Keeping the Small Fire Department on Track and in Line

April 1, 2004
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 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 Second to an absence of these invaluable guiding principles are policies and procedures that are dangerously out of date.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.”


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. Written policies and procedures establish one important thing: a small fire department’s right to exist and do the things it does. Without something in writing establishing the department and its scope of service, the department is not a legal entity. Also, fire departments with a solid slate of policies and procedures have found themselves in a more favorable position in legal matters, including lawsuits, than those departments without them.

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.


Among those who have now gotten into the meat of this article are undoubtedly members of small fire departments with fearfully inadequate, out-of-date policies and procedures – or with no policies and procedures at all. Or, perhaps your department has a reasonably good slate of policies and procedures that just needs a little touching up here and there.

That brings about the ominous question: Where do I begin? Basically, policies and procedures must be in tune with the organizational needs; must satisfy legal requirements; must comply with firefighting standards; and must be sensitive to local capabilities.

That’s easily said, but so easily accomplished.

For a small fire department looking to establish a slate of policies and procedures or to revise what it does have, the best advice is to first look at the policies and procedures of neighboring or similar fire departments. Invariably, some will be found that have an appealing format and content that is the right fit for your department. There are even some generic policy and procedure formats that can be reviewed and tweaked to meet local requirements. Ask your state fire training agency or fire marshal’s office, search the web or post a request for information in a firefighters newsgroup – the material is out there, if you do a little searching.

Once policies and procedures are found that seem to be the right fit, small fire department administrators need to understand that they cannot simply take another fire department’s policies or some cookie-cutter generic format and throw them into the computer, then do a search-and-replace to insert your department’s name where appropriate. They will need to be reviewed and changed to meet your department’s requirements and gone over with the department’s membership! Members must be thoroughly informed and involved in the process, not just shown a binder full of material and told “here’s how we are going to operate.” When they are approved with a commitment from the department’s membership, the department in essence disciplines itself.

Developing or modifying polices and procedures should not be a singular endeavor – ideally. Reality is that in a small fire department it often is. What’s most important is that someone takes the initiative to get it done. The critical factor is that the final decisions on what goes into a slate of policies and procedures needs to be subject to the review of a committee and given final approval by the department’s membership. Using this approach develops a sense of ownership and commitment among fire department members to the obligations inherent in written policies and procedures. If you don’t develop this kind of consortium approach, the implementation of written policies and procedures will fall short of their purposes.

There is no doubt about it, developing or modifying written policies and procedures is an intense and time-consuming process. If conducted properly, however, the dividends are well worth the effort. You will have developed the necessary guidelines for a consistently effective response, a guideline for training and education of firefighters, and benchmarks to use in evaluating the department’s performance.

All policies and procedures and any changes therein should be reviewed with the department’s governing body. In some jurisdictions, the governing body may even need to provide final approval.


The basic items that every small fire department needs in its cadre of policies and procedures are:

  • Mission statement. This is the department’s foundation and the referent verbiage that everything the department does can be traced to. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. As a fire department moves through various phases and changes over time, circumstances will arise that challenge the department’s direction. The department’s mission statement may serve as the critical element in resolving those kind of issues.

    A mission statement may read something like this:

    “The primary mission of the (NAME) Fire Department is to provide a range of programs designed to protect the lives and inhabitants of the (NAME) Fire Protection District from the adverse impact of fires, sudden medical emergencies, or dangerous conditions created by man or nature.”

    Basically, the mission statement should encapsulate what your department does, ideally in fewer than 50 words. Make it too long and too detailed, and it loses its meaning. A firefighter should be able to read it and say, “Yes, this is what we do.” A citizen should be able to read it and say, “Yes, that’s what our fire department does.” Post it in your station, where it will be noticed enough by firefighters to become a part of their subconscious and noticed enough by citizens to remind them of what you’re all about.

  • Constitution. This all-important enabling document establishes the small fire department’s right to exist, who the department is and what functions the department is engaged in. Though this is fundamental to operation of the small fire department, it is not uncommon to find a small fire department that doesn’t even know if it has one.

  • Bylaws. Bylaws establish member requirements and responsibilities as well as the means of disciplinary action. Important items to be included in bylaws are a job description for the position of firefighter and also officer responsibilities, as well as definition of the chain of command.

