiencing any negative issues, we continue with the flow and everything seems fine. But the rapids are never far away. It’s too easy for the day-to-day current to turn violent, leaving us struggling to stay afloat.

When our department policies are lacking—or our knowledge of them and training on them is inadequate—eventually something will give and we may not be so lucky as those boys in the boat. Deaths, injuries or needless loss of property during incidents occur—and that in turn leads to lawsuits and litigation.

Policies won’t provide step-by-step guidance for every situation you’ll encounter, but they set broad goals and expectations that can keep your department moving forward smoothly. Just consider:
• A comprehensive anti-harassment policy can set a standard of behavior and prevent litigation related to bullying or sexual harassment—while also making the station a better place to live and work.
• A PPE cleaning policy can reduce exposure to toxic chemicals, potentially reducing incidences of cancer among your members—and in turn cutting down on medical and sick leave costs.
• A return-to-work policy can help ensure members get proper care and return to the physical fitness standards needed to perform the job safely before returning from an injury.
• A clearly written advance directives policy can guide members during high-stress EMS calls, helping them follow the wishes of the patient while remaining in line with the law.

Life is full of narrow channels to navigate. Public safety has even narrower channels. We cannot afford to simply drift. It’s downright dangerous and costly! We must have a goal and navigation plan if we expect to be successful. Thankfully, department policies provide this for us.

So ask yourself: If your policies were paddles, would they move you swiftly and confidently through the water, away from danger? Or would they be like those broken sticks that sent the boys’ boat spilling over the dam?

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 35-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 is also a Senior Consultant for Lexipol’s Cordico wellness solution.

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