The Importance of Standards in Fire & EMS: Insight from a Former Fire Chief

July of 1999 was a major milestone in my career as it marked the transition from serving as a line fire officer to chief fire officer. On July 1st of that year, I took over as the Assistant Chief of Planning for the West Hartford, Connecticut Fire Department (WHFD). In this position, I was responsible for all training and certifications of our 108 personnel which also included all testing and promotional processes. I served as the department Health & Safety Officer chairing our department safety committee and had the immense responsibility of conducting investigations for any accidents involving our personnel and equipment. These responsibilities included investigating accidents where someone, firefighters were injured or killed. I held this position for three of the five years I served with WHFD.

One of the first things the Fire Chief, William H. Austin whom I have long considered my mentor, presented me with was a document he had developed over the span of his 30+ years serving as a Fire Chief in multiple fire departments. The document, “22 Rules for Being a Fire Chief,” would become a very important document for my development as a chief fire officer. To this day, some 21 years later, I still have the original copy of the “rules” framed on my desk. I have applied these rules on a daily basis and share them with every management class I instruct as well as the many junior and senior fire officers I have mentored over the past 21 years.

Although I consider each of the 22 rules to be important and valuable, one particular rule stands out to me as critically important over the others. Rule #15: “If you don’t enforce the standards, you lower the standards.”

Sadly, I gained a full appreciation for the importance of adopting and enforcing standards when our department underwent an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation after one of our firefighters died in the line of duty. When the OSHA investigators arrived, they requested copies of our department policies and procedures, copies of the employee’s personnel file and their training records. Why did they request this information? Because they needed to verify, we were following all of the required standards. In the final report published by the investigators, our department was found to be in full compliance with required standards and our record keeping was noted as exemplary. This was the direct result of our leader having a clear set of rules he followed and, in turn, made certain his leadership team followed by example.

Unfortunately, however, I have several examples of fire departments who suffered line-of-duty deaths where the investigations did not have similar results and the impacts to these departments were severe.

Since joining PCG, I have seen firsthand how the Fire and EMS team applies the industry standards in each of our projects. When conducting analysis, for example, we have applied the relevant standards to what our client does, or does not do, and related them to the myriad standards regulating the fire and EMS industry. In every report we produce, we reference the standards we are going to apply in our analysis of our client’s issue or problem. Accordingly, as consultants and more importantly, as subject matter experts, we must have a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the standards we are applying to our clients’ situations and circumstances. We must also be effective in stressing to them the importance of complying with the appropriate standard(s).

Here are a few examples of organizations that develop standards we typically apply in our analysis:

An interesting aspect of these examples is how inter-connected they are to one another. For example, OSHA 29CFR 1910.120 is the federal standard pertaining to emergency response to hazardous materials incidents. This standard requires fire departments to a have an “Incident Commander” who is both certified and qualified to manage emergency incident operations. This same OSHA standard also mandates use of a certified and qualified “Incident Safety Officer.” This is federal law yet when the law was written, three NFPA standards were used as the template, NFPA-471-472 and 473.

I mention this specifically because NFPA standards are known as “Consensus Standards” meaning they have no legal mandate that departments strictly adopt or follow them. There are many governing bodies such as the Federal Registry, which promulgates laws that have adopted NFPA as “Law of the Land.”

Obviously, this is a topic that I could go into much greater detail with as it is a complex and extensive subject matter. But I would like to leave you all with this thought:

I see my primary role internally with PCG as a resource or standards mentor that anyone can reach out to for answers and information. This is particularly true when it comes to the complex issue of understanding and applying standards in the highly regulated worlds of Fire and EMS. This is the sea in which I love to swim!


About the Author

Charles Hurley is a retired Fire Chief, a fifth-generation firefighter spanning a 38-year career as a fire service professional. Charley has worked, managed and lead fire departments at the local, state, federal DoD and even private industry levels. He is a certified Chief Fire Officer by the California State Fire Marshal, a graduate of the West Point Leadership Academy through the Los Angeles City Fire Department and completed 12, advanced courses in leadership and management through the National Fire Academy. Charley is also a former Nationally Registered Paramedic and Flight-Medic as well as EMS Instructor and Master Instructor for Hazardous Materials. Although retired from active service in November 2016, Charley remains actively involved with the fire service instructing fire ground command and management courses through the California State Fire Marshal. Charley joined PCG’s Fire & EMS Team in March 2020.

Posted by Sarah Dicicco

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