We all know that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a necessary part of firefighting. Through the years PPE has evolved into the most high-tech equipment ever used by the modern firefighter. Every year that passes brings new innovations to make a dangerous job, on a good day, a little safer.
None of us would ever dream of sending our firefighters into a burning structure without proper PPE. We would never send them into fight fire without the best gear we can afford to buy. We would never send them in with a garden hose to fight a fully involved structure fire, yet every day we send our firefighters out into a litigation driven society without the proper protective equipment. What protective equipment are we missing? In many cases, they are not equipped with good, relevant and updated policies. Yes, we are sending our firefighters out into society without the proper policy protection.
Most larger departments see this need and strive to fill the need with up-to-date policies. There are, however, smaller departments, both paid and volunteer that are still sending their firefighters out without protection. Every department, regardless of size can benefit from policy protection. Maybe they just don't realize that the need exists or they are operating under the assumption that "tort immunity" will protect them. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but "tort immunity" is not a shield that a department can hide behind. Tort immunity is designed to prevent taxpayer money from being used to pay monetary settlements to members of the public. Tort immunity does not provide protection in cases where negligence is proven. Where policies exist and are followed negligence is more difficult to prove, therefore an extra level of protection is provided to your employees.
For example; if your employees are following established, written policies approved by the governing body and someone is injured or damage occurs, then negligence is much more difficult to prove. The employee was following a policy. The judge may determine that the policy does not adequately address the issue. The judge may determine that the policy is a poor policy, but the employee followed the established policy. The employee had a legitimate reason for doing what was done. In the absence of an established policy, the employee, the employee’s supervisor and the employer may have to answer for the employee’s actions.
I can hear the sighs of disgust resounding throughout the world now! I never met a firefighter that liked policies, yet there is no better form of protection for our firefighters as they interact with the public on daily basis. Every time we release a new policy out to the department, I hear the rumble of disbelief that comes when a new policy must be read and signed for. We can never policy out every opportunity for litigation, but many potential problems both inside the department and out, can be reduced or eliminated by a decent policy.
Each time I hear of a tragedy such as the Oakland, California Ghost ship fire, or a firefighter that has been injured in the line of duty I wonder; could that happen to my department? The answer to that question is a resounding, yes! I also ask myself if we have done everything that we possibly can to protect our firefighters. Don’t get me wrong, I am not insinuating that there was a failure of policy in the Oakland incident, but what I am saying is that incidents like that should make us step back and look at what we are doing and evaluate whether or not we can do more.
Policies can also be a double edge sword that cuts both ways. In the event an employee chooses to deviate from established policy, the employee can be held liable for their actions. If your policy was written 20 years ago and never reviewed, the employer can be held liable. A labor attorney once told me that ignoring a policy, or not properly reviewing and updating policy can be just as bad as not having a policy at all.
If you are operating using policies that are not evaluated on an annual basis, you may be unwillingly putting your firefighters in danger. If you are not evaluating your policies based on what is happening in the fire service today then you may be falling behind. Policy documents are living breathing documents that should be evaluated at least annually to ensure that they are still applicable and relevant. Do they still adequately address the issues that they were written to address or are they addressing issues that are no longer issues in today’s fire service. This evaluation process does not have to be an all-encompassing evaluation that can be compared to pulling teeth, but we should at the least read through the policies and quickly evaluate their relevance.
During some policy evaluations you will find an issue that is just so glaring, you will wonder how this has not already become a problem for your organization. A good example is a dress code policy. As younger firefighters enter the workforce social norms will change. Hair styles and tattoos become issues that need to be revisited. Historically many departments, including ours, have had strict policies on tattoos that are visible and what is acceptable and safe concerning hairstyles. The definition of what constitutes safe and acceptable can often be subjective rather than objective. Policies that are based on subjective reasoning are counterproductive and as a result should be revisited before issues arise that can create turmoil within the organization. Our personal views may not agree with the views of the younger firefighters but writing policy without considering new social norms is a recipe for failure.
So, do your firefighters have the proper PPE? If you’re not sure, then you need to evaluate your policies. If you have not reviewed your policies within the last year, then you need to evaluate your policies. Every time you see an incident on the news or read of an incident, you need to evaluate your policies. Do you see a pattern here? Polices are living documents and like any living thing they need attention to grow, thrive and remain relevant. If you do not take good care of your policies, then they will not take good care of your firefighters.