Policy writing guide

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This guide contains excerpts from a longer article called Black Box Tools on the Emergency Scene published in the September 2015 issue of Firehouse Magazine.

It is up to chief officers and administrators to make sure that digital tools are used in a responsible framework. Active911 is "advisory," and not as reliable as an actual pager or CAD system. If it fails you must ensure that your agency has an appropriate plan and is trained on the plan.

This plan is usually called a Standard Operating Policy (SOP) or Standar Operating Guideline (SOG).

The black box problem and a lesson from aviation

Black box is a term used to describe a system that is internally unknown. For example, most people can learn how to use a computer, but if it suddenly stops working, they have no way of further troubleshooting the problem. They have to call a technician. To them, a computer is a black box.

The problem with cloud-based services and most consumer-level electronics is that they are "black boxes" as well. If they don’t work, there’s simply nothing you can do.

Smartphone apps present both a blessing and a challenge to public service agencies. Most of us are used to fast-paced technology at home and slow-moving advances on the scene. If you can’t touch it and you can’t fix it, how are you supposed to use it? If you put a nozzle on a shelf and come back in the morning, it will work the same way as it did the night before. But cloud-based software updates itself while you sleep, and if it breaks, you can’t pull a spare from the shelf.

The aviation world faced a similar problem several years ago when GPS became widespread. On the one hand, GPS is so useful that there was no way it could simply be ignored as a navigation tool. On the other hand, certain events (interference, solar flares, etc.) could degrade the quality of a GPS signal such that it could not be used safely. No one wanted an airliner to crash because the onboard GPS wasn’t working properly.

To solve this problem, a system called RAIM was devised. RAIM stands for Receiver Autonomous Integrity Monitoring. Essentially it was a feature that constantly checked the validity of the GPS signal. If the GPS data becomes untrustworthy, the pilot is notified via a "RAIM alarm" to stop using the GPS. This demonstrates two principles:

"If" the GPS fails, the pilot is notified. The pilot then uses an alternate ("Or") navigation method that does not rely on GPS. This same policy that protects lives in aircraft is an excellent model for us.

The "If/Or" approach

Similar to what pilots use, the "If/Or" approach was developed to give emergency response agencies a framework for defining standard operating procedures and guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) in the context of digital "black boxes." This approach requires each black box to conform to two requirements:

If: "If" means, "If it fails." If the black box doesn’t do what you want it to do, will you know about it? Does it have some way of internally detecting the failure? Will crews be notified of the failure? In an aviation GPS, this would be a “RAIM” check. Or: "Or" means "Or what?"” In other words, what is the backup plan? Is there a fallback technology, and are crews trained in using the fallback technology?

Active911 contains powerful tools for alerting and also feedback to make sure that the alerts were properly received. This allows us to write a policy along the following lines:

  1. Users must be trained to watch Active911 responses in order to make sure that a message was properly received
  2. "If" it succeeds, no further action is necessary
  3. "If" it fails, proceed to plan B (pager system, phone trees, etc)
  4. Regular training and practice using this system

Sample Active911 Policy (SOG/ SOP)

  1. All personnel are encouraged to use Active911
    1. PSAP dispatch personnel will use the real-time response feature of Active911 to monitor response to pages
      1. When response occurs, the appropriate response times will be noted
      2. In the event that a response does not occur within [insert timeframe] two minutes, the operator will assume failure of the Active911 paging system(s) and revert to a phone tree or backup paging system
  2. Mission critical staff, such as each shift officer, duty crew, and department heads are required to be within earshot of a legacy form of communication and may not solely rely on Active911: for example, station bell, radio pager, landline
  3. In conjunction with [insert timeframe] training, this policy will be reviewed to ensure continued compliance
  4. In conjunction with [insert timeframe] training, an Active911 failure will be simulated and the backup alerting method will be used. Results will be evaluated to ensure they meet relevant guidelines.