    Bylaws commonly contain references to some sort of standard on firefighter character. This is a subject with a lot of “gray” areas. We have a professional image to maintain, even in the smallest of fire departments. Firefighters whose behavior falls short of this image can become a black eye and a detriment to the department’s mission. Character bylaws for volunteer firefighters cannot be intrusive and must stick with public, not private, issues. This is the part that covers such issues as public intoxication or “behavior unbecoming of a firefighter.” Try to eliminate subjectivity or arbitrary application in regards to bylaws having to do with firefighter character.

  • Standard operational procedures (SOPs), Recommended Guidelines (RGs) or Standard Operational Guidelines (SOGs). These documents deal mostly with the things a fire department does operationally and how to best accomplish what they do in a safe and efficient manner. SOPs, SOGs or RGs are also an important training tool, for they get down to describing how a department does things.

    What you call these operational guidance tools is a matter of preference, but there has been some debate over calling them procedures or guidelines as some legal opinion suggests using the term procedures is dangerously binding. Some departments prefer to call them guidelines because the term implies more room for flexibility in their application.

    We in the fire service know that routine incidents are not the norm. There is always something that forces an incident commander or firefighter to make an exception to accepted protocol. When this does happen, it’s time to re-examine the guideline and see if changes need to be made. It’s also time to be introspective as far as the department is concerned to see if there are changes that need to be made or a concerted training effort in some area.

    Indeed, SOPs, RGs or SOGs are intended to provide general guidance and thus should not be too detailed. Regardless of what you call them, procedural guidelines need to cover all major operational considerations. Areas that should be covered include apparatus driving and operation, incident management, incident response policy and general guidelines for the different types of incidents a small fire department responds to. Special attention needs to focus on breathing apparatus use and maintenance due to OSHA regulations.

    Particular attention to safety procedures is of paramount importance. Specialized guidelines or procedures are necessary for special considerations the small fire department may have, such as high-security occupancies or more technical and specialized response capabilities.

    To an extent, operational guidelines or procedures are locally driven. The state of a department’s training, its exposure to differing modes of operation as well as how well the department is or isn’t equipped and staffed all have an impact on a operational guidelines or procedures. The aptitude of those who must use the guidelines or procedures must be taken into consideration also. There is no sense preparing a three-inch-thick binder of guidelines or procedures full of technical jargon and footnotes to standards for an audience of firefighters who don’t have a technical education background.

  • The oath. This is something that not every fire department does and it may sound like something out of the Cub Scout den leaders’ handbook, but the oath of membership has its purpose. The oath is administered when a new member is officially placed on the fire department’s roster. It establishes firmly in the new member’s mind what his or her duties and responsibilities are and becomes a measure that can be used for referral in misconduct situations.

    An oath could read something like:

    “Do you, (NAME), hereby agree to accept and be governed by the Bylaws, Constitution and Operational Guidelines of the (NAME) Fire Department?

    “To obey orders given you by any officer of the (NAME) Fire Department while on duty?

    “To make an honest attempt to attend all fire meetings, drills and calls?

    “To agree to help your fellow firefighters when needed in any way that shall reflect the good will and efficiency of the (NAME) Fire Department?

    “In general, will you conduct yourself in such a manner as to make the (NAME) Fire Department a better institution be cause of your being a member?”


When you finally find the rumored book of policies and procedures that the past two administrations have alleged are in existence and you flip through the yellowed pages dated Dec. 31, 1918, you are apt to find some items that are fearfully out of date, like when the horses are to be fed and who runs with the hose cart.

Seriously, a periodic review of policies and procedures is a necessity. Equipment and technology changes, changes in operations, changes in the jurisdiction itself and changes in standards, laws and regulations affecting the fire service necessitate revisions.

Ideally, all policies and procedures should be reviewed in a cyclical process. Often, the need to revise policies and procedures comes when some aberration occurs that draws attention to the need for change.

Regardless of whether policies and procedures are reviewed and revised every X number of years or in response to some circumstance, a task force approach is best, but again, in a small fire department it’s often a sole individual, namely the chief, who ends up administering the task. The key point here is administering – not dictating. Solicit input, research the desired changes and be certain everyone impacted by the change is informed before the changes are implemented.

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department for 22 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.

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