Policy and procedure management for fire

Policies are the fundamental building blocks of excellence in any organization. Here's how to manage your fire department policies and procedures.

December 29, 2020

Article highlights

For many people, a mention of fire department policies and procedures brings to mind a disheveled binder stuffed with rules.

Creating, organizing, and distributing all the various firefighting procedures can seem like an overwhelming and impossible task.

But fire department policies and procedures are incredibly important.

Fire policy lays the groundwork for operational excellence. Having firefighting procedures in place helps guide decision-making, increases safety, and ensures that firefighters can work as a coordinated team.

It’s essential for fire departments to develop and implement consistent, thorough fire department policies and procedures.

Why are policies and procedures important to the fire service?

Fire department policies and procedures help guide everything from day-to-day internal operations to emergency responses, to individual firefighter conduct.

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) help firefighters understand and meet expectations and safety guidelines.

Plus, when everyone is on the same page, fire departments can operate more consistently and efficiently.

Here are just a few of the reasons fire procedures are so important:


Firefighters regularly face incredibly dangerous situations. In the fire service, many risks are unavoidable.

Fire department SOPs help increase firefighter safety, minimizing unnecessary risks and helping prepare firefighters for emergency situations.

Fire department policies and procedures include proactive safety measures, such as pre-planning and health and fitness requirements. (Discover the benefits of going digital for fire pre-planning).

When firefighters respond to a scene, firefighting procedures for things such as communication, searches, door entry, air management, and more help ensure they can respond effectively and stay safe.

Fire policy puts all firefighters the same page, helping them work as a unit and make good decisions in rapidly changing situations.

It’s essential that fire department guidelines are codified in writing and not just passed along as unofficial accepted practices. Department heads should have every staff member read and sign off on policies to make sure everyone knows what is expected of them when it matters most.

Consistency across the entire department

Fire departments may include hundreds of firefighters working in different stations and on different shifts. It’s essential that they all follow the same standard operating procedures.

Consistency in fire department policies and procedures matters for several reasons. First, fire departments are ultimately accountable to the public in the community they serve. Consistent fire policy ensures that members of the community receive excellent service from any staff member they may interact with.

Consistency also helps with smooth internal operations. Firefighters know they have the same expectations and receive the same treatment as everyone else in the department. This limits internal conflicts and streamlines internal communication.

Perhaps most importantly, consistent fire department policies increase trust and make inter-shift and inter-department collaboration possible.

Fire procedures help firefighters know what they are supposed to do in an emergency situation. And they can also know that they are working from the same playbook as the person next to them – regardless of their role, station, or shift.

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As we’ve written before, accountability in the fire service is essential for safety and public trust:

“Civilians trust firefighters to keep them safe and responsibly use public money and resources.

Unethical behavior breaks community trust and reflects badly not only on the department but on the fire service as a whole.”

Chiefs and commanders should hold every staff member up to the highest standards of ethics and integrity. The only way to do that is to put those expectations and principals in writing.

Fire department policies and procedures create a basis for accountability. When fire policy is in place, leaders can compare a firefighter’s actions with the expectations laid out in policies and procedures. They can take the necessary corrective action when the actions fail to meet the standards.

Accountability in the fire service isn’t about micromanaging every action. It’s about bringing clarity and creating a culture of integrity and excellence.

Protect the department

Lacking formal policies and procedures can leave fire departments at risk for costly lawsuits.

Policies about issues such as discrimination, harassment, termination, and workplace safety keep departments in compliance with employment law. They provide clarity on prohibited behavior both inside and outside the workplace.

Firefighting procedures help guide decisions in dangerous situations. If an incident does occur, fire department policies and procedures help limit the department’s liability. The department can prove that its internal policies and practices were not to blame.

Fire department software for policy management and training can help with this, proving that employees read policies and received training.

In any case, it’s essential to have strong fire department policies and procedures in place before an incident occurs. Leaders shouldn’t wait until something goes wrong to develop fire policy.

Role and function of fire department policies and procedures

Effective fire department policies and procedures do a few things:

Align everyone to a common mission

The fire service has the advantage of having a strong culture and shared mission. Firefighters value bravery and sacrifice. They feel called to something bigger than themselves.

Firefighters may have joined the service for different reasons, but creating a mission statement binds everyone to a common goal. The mission statement will help steer the overall direction of the department through changes and disagreements, pointing to the core of why it exists.

For example, the Los Angeles Fire Department lists its mission as:

The Los Angeles Fire Department preserves life and property, promotes public safety and fosters economic growth through a commitment to prevention, preparedness, response and recovery as an all risk life safety response provider.

