A great deal of responsibility and accountability accompany that gold chief's badge and white helmet. Almost every fire department activity subjects personnel, the department, and the municipality to potential liability and the risk of a lawsuit – even training. As long as you perform your duties within reasonable, basic guidelines or established standards, and you document what, where, when and how you did it, you are laying the groundwork to cover yourself legally.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of the author
Chiefs, it’s time to talk about your department’s most important resource – people. A fire department is a group of individuals with a common interest, much like a corporate board of directors, a school board, a town council, a bowling league and even a family. The department exists to satisfy the needs of its customers – the community, the insurance industry and fellow department members. Unfortunately, the members may have different perceptions of the group’s organizational goals and objectives, leading to conflicts colored by facts, emotions and politics.
You should be proud to be the chief of your department. It’s an honor to be selected as the leader of a group in which you likely exhibit a great deal of personal pride. Like those who have preceded you, you probably share in the traditions of your organization and of the fire service. However, being the chief of a volunteer fire department isn’t what it used to be.
Popularity once ruled
Prior to the 1980s, volunteer fire chiefs were often selected by department members on the basis of popularity, often rewarding longevity. Too frequently, volunteer chiefs were the “supreme firefighters” who excelled at combating fire. Fire chiefs were responsible for ensuring the department operated smoothly and commanding the department through emergencies. A fire department bylaw, identifying the chain-of-command and organizational procedures for meetings, was the only document that guided its operation.
Times have changed. Once, fire officers were conditioned to assign higher priority to the safety of victims and property than to the safety of firefighters, who were conditioned to think they were invincible. In 1980, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) 1910.156 standard, pertaining to fire brigades, marked the beginning of the fire service’s “age of discovery,” in which firefighter safety became the primary concern for those responsible for organizing, training and equipping fire departments.
This was followed in 1987 by the adoption of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program. Then, along came the OSHA and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “HAZWOPER” (Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response) regulations, which identify levels of training for emergency responders to hazardous materials incidents. In addition, OSHA developed its final rule on confined-space entry, and today, we can add weapons of mass destruction. A great deal of responsibility and accountability accompany that gold chief’s badge and white helmet.
Thoughts about “chiefing”
Some fire chiefs still fall into the pitfalls of the past, such as the one sometimes seen on the fireground who, with the best of intentions, leads his firefighters into battle, but is not functioning as command. He may have become chief because he was the department’s best “water-squirter,” but a fundamental “chiefing” rule states that he cannot command an incident and squirt water or man a hoseline at the same time. Some jokingly suggest this dilemma can be solved by chaining and locking the chief to the pumper or command post at the scene.
If a chief can’t trust the people working behind him, then it’s either time to get a new group of firefighters or a new chief. A good training program and continuing education for the troops will provide a high confidence level for the chief, regarding his crew’s capabilities.
Finally, be careful about falling into the role of community fire expert. Unfortunately, some people think the role of the expert is to be called in at the last moment to share the blame.
Fire department liability issues
Legal and personal liability concerns should encourage rural fire departments to ensure that the department complies with the minimum requirements of applicable standards and regulations. Our democracy guarantees that an accounting be made when a wrong, or even an alleged wrong, is committed. In many cases, this accounting takes the form of a lawsuit.
Today’s fire departments are held increasingly liable by the people they serve and the personnel they lead. Almost every fire department activity subjects personnel, the department and the municipality to potential liability and the risk of a lawsuit. Any department member can be held liable for nonfeasance (failing to perform an act for which he was qualified); malfeasance (performing an act for which he was not qualified); or misfeasance (improperly performing an act for which he was qualified).
Legal liability is no different from personal liability. It means that each of us is responsible and liable for our actions. As long as you perform your duties within reasonable, basic guidelines or established standards, and you document what, where, when and how you did it, you are laying the groundwork to cover yourself legally.
Negligence is the failure to exercise the care a prudent person would usually exercise. To prove negligence, the injured party must show that the defendant owed a duty of care to the public and to the injured party, and that injury was caused by the defendant’s failure to perform that duty with required care and skill. In a civil lawsuit involving negligence, the action can be brought even if the defendant was acting in good faith and in the best interest of the plaintiff. Likewise, you or any member of your department can be sued for negligence even if you were doing your best to help the victim.
Once a duty of care has been established, it must be determined whether the defendant failed to conform to the standard of care imposed by the law of negligence. When an employee (fire department member) causes damage through negligence in the course of carrying out the employer’s business, the employer also may be liable for those damages. If an employee is acting beyond the instructions or directions of the employer, the employee is solely liable for damages.
Who owns “the monkey”?
Those involved in human resource development often use the word “monkey” to refer to an unresolved problem or issue. The monkey sits on the back of the person with the problem. Rural firefighters need to study what I like to call “monkey management.”
It is characteristic of human nature to want to help our fellow man. In fact, to many it’s a noble pursuit. But we must take care regarding monkeys, as some people are quite skilled at manipulating them from their own backs to the backs of others.
