7 Essential policies for fire departments and EMS

Explore the most critical fire service policies and EMS policies that every first responder agency should create and develop.

September 14, 2021

Article highlights
  • Why your department needs CFAI accreditation
  • The importance of fire department drone policies
  • Why you need a social media policy for fire and EMS departments
  • Understanding Incident command policies
  • Creating a fire department drug and alcohol policy
  • The importance of EMS infection control policy
  • Why your department needs an EMS uniform policy

Firefighters and EMS responders have high-stress, dangerous jobs, requiring them to run toward danger when instincts tell us to run away. Their mission is to save lives, help the hurt, and protect people.

Fire and EMS departments work under a variety of conditions and deal with a great number of emergencies, so it's important to know how they should respond to incidents, what they're allowed to do and not do on duty (or even off), and how they should act in certain situations on and off-duty.

A fire department policy manual or EMS policy manual can provide guidance and answers to almost everything an emergency professional faces. Policies set expectations and share best practices to help responders make the best decisions during an emergency or provide a decision-making framework for new situations.

EMS and fire service policies also hold professionals accountable for their behavior, which can enhance the reputation of your agency in your community.

Finally, these policies establish accountability for policy violations and protect the department from lawsuits and costly investigations. By requiring responders to read, sign, and train on the different policies and practices, both departments and responders can protect themselves. They can show that they properly followed all procedures because they were spelled out in an EMS policy manual or fire department policy manual.

Every emergency response agency should have these seven EMS policies and fire department policies, whether in a big city or a small town.

CFAI accreditation

What is CFAI accreditation?

The Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) provides fire departments with accreditation, which tells your local community that the department and the staff are focused on improving and growing professionally. It ensures your department has a defined mission and helps leadership communicate its vision to department members and the general public.

Why does your fire department need CFAI accreditation?

CFAI accreditation helps your department improve safety for all responders by helping your department enforce standards and best practices set by one of the leading fire safety agencies.

It helps you increase your standards for safety and training, which benefits all of your firefighters, which in turn benefits your entire community. Accreditation will align your whole department with the new high standards, which is good for everyone.

How can you achieve CFAI accreditation?

CFAI accreditation helps agencies meet the rise of performance-based budgeting, which requires measuring, benchmarking, and analysis. This analysis helps your department set standards for performance. You'll see which areas need improvement and which areas are strongest.

CFAI's accreditation standards will also show you which policies you need to create, which need improvement, and which ones are your best. Several policies described below – EMS uniform policy, EMS infection control policy, fire department drug and alcohol policy – are required to meet CFAI standards. We'll discuss each of those in a little bit to help you understand what's needed.

Finally, as your department pursues CFAI accreditation, PowerDMS lets you map your policies and policy manual to CFAI standards to prove compliance. You're able to show which documents meet specific CFAI requirements, who has read and signed each policy, use the dashboard to show totals, and share all of this data with your accreditation officers in a matter of moments, not compile it for days.

To learn more about fire department accreditation, you can visit our blog article on the subject.

Fire department drone policies

What are drones?

A drone is any aircraft that flies via remote control and without a pilot or passengers. Hobbyists can use them for entertainment or aerial photography. The military uses a different style for long-range reconnaissance and attacks. And fire departments can use them to help commanders analyze a fire or emergency with cameras and thermal imaging technology.

Why do fire departments need drone policies?

There are federal, state, and local regulations on drone usage, such as the Federal Aviation Administration's new Operations Over People Rule. If your fire department uses drones, you're required to follow those same laws and regulations.

Law enforcement agencies also use drones. They have to deal with the American Civil Liberties Union and civilian groups concerned about the police using surveillance drones or even armed drones. The fire service may get some spillover from those controversies, so a fire department drone policy could put your community at ease.

What makes a good drone policy?

A good fire department drone policy will set the standards and rules for using drones. It should address licensing and operation requirements, when they can and cannot be used, and answer questions about training and procedures. And if your department records footage of fires and emergencies, you may have to address how much footage you'll keep and for how long, just like your law enforcement counterparts.

You can learn more about writing a fire department drone policy on our website.

Social media policy for Fire and EMS

What is social media?

We all know what it is — Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube — and many of us use at least one of them. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 70% of all Americans use some form of social media, whether at home or at work.

