By Author(s): Scott Cook 
Published Thursday, September 9, 2010
Last month I wrote about the collision of USS Hartford and USS New Orleans and its relationship to the fire service, specifically in relation to officer responsibilities. You’ll recall that the Navy’s report concluded that the Hartford’s officers failed to maintain high standards of conduct and performance.
Before you read on, let me be perfectly clear: I’m not advocating being a hard-ass unless it’s absolutely necessary. In fact, when I was chief, the second-best compliment I ever received was when one of my firefighters said, “Chief, you’re the biggest kid we have on the department.” (The best compliment of all was being elected, and then re-elected, chief in the first place.)
With all that in mind…
Revisit the Standards
This is a subject I’ve written about before, because I believe it’s so important. Every department has standards (or codes) of conduct and performance, standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) whether or not they’re written (for brevity, I'll refer to all of these as "standards"). These standards should draw clear lines for what is and is not acceptable behavior and performance; they’re also used to ensure consistency in performance reviews and disciplinary actions.
If your standards aren’t written down, you need to do that as soon as possible. If you already have these documents in place, however, your work is hardly over. You need to periodically review them to ensure that you and your personnel are living by them.
A point of clarification: Abiding by the standards doesn’t mean that there is never any deviation from the letter of the law. I don’t agree with zero tolerance for the vast majority of issues. But it’s important to do a periodic check to ensure that the spirit of those standards is being upheld—by all personnel.
This periodic check should include interviews and meetings with personnel, rereading the standards (yeah, re-educating yourself and the troops), conducting quality assurance reviews of written records, and conducting a walk-through of the station to evaluate whether standards for training, equipment maintenance, etc., are being met.
Should you find a situation where the standards aren’t being met, be sure to get all the details before addressing it—don’t go off half-cocked. Consider all angles: Is the standard known? Is the standard fair? Is the standard accurate? Is the standard relevant (as written, does it reflect the current state of conditions)? Is it willful misconduct?
I know of a department in the Dallas-Fort Worth Area that had standards that weren’t shared with the troops in a timely manner. The troops were held to the new or revised standards when they had no knowledge of the changes. Tip: Ensure that personnel read and sign off on any standard they’ll be held to. Should discipline be handed out for a standard violation, the standard must be referenced, as well as when personnel were informed of the standard.
Your periodic check should also include a method for improving and revising the standard. And I don’t mean an email to the chief that says “this standard sucks.”
You also need to distinguish between standards that have a little wiggle room and those that don’t. Some of our Standard Operating Procedures can be interpreted a few different ways, and there must be room for the members involved to exercise discretion. But standards that are designed to address legal requirements, such as OSHA requirements and other labor laws, and sexual harassment policies, are what I call “hard-call policies”—there’s no room for interpretation and in many cases, there must be a zero-tolerance policy associated with them.
To reduce confusion, hard-call policies and procedures should be titled as such. For example:
- A specific activity that must be handled the same way every time should be called a procedure. It is a step-by-step process that ensures consistency. An example of this would be (to borrow from Gordon Graham) “Non-Punitive Close Call Reporting,” reporting maintenance issues, or even something as simple as inspecting PPE.
- A specific rule (again, such as sexual harassment, smoking, computer/Internet use) should be called a policy. This is the rule. Read it, learn it, live it.
- Procedures that allow for wiggle room based on experience and the dynamic activities of emergency operations should be called guidelines. Consider that there is absolutely no way to account for the myriad conditions on an emergency scene: time, traffic, weather, exposures, rescue, water supply, crew complement, first due, terrain, etc. Therefore, we should allow our officers the authority to use their experience to make the necessary changes for a safe and effective operation. Note: A guideline is written in procedural style (step-by-step), but has a clause that clearly states that the guideline may not cover all situations, and that the authority to deviate from it belongs to the on-scene incident commander. That person shall be responsible for the consequences of their actions.
I bring this up because the incident that I wrote about last month, involving the Navy ship collision, was a result of a leadership team that let the standards of conduct slide. And that, in effect, creates a new standard. That’s right: When you let slide a violation of safety practices or personnel conduct, you’ve created a new standard, even if it’s never written down.
Let me give you an example. Every day you come to work at 0700 HRS and there are station duties to be done ASAP by policy: Check and wash E2, clean the station, and so forth. One person (let’s call him Brent) more often than not finds a way to avoid these duties. Maybe Brent’s sick, in the bathroom, or just too tired from the previous night’s activities. Brent is never disciplined for his decision to not do the daily duties. Eventually, no one does the daily duties first thing in the morning. No disciplinary actions befell Brent, so what motivation do the other personnel have to do the duties ASAP? You can get to them later, after the pregame shows and all the recaps.
E2 hasn’t turned a wheel all day. The bay doors haven’t even been opened. At 1900 HRS the first call of the day comes in. E2 is dispatched first due to a structure fire, but can’t respond because it won’t start—the batteries are dead. An investigation reveals that the truck was not checked at the start of shift (as required by written policy) and the shore power was unplugged. All of the electronic stuff and recharging battery-powered devices we now have on the truck (radios, flashlights, computer, TICs, gas detectors, cell phones, EMS equipment, etc.) drained the batteries of the apparatus. Now it’s time to hang the engineer on the yard arm for not checking his apparatus.
Not so fast…
Even though you have a written policy for daily duties, that policy has been changed. You failed to enforce that policy for how long? And now, only when it’s obvious to the community you serve that your leadership is lacking, do you choose to enforce it?
Good luck with that. Sure, the engineer failed to perform his assigned duties in a timely fashion. But the root cause of this issue is you failed to perform your duties in timely fashion.
The Legal Side
But the really ugly side of policies and codes comes into play with personnel grievances. If you don’t have written policies and you decide to take action against the obvious offense, you get the “I didn’t know” or the “It ain’t written down anywhere” excuse—and you can’t prove otherwise. Even if the policy is written down, if the lawyers can show that there was a pattern of not enforcing it, or that personnel weren’t made familiar with such policies, you may be liable.
A Final Word
Earlier this year, a white paper  from the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association caused a bit of a stir, claiming that a few bad apples were hurting the overall reputation of the fire service. I enjoy a good practical joke and a light, jovial mood around the fire station as much as anyone else. But as this report points out, the public holds us to a higher standard, and when we lower the bar, their support for us lowers as well. In tough economic times, that’s a sacrifice we can’t afford to make.
The bottom line: You must, for the safety and wellbeing of your troops, expect compliance with codes and standards, and take appropriate actions to correct non-compliance. Start by leading by example.
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