Some unlucky souls may unwittingly spend their days collecting the monkeys of others. I like to call them “monkey grabbers.” Monkey grabbers spend their time searching for the elusive monkey, and when they find it, they grab it from whoever is holding it. This, of course, prevents them from dealing with their own monkeys. Because of our desire to help people, we are all guilty of this to some extent.
Then of course, there are the “monkey shufflers,” who are always on the lookout for someone to whom they can shuffle their problem. We’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another, but some have made an art of it.
Fire departments are highly skilled and conditioned monkey-grabbing organizations. Community members make monkeys for your department by creating situations they cannot control and then calling you for help. Unfortunately, an unacceptable number of firefighters are injured or killed every year, many in vacant or abandoned structures, because they have been conditioned to be fearless monkey grabbers.
Here’s an unfortunate monkey shuffling/grabbing scenario:
1. A homeowner accidentally sets fire to his house.
2. He calls your department in a panic, essentially saying, “Come quickly and get this monkey.”
3. The tones hit, the house siren bellows and your firefighters race to get the monkey.
4. On the way to the fire, your pumper broadsides a car at an intersection, throwing unbelted firefighters about the vehicle and severely injuring the pregnant woman who is driving the car.
5. The house burns down, two firefighters are crippled for life and the woman’s unborn child dies.
You and your department members not only feel terrible about what has happened, but suddenly learn a lot about monkey ownership. You were trying to help, but are punished because you did not safeguard your firefighters and the public. Even though you explain that this accident was a stroke of bad luck, the lawsuits start rolling in. The homeowner’s insurance company sues you and your department because you failed to respond promptly. The accident is of little consequence to them. The families of the crippled firefighters sue you because you permitted them to ride without seatbelts. The pregnant woman sues you, the pumper driver and the fire department for failing to stop at the intersection.
Meanwhile, the homeowner receives no punishment for starting the fire. In fact, sympathy rolls in, as do the insurance dollars. His new home will probably be nicer than the old one. An unfortunate rule of monkey management is that those who shuffle monkeys often get rewarded for their bad deeds while those who grab monkeys often are punished for their good deeds.
It may sound coldhearted, but fire departments have to practice good monkey management. Your government body’s job is to set policy and to decide the level of protection within the community. Don’t let them shuffle their monkeys to you. Also, don’t be eager to grab your customers’ emergencies. Regardless of the time and precautions you take, you will eventually get to the scene to help them deal with their monkey.
Even the insurance industry, which is designed to be a monkey grabber, has learned the fine art of monkey shuffling. An insurance company is quick to sue a fire department if it feels the department did not do its job properly.
Policies and procedures
Policies are written statements that clearly document the policy decisions made by the department’s governing body based on budget and other considerations. The governing body may be the town council, a fire commission, a fire board, and in some cases, the volunteer fire department itself.
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are written directives that ensure the operational decisions made on a day-to-day basis are in accord with established policies. NFPA 1500 defines an SOP as an organizational directive that establishes a standard course of action. SOPs are intended to provide the framework for operational decisions. Operational decisions are made at lower levels of the hierarchy and deal mainly with implementing policy and carrying out the directives of the governing body.
The chief is responsible for ensuring that the department addresses all of the policies and procedures specified in NFPA 1500. Governing bodies, not fire chiefs, develop and adopt policies. However, it is the responsibility of the fire chief to point out inadequate policies to the governing body. The chief must also ensure the development, implementation, maintenance and enforcement of SOPs that are consistent with adopted policies.
Too often, people are expected to follow unwritten rules that are subject to individual interpretation. Written policies and procedures demonstrate that the organization has taken the time to define what it expects of its members. The liability for following policy decisions ultimately rests with the chief. However, members must be held accountable for following established policies and procedures.
In the event of a lawsuit, you will be required to testify to your members’ actions, and whether those actions conformed to established policy and procedures. Fire department operations must follow sound, established procedures, backed by thorough training and the proper supervision of personnel. Professional judgment must reflect the current state of fire service knowledge, and you are expected to keep up with the changes.
Department personnel must learn to make only those decisions and take only those actions for which they are qualified. Your department should always be prepared for litigation, as emergency response involves potential risk and loss. Written policies and procedures provide evidence for your testimony in court. Without SOPs, it will be assumed that fire department members are permitted to make their own operational decisions.
Some departments frown on SOPs, contending their creation is a waste of time and effort. Perhaps some departments are even afraid to admit to their unwritten procedures. However, SOPs are a high priority required by both OSHA and NFPA standards, so they should be one of the most vital of your vital few tasks.
We hope you have found this column on rural fire department management helpful. For more information, the Rural Firefighting Academy offers a Rural Firefighting Operations Online Course at LiveFireTraining.com. The course includes 38 pages of model Standard Operating Procedures. Students who successfully complete the 20-hour course receive a certificate of completion from the academy to document their achievement.