In fact, many people use it at work even if they're told not to. How many office workers have Facebook locked down on their workstations but still manage to post via their phones during breaks and lunch? Firefighters and EMS responders are no exception.

But people can also use social media in the workplace to some benefit. As Pew said on their website, "These digital platforms offer the potential to enhance worker productivity by fostering connections with colleagues and resources around the globe."

Why does a fire department need a social media policy?

Of course, people will often abuse a privilege, even unknowingly. Not only do people post questionable content, they'll share blatantly inappropriate comments and images. Many firefighters have been suspended or fired because of their posts, ending what had been a long career with the click of a mouse.

A social media policy helps your fire and EMS responders use it safely, effectively, and for the department's benefit. Policies may not always prevent problems, but they can help reduce the chances of someone posting inappropriate content. If a policy can make someone think twice about what they post, it could save them and the department a lot of trouble. And if they still insist on posting inappropriate messages, then the policy should also spell out the consequences of that behavior.

What are some elements of a good social media policy?

To start, make sure you know what the goals are with a social media policy. Do you want to create a rapport with the community? What sort of tone do you want to take? What kinds of messages should you share?

Next, consult with experts. Not only should you ask social media experts – professionals who help companies navigate social media to build their community – but consult with legal experts who can ensure that your policy requirements (and your responders) follow the law.

Finally, be clear about what your employees are allowed to post and not post, the tone of voice, the types of content, who will post, who speaks for the department, and so on.

You can learn more about writing a social media policy for fire and EMS on our website.

Incident command policies

What is NIMS and how does it relate to incident command policies?

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) is a comprehensive approach to emergency and incident management applied throughout the United States, used at federal, state, and local levels. It covers "a full spectrum of potential incidents, hazards, and impacts, regardless of size, location or complexity."

All first responders, government agencies, tribal agencies, and non-governmental organizations use NIMS when dealing with any emergency or crisis.

Why does a fire department need an incident command policy?

Incident command policies for fire departments and EMS departments should all reflect NIMS' current thinking and application. That way, your first responders know exactly where to slot into the incident command structure (ICS). Then, professionals from various agencies and organizations can integrate into a single unified command without any question of jurisdiction, local practices, or "how we do things around here."

What are some elements of a good incident command policy?

An incident command policy sets the stage for the response to an incident of any size. In some cases, it's a multi-jurisdictional response, such as a biological terrorist attack, that would bring in responders from fire, EMS, law enforcement, the health department, local hospitals, and even the national guard. Other times, it's something fairly simple, like a house fire, which only requires fire and EMS responders to participate.

In many emergencies, a good incident command policy should contain three elements (according to the latest best practices):

First, it should contain key command actions for the first five minutes, such as performing an assessment, assigning critical tasks, and communicating the initial response strategy to all personnel.

Second, the policy should establish chain and unity of command. That means establishing reporting relationships for various scenarios and setting up the lines of authority and communication. It spells out how each individual in the structure has a supervisor to report to during an incident.

Finally, it should spell out unified command, the structure that allows different agencies with different functions, authorities, and missions to work together in the incident command system. Unified command keeps the incident command structure functioning and prevents anyone from doing their own thing or following their own agenda.

Learn more about developing an effective incident command policy.

Fire department drug and alcohol policy

What is a fire department drug and alcohol policy?

Because safety is so important to firefighters and EMS providers, they must function on the job unimpaired and fully focused. That means no drug or alcohol use during or before a shift. A drug and alcohol policy will establish what is allowed and not allowed and when people can drink alcohol or use prescription drugs.

Why does a fire department need a drug and alcohol policy?

How long before a shift can a firefighter or EMS responder have alcohol? What about prescription drugs? Is marijuana use permissible in states where recreational or medical use is allowed? What happens to an employee who gets into an accident or shows up to a call under the influence?

A policy will answer these questions and many more. It should also detail investigations and consequences for violations. A clear policy will help protect the department if it's ever necessary to discipline, suspend, or fire an employee for violating the policy.

What are some elements of a good drug and alcohol policy?

A fire department drug and alcohol policy will define basic terms to avoid uncertainty, such as "controlled substance" versus "illegal substance," or clarifying what's an acceptable blood alcohol content (BAC) level while on duty. (0.0 seems to be the only acceptable figure in nearly all policies.)

The policy should also state how and how often firefighters and commanders should be tested. It should also explain the discipline and consequences of a failed test or if an employee is under the influence. It should even detail rehabilitation and return to duty options.

