­­Houston…Our Policy is the Problem.

By Justin M. Eberly | Education Specialist, VFIS on March 16, 2022

Why policies, procedures & guidelines exist in emergency services—and how to make sure yours are being followed.


What can go wrong, will go wrong

On a chilly January morning, the Space Shuttle Challenger was scheduled for launch. Shortly after takeoff, the shuttle burst into fiery pieces. Following the incident, President Ronald Regan created a commission to lead an investigation. The commission reported that the incident was caused by failure of an “O-ring” seal in one of the rockets. Because of the unusually low temperatures the day of the launch, the seal did not respond as expected, which led to disaster.
Despite having evidence of the space shuttle’s temperature-related design flaw prior to launch, decision-makers at NASA proceeded as originally scheduled. It is important to note, no violation of any of NASA’s policies, procedures or guidelines took place. No individual was deemed to be at fault, either. The system and culture allowed for a disaster to take place.

Normalization of deviance

In her book, “The Challenger Launcher Decision: Risk, Technology, Culture and Deviance at NASA”, psychologist Diane Vaughan discusses the faulty decision-making processes which led NASA officials to authorize the launch. Vaughan used the term “normalization of deviance” to describe the incident, which describes a scenario where a deviant (or unacceptable) practice is no longer seen as improper and becomes the norm due to some level of systemic or cultural acceptance. Typically, these “new norms” emerge from hurdles and challenges associated with a standard practice such as time, cost, efficiency, peer pressure or other motivating factors.

Are there possible deviances in your operations?

Like NASA, fire departments conduct missions with any number of high-risk activities involved. That’s why it’s important to look at every incident and near-miss—and evaluate what went wrong, what went right and what can be improved.
One organization that assists the fire service in the U.S. with these efforts is the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP), which provides an independent investigation following firefighter line-of-duty deaths and gives guidance to help prevent similar deaths in the future.

Is not following your SOPs and SOGs the norm?

A review of the NIOSH investigation reports identified that “Standard Operating Procedures/Standard Operating Guidelines (SOPs/SOGs)” were among the five most frequent recommendations and each followed an incident where there were problems with or a failure to follow these documents.
So, did NIOSH uncover normalization of deviance in the fire service? Is not following policies procedures or guidelines becoming the new normal? The fire service must explore the impact of this concept as it relates to the mission, values, professional ethics, strategy and tactics of firefighting.

Why are policies, procedures and guidelines important?

Policies, procedures and guidelines provide detailed tactical guidance and operational steps for various tasks and missions in the fire service. From vehicle backing to mayday emergency procedures and everything in between—these policies exist for a reason and can make a big difference in your safety and operational effectiveness.

Developing mission-focused policies, procedures & guidelines

Firefighters share an unwavering motivation to perform their duties. However, if policies seem pointless or futile—or simply aren’t taught and enforced—ignoring them could become the new normal.
That’s why it’s important that policies, procedures and guidelines accurately reflect the mission, values, professional ethics, strategies and tactics of the fire department and fire service—and that officers effectively communicate how each policy helps you achieve a specific mission.

Not leadership; not your problem? Not quite. We all play a role here.

Personnel at every rank have some level of responsibility for your policies, procedures and guidelines and their effectiveness, for example:
  • A fire chief (incident commander) is responsible for the overall mission—this includes knowing, demonstrating and instituting best practices including those in written form like policies, procedures and guidelines.
  • Fire officers are charged with writing and interpreting policies, procedures and guidelines, looking for normalization of deviance and listening for signs of malicious compliance among their subordinates.
  • Firefighters must focus on how to apply SOGs and SOPs in the appropriate way and look for possible deviances themselves.

Know your policies are never really “finished”

The fire service should allow for critical thinking—and fire officers should not claim their policies, procedures or guidelines are timeless or unchanging. They should be open to feedback and consider alternative solutions. These documents should continually be evaluated and revised based upon the most recent industry standards, research and your local experience.
Here are a few things to consider when developing your evaluation process:
  • When is it time to review and revise SOPs/SOGs?
  • Who will review SOPs/SOGs and revise them?
  • How can personnel at every rank be involved in the policy development process?
  • How will revisions be communicated and taught to all personnel?

Remember: Planning can help everything go right

Your organization doesn’t have to be the next case study. Look at each situation your fire department faces from every angle, find the risks, make a plan, teach it, implement it and improve it.

Justin M. Eberly | Education Specialist, VFIS

Justin is an Education Specialist on our VFIS Education, Training & Consulting Team. Justin is a volunteer firefighter, active EMT and EMS educator.


The information contained in this blog post is intended for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace expert advice in connection with the topics presented. Glatfelter specifically disclaims any liability for any act or omission by any person or entity in connection with the preparation, use or implementation of plans, principles, concepts or information contained in this publication.

Glatfelter does not make any representation or warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the results obtained by the use, adherence or implementation of the material contained in this publication. The implementation of the plans, principles, concepts or materials contained in this publication is not a guarantee that you will achieve a certain desired result. It is strongly recommended that you consult with a professional advisor, architect or other expert prior to the implementation of plans, principles, concepts or materials contained in this publication.

This blog post may contain the content of third parties and links to third party websites. Third party content and websites are owned and operated by an independent party over which Glatfelter has no control. Glatfelter makes no representation, warranty, or guarantee as to the accuracy, completeness, timeliness or reliability of any third party content. References to third party services, processes, products, or other information does not constitute or imply any endorsement, sponsorship or recommendation by Glatfelter, unless expressly stated otherwise.

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