Keeping the Small Fire Department on Track and in Line

Steve Meyer reports that, as necessary as they are to keeping a small fire department on track, the absence of appropriate policies and procedures is epidemic.


It’s an admirable accomplishment to have a dynamic, progressive volunteer fire department with a full roster of members doing all the right things. Such an esteemed goal drives any volunteer chief from a small fire department who takes his or her position with the seriousness it deserves. A...


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It’s an admirable accomplishment to have a dynamic, progressive volunteer fire department with a full roster of members doing all the right things. Such an esteemed goal drives any volunteer chief from a small fire department who takes his or her position with the seriousness it deserves.

A number of components enter into the mix of a fire department with such composition, the primary element being the right people under the direction of conscientious leadership. Another element is order. Order doesn’t just happen. It’s a combination of having policies and procedures, leadership with the backbone to make them stick and worthwhile departmental meetings.

As necessary as they are to keeping a small fire department on track, the absence of appropriate policies and procedures is epidemic. Second to an absence of these invaluable guiding principles are policies and procedures that are dangerously out of date. There is no statistical evidence to back those statements, but ask anyone who circulates the ranks of small fire departments and they will concede the point is accurate. They will also most likely note that the lack of a good slate of policies and procedures is detrimental to effective operation of a small fire department, both at incidents and in the conduct of routine functions.

The reason for the void of policies and procedures in a small fire department boils down to three things: tradition, time and leadership. A vast majority of small fire departments were founded with scant policies and procedures at best to begin with and, in keeping with tradition, they have remained that way. The extensive time and effort it takes to generate policies and procedures often leaves volunteer fire officers stymied at the notion of even attempting to develop them. In other instances, policies and procedures are regarded with outright disdain by departmental leadership as something that is “just a bunch of big-city stuff.”

WHY DO WE NEED THIS?

Before going any further, it is necessary to establish why we need all this “policy and procedure stuff.” After all, “We all know what to do and who’s in charge.” That may be true for the present, but what about the future?

Without anything in writing, what reference point do you have for keeping a fire department on a course of operational effectiveness? Without having things in writing, how can you verify that someone or some activity has drifted from what is acceptable to the department? And, what about the increasingly common situation in which fire officers from small fire departments find themselves face-to-face with attorneys questioning the way their departments operated at incidents.

There are four reasons for having a good slate of polices and procedures:

1. Establishing legal foundation.

2. Providing guidance and education. Policies and procedures are the guiding lights that direct education and training of new firefighters. Training in any fire department must be based on the department’s written operational procedures.

3. Maintaining continuity. Leadership and personnel in a small fire department can change quite rapidly. Within a 10-year period, there can be an entirely new set of firefighters on the roster and in the meantime several chiefs may have rotated through the chair. The only way of assuring operational effectiveness is carried on is to have things in writing, abiding by what is in writing and providing new members with copies of the department’s policies and procedures. Written policies and procedures do the department no good if the only place they can be found is in the chief’s office.

4. Managing misconduct. Policies and procedures describe what is acceptable and not acceptable in a small fire department as far as emergency operations and overall conduct of members are concerned. Policies and procedures set the standard for members of the small fire department. Policies and procedures also document the process of disciplinary action to be followed in the event of misconduct.

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