The Austin Fire Department lists its purpose and vision alongside goals and core values:

Purpose: The purpose of the Austin Fire Department is to protect and enhance the safety and well-being of those in our community.

Mission: The Austin Fire Department is committed to creating safer communities through prevention, preparedness, and effective emergency response.

Vision: We strive to be the best.

Comply with laws and regulations

At the end of the day, fire departments must follow local, state, and federal regulations.

This means firefighting procedures need to be more than a series of how-to or best practices. They are in place to ensure firefighters are following the case law and the department is protected from litigation.

Offer department-specific guidance

Every fire department is different. The department’s needs will differ depending on its size, location, and the makeup of the community it serves.

Fire department guidelines and SOPs should reflect the environment of the department. There are some policies every fire department should have in writing. But other policies will differ depending on the setting.

For example, if the department is in an urban setting, it may have policies dealing with fire procedures for high rises. A department in a more rural area most likely wouldn’t need those policies.

Ground actions in guiding principles

Policies protect against unnecessary risks, but that doesn’t mean department leaders need to create a new policy every time someone makes a mistake.

Instead of creating a new policy for every specific case, leaders should seek to make firefighting policy based on overarching principles.

Principle-based policies and procedures can be understood in multiple scenarios. They also keep the number of policies at a manageable level.

Managing your department’s policies

Of course, fire department policies and procedures will do little good if they just sit in a binder on a shelf.

Policies must be accessible and easy to update and distribute.

It's time to rethink SOPs/SOGs in the fire service. Here are a few ways to make sure your SOPs can be as effective as possible:

Get everything in one system

There are many types of content that keep your department running, from SOGs/SOPs to training materials. With a central repository of all critical content for your first responders, you can better manage, update, disseminate, and track important documents.

First, gather every policy, procedure, guideline, and standard operating procedure you have in writing.

Get it all in one place so you can get an overview of what you have and what you need. You may need to write new procedures, combine similar policies, or even get rid of outdated policies or language. (For example, you probably don’t need to refer to pagers in your tech policy).

As you do this, make sure all your fire department policies and procedures are in the same format and layout. Include the same sections in each policy, and use a standard header that includes things such as the date the policy was implemented, the date of the last revision, and the commanding officer who approved the policy.

Policy management software like PowerDMS simplifies this process. A good software lets you store all your policies and procedures in one secure location.

You don’t have to print out updates and make sure everyone’s manual gets updated. Officers simply sign in to the online portal to access the information they need.

Define your approval process

Most policies need to go through several different leaders before they can be finalized. In fire, this is often easier said than done, as commanders may be scattered between stations and across shifts. Moving information and communicating effectively can be cumbersome.

Defining who is responsible for managing each policy – and who needs to sign off on drafts – is key to keeping policy updates on track. This is especially true when working with those in the city government or general counsel outside of the department itself.

PowerDMS’s workflow feature lets you easily gather feedback from collaborators, send documents up the chain of command, and keep the process flowing smoothly.


Train to your policies

When fire department policies and procedures get outdated, training often stops lining up with what’s in the policy manual.

But fire policy and training should go hand-in-hand.

Think of it as muscle memory: If you want firefighters to behave in a certain way, they need practice and repetition. If you’re not training to your policies, it will be harder for firefighters to remember the correct fire procedures at a scene.

Fire policy also helps ground training in the “why,” showing firefighters the reasons behind the actions they learn.

Along with policy management, PowerDMS also offers training management software. Housing training and policies in the same place lets you cross-reference and link policy and training content.

Review policies and procedures annually

Fire department policies and procedures should be living, changing documents. It’s important to regularly look them over to make sure they line up with current regulations, technology, and best practices.

Most experts advise reviewing policies at least once a year.

Distribute and track policies

Even the best policies have little value if employees never read them.

Keeping policies and procedures in front of firefighters increases their importance. This includes regularly talking about policies, including them in training, and making sure employees read policy updates.

Policy management software makes it easy to distribute policies with just the click of a button. You can track employee engagement, collect electronic signatures, and even issue quizzes to test employee comprehension.

Where to begin

Creating and managing fire department policies and procedures doesn’t have to be as daunting as it may sound.

Start with where you are. You don’t need to overhaul everything to make progress.

Gather all your policies in one place and get them into a digital format. Create a policy review team and give them a schedule to review your most out-of-date policies. You may be surprised at some of the dated language still in your manual.

Using a policy management software like PowerDMS can simplify and streamline this process. But however you choose to approach policy management, the most important thing is to get active. Don’t wait until an incident occurs to improve how you manage your fire department policies and procedures.

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