So, you’re being sued — where is your documentation


CarolinaFireJournal - By Carter H. Jones
By Carter H. Jones
01/11/2012 -

As part of my job duties I am required to travel across South Carolina and visit fire departments, EMS and rescue organizations — from the mountains to the sea —from the largest departments having all career personnel to the smallest volunteer agencies serving crossroad communities. On occasion, as I drive away from some of these agencies, I am gripped with a feeling of apprehension, or maybe a strange foreboding that “things ain’t right.”

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As a representative of an insurance company, which provides emergency service organizations with customized coverage, I am expected to develop a close working relationship with our insured. And, as a part of that process, I am in a unique position to learn the strengths and weaknesses of these organizations that few often do. I am sure by now someone may be asking why is it necessary for an “insurance company person” to become involved in the delivery of emergency services when it’s none of my business how someone operates and manages their department?

Allow me to preface any further comments by explaining what I have come to understand is the relationship that must be established between an insurance company and an insured — in my case that involves fire departments or EMS/rescue agencies. We all acknowledge that the purpose of emergency service organizations is to save lives and protect property, and in doing so, there is the reality of significant personal risk. In fact, almost everything our insured do in the performance of their employment carries with it some element of risk and danger.

As a firefighter for over 45 years, I am of the opinion that danger will actually never be eliminated from our work and the element of risk, including the risk of injury and even death, will always be present. That’s why it’s important that responders are well protected in the event of unforeseen injury, serious illness or death. And, being protected against these hazards involves managing risks which again leads me back to the beginning — getting to know responders and organizations at every level in order to assess those risks, to develop actions to prevent undesirable events, and to integrate all of this into sound decision making.

Very simply put, the purpose of my job as a loss control person is four fold:

  1. To help emergency providers keep their people safe from injury or death.
  2. To hopefully prevent folks from facing negative publicity.
  3. To forestall responders from dreaded civil actions or law suits.
  4. To deter responders from going to jail because of some stupid mistake or criminal activity.

Most of this “stuff” is quite complex but is more often accomplished through awareness, training/education and engineering and management safeguards.

Awareness

To be very clear, the process of making emergency responders aware of something is akin or similar to training. More specifically, awareness involves any action that causes folks to recognize and respond accordingly (safely) to circumstances, hazards, unsafe practices, conditions or events. Instituting various SOGs and policies may be a common sense example of making personnel mindful of issues affecting the organization’s safety and responding to these needs by spelling out in detail how to manage or control them.

A very current and recent awareness issue concerns the use of electronic messaging while on the job. The other day I was passing through a fairly large city when a fire engine passed me “non-emergent,” but the engineer was talking on his cell phone while making a left turn in an intersection. Several things:

Either the engineer was not aware of the dangers of driving and talking on the cell phone — which I find unlikely.

The department did not have a policy concerning this issue.

The operator was totally disregarding the policy and for which discipline should be strictly enforced.

To be sure, there’s a place for instant messaging, texting, paging, and social networking, but while driving a fire apparatus is not it!

Training and Education

Training usually involves the learning of specific skills, the nuts and bolts of how to do something, ie. raising a ladder. An example that readily comes to my mind deals with the issue of backing a fire apparatus, ambulance or other emergency vehicle. Many claims come across my desk that pertain to the improper backing of an insured’s vehicle without anyone serving as a spotter to insure a safe maneuver. Folks have to be trained how to spot an emergency vehicle which may require both classroom and practical application to insure uniformity and clarity. Without proper training we shall continue to pay for claims involving fence posts, septic tanks, station doors, and of course, those embarrassing wrecker services.

Education, on the other hand, takes training to yet another level by learning to interpret events or experiences. Educational training is those activities that enhance our ability to use our minds and to stimulate thinking. An example of education is possibly participating in an online course that brings information to a student outside of a typical classroom setting.

Engineering and Management Safeguards

Admit it, every emergency service organization is vulnerable to losses and potential actions, and, for that reason oftentimes agencies must spend money to prevent, or certainly establish, some type of precaution against unwanted occurrences. For example, in the EMS field, many services find it necessary to purchase power stretchers as a possible solution to preventing back injuries to their personnel and any ultimate injury to their patients. And, what about those departments that have experienced frequent break-ins? They are now finding themselves involved in the installation of both exterior and interior monitored security cameras.

Retrofitting older apparatus and vehicles with approved reflective stripping to increase visibility, using apparatus and vehicles in a blocking maneuver during highway operations, and of course, the practice of wearing approved high visibility vests at all traffic incidents are illustrations of such safeguards.

Years of paying internal theft claims support the necessity, or at least a serious consideration, for implementing a procedure whereby payments for expenses require all checks be signed by two members involved in the financial management of any emergency service organization. It’s unbelievable the number of agencies having their monies stolen from within by cherished and respected members!

Now, for what I consider to be one of the most difficult, but in reality the simplest, of management safeguards for every emergency service organization — documentation. Think about it, the “insurance company” is expected to step up to the plate when there is a loss or to provide defense in a civil/criminal action brought against the organization and its members. OK, then give us something to defend and “hang our hat on!”

Training, for example. According to Clarendon County Fire Department Deputy Chief, Jonathan Jones (my son, by the way) “if the only documentation that you have for a member’s competency is a certificate from years past, how relevant is that today? Even if the certificate is a Firefighter II from 10 years ago, what documentation do you have that the member has maintained his/her skills and competencies since receiving that certificate?

“And, what about the firefighter who gets hurt while ventilating a roof? OSHA will want to know all about their initial training, but then they want documentation on the last time the member actually performed vertical ventilation on that roof type during a training exercise. If you don’t have the documentation, you and the insurance company are cooked.”

Another example is the firefighter driving a department’s engine to a call for a reported smoke in a neighborhood and fails to come to a complete stop at the intersection resulting in a “T Bone” collision with a passenger vehicle. In this case the law is clear, and it’s not on the department’s side or the engineer of the fire apparatus.

Circumstances are not looking good. But then, attorneys get involved and start digging into driving records. What a shock when it comes to light that the apparatus driver has only two points left on his driving record because of speeding and reckless driving violations. Apparently there was no policy within the department requiring annual MVRs (motor vehicle records), and the only thing the embarrassed chief could say is, “I didn’t know.” Again, the department hasn’t given the insurance company anything to hang its hat on in court. In fact, the leadership of the department has made the monetary reward even greater all because no management safeguards were in place to “weed out” risky drivers.

Hopefully, now you have a clearer understanding why we “stick our nose” in your business. Once again, the purpose of loss control is to help an organization in preventing accidents, complying with safety regulations and assisting with special needs. Our goal is to be a part of preventing losses before they actually occur.

I encourage the reader, whether the chief of the department, training officer, EMS director or board member, think about your organization’s position to defend the next mishap, injury, death, wreck, fall, equipment failure, citizen or personnel accusation or incident screw up. I’m confident when circumstances “go downhill” you’re going to turn to your insurance company for help; and one of the early questions that will be asked from the claims manager, adjuster, or attorney concerning your defense, is “where is your documentation?”

Carter Jones is a 45-year veteran of the fire service and retired chief of the Clarendon County Fire Dept. He served as president of the S.C. Firefighters’ Association and was awarded that association’s first “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2010. He is the loss control director for First Responder Insurance at the Bruner Agency of Summerton, S.C.
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  4/4/2012 1:43:12 PM
That Upstate Guy 


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Great article Carter. Well said!

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