You can learn more about writing a fire department drug and alcohol policy on our website.

Fire department ride-along policy

What is a ride-along policy?

A policy that establishes the rules and requirements around civilians riding along with firefighters on a fire callout or other emergency response.

Why does your department need a ride-along policy?

Civilians view firefighters as heroes. Ride alongs allow the community to see firsthand how your department operates. It's an educational experience for children, high school students, paramedics in training, and aspiring firefighters.  

But some calls that your department responds to are dangerous, so there need to be rules and procedures in place to keep untrained civilians safe.

When developing your policy, make sure to include the following key elements:

  • The purpose of the policy well defined
  • A definition of the policy itself
  • Citizen eligibility
  • Acceptable and non-acceptable types of ride-alongs

To learn more about fire service ride-along polices and how to develop yours, check out this article.

EMS infection control policy

What is an EMS infection control policy?

An infection control policy determines how EMS responders should avoid exposure to various bloodborne and airborne illnesses, including COVID-19, different strains of hepatitis, tuberculosis, and even HIV/AIDS.

The policy protects responders as well as the general public by detailing preventative hygiene steps, cleaning a provider's uniform and rig, and even post-exposure protocols and procedures. It should also provide training and help test the responders' knowledge of the different illnesses and prevention measures.

Why does an EMS agency need an infection control policy?

For one thing, an infection control policy protects your responders. By detailing hygiene procedures and requiring personal protective equipment, an EMS department can help slow the spread of diseases, which protects the organization and your staff.

This practice keeps diseases from spreading among employees, other providers, in a hospital, or the public. It also protects the department if a responder gets sick and files a lawsuit claiming the department didn't provide proper training and information.

What are some elements of a good EMS infection control policy?

For starters, a good infection control policy will contain information from the experts, including guidance from the CDC, OSHA, and NIOSH regulations. You can also find many different diseases and illnesses in EMS.gov's Infectious Disease Playbook.

Your policy should also cover mask requirements and whether you'll require COVID vaccinations.

You can learn more about writing an EMS infection control policy on our website.

EMS uniform policy

What is an EMS uniform policy?

Your uniform policy does more than just establish what color shirts and pants your EMS providers wear. It sets the standard for how they dress, groom, maintain hygiene, and generally appear on the job. It should even set rules for how often uniforms are cleaned and sterilized to prevent infections and infectious diseases. (So it should tie in closely with an EMS infection control policy.)

Why does an EMS agency need a uniform policy?

Believe it or not, a uniform policy can improve an EMS provider's safety and their patients' safety. An effective EMS uniform policy can start putting providers into a safety mindset by reminding them of the training, education, and experience that earned them the right to wear the uniform.

It also instills a sense of trust and reliability among the community. A clean, well-pressed uniform conveys an image of trustworthiness and protection. It says, "I'm a well-trained and knowledgeable professional."

What are some elements of a good EMS uniform policy?

A good uniform policy will set standards for uniform appearance, including cleanliness and ironing, and colors and dressing for different climates like hot and cold weather. It should also contain requirements for personal grooming and appearance. This includes requirements for hair length, beards and mustaches, jewelry, tattoos, and even wearing a watch that displays seconds.

A uniform policy should also cover how often the uniform and a provider's personal gear and equipment get cleaned and disinfected. When you learn about the different ways an EMS provider can be exposed to infectious diseases, you'll want your EMS uniform policy to spell out cleaning and disinfecting protocols.

You can learn more about writing an EMS uniform policy on our website.

Final thoughts

EMS and the fire service deal with different emergencies and different situations. Knowing how to respond in certain cases will keep them safe. It will also help the public and enhance their reputation in the community.

A fire department policy manual or EMS policy manual provides the guidance that first responders need to make good decisions. It will also hold them accountable for their behavior and provide consequences for policy violations.

Finally, it provides a framework to train all first responders on their departments' expectations, procedures, and best practices. And if you use PowerDMS' policy manual software, it all gets stored in an interactive, cloud-based policy manual that's accessible on any mobile device at any time.

You can explore our website to learn more about how PowerDMS' policy manual software can help your department protect itself and its responders.

Of course there are more than seven policies and SOPs that are relevant for Fire and EMS, but this is a good start. Download our free guide to learn how to write more effective policies.

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