Objectives The aim of the present study was to describe and compare organisational guidance documents related to recognising and responding to clinical deterioration across five health services in Victoria, Australia. Methods Guidance documents were obtained from five health services, comprising 13 acute care hospitals, eight subacute care hospitals and approximately 5500 beds. Analysis was guided by a specific policy analysis framework and a priori themes. Results In all, 22 guidance documents and five graphic observation and response charts were reviewed. Variation was observed in terminology, content and recommendations between the health services. Most health services' definitions of physiological observations fulfilled national standards in terms of minimum parameters and frequency of assessment. All health services had three-tier rapid response systems (RRS) in place at both acute and subacute care sites, consisting of activation criteria and an expected response. RRS activation criteria varied between sites, with all sites requiring modifications to RRS activation criteria to be made by medical staff. All sites had processes for patient and family escalation of care. Conclusions Current guidance documents related to the frequency of observations and escalation of care omit the vital role of nurses in these processes. Inconsistencies between health services may lead to confusion in a mobile workforce and may reduce system dependability.