Start at the Beginning

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

The first step in the standard management model involves the development, maintenance, consistent application, and continual refinement of standard operating procedures (SOPs). Going through the process of giving birth to and then raising such standard directives becomes a major expression of organizational commitment—baby and adolescent procedures require a lot of love, attention, and care. Mature SOPs must be maintained in an active “wellness” program that keeps them healthy.

Any ongoing service delivery or support activity that must be done in the same manner by a variety of department members will never be effectively managed and consistently performed unless there is a recorded description (SOP) of how the department has decided and expects that activity to be done. The SOP must then become the front end of an integrated model that includes the other components that ensure that the standard practice becomes standard—and then that the practice stays standard.

The need for such written procedures is particularly critical for performing urgent operational activities that must be done quickly within a hazard zone. Without SOPs, operations are done based on the opinion and preference of the highest ranking officer in attendance. Many times there are major differences among officers, so the troops must somehow keep track of the boss who shows up and of the very personal preference and routine of that boss. The more complicated this becomes, the more the task-level manual laborers mutter “put it out before they get here.”

SOPS must be written in simple, understandable, very practical language. They must consider the actual conditions that will be present where and when they will be applied. Short and simple procedures that are well illustrated are more effective than long, complicated ones. Having more department members participate in writing, reviewing, and refining procedures produces SOPs that are better balanced and more effectively represent the perspective of all the levels that will be involved in performing the functions described in the procedure. The wider the participation in developing and revising procedures, the more critical the facilitation skills of the senior bosses become.

Developing SOPs for an organization that has not had them or used them in the past can create the feeling (and articulation) that the procedures will make “robots” out of the officers in particular. In a preprocedure time, those officers had the latitude to “make it up as they were going.” This rough-and-ready freelance approach works best when the problems are routine, regular, and recurring. It quickly breaks down when new/different problems must be solved.

The nonprocedure approach also works best when the cast of players stays the same and when the team is very stable and the same members get to operate together a long time. It is very difficult to effectively connect freelancing operations with agencies, disciplines, or specialties that are new and different—we use the term “does not play well with others” to describe how the freelancers deal with diverse people, places, and things.

What SOPs do is make as many routine operational decisions before the game as possible. This reduces the time it takes to start operations in the critical period of initial operations and frees officers to make critical (not routine) decisions that customize an effective response to the unique conditions present at the current incident. The SOPs actually enable, not constrict, officers, because they arrive with an agreed-on playbook that is the foundation of being able to call the critical plays—it’s pretty tough for the quarterback to teach Bubba how to go out for a pass in the huddle.

Many of us firefighters played football as we were growing up. We first played with our neighborhood buddies after school in our favorite vacant lot. This is called “sandlot football.‘’ There were no plays (SOPs), so it was unstructured, very exciting, and loads of fun. The kids choose up sides, make up the rules as they play, and a lot of times argue about the score. We played until Mom called us to dinner or as long as whoever brought the ball was okay with what was going on. This is where the expression “took his ball and went home” came from.

As we got older and went to high school, we got to go out for the football team. The first difference we noticed was that the program was managed by a new character in our lives—the coach. The next change was the coach communicated using “plays.” They were written down in a “playbook” and described positions, formations, and moves. As the team developed, the coach modified the plays to match the team members’ strengths and weaknesses. He essentially made the plays “local.”

We could use the football experience as a pretty good example of the coach’s playing the position of the incident commander (IC) and the plays being the SOP-based Operations Manual that describes how the team will play. The coach and the plays create a major capability to go from sandlot freelancing to structured, standard incident operations. Sadly, firefighters continue to be injured and killed playing “sandlot” firefighting.

SOPs/plays must be written around local conditions/resources. They work against organizational gobbledygook simply because they describe in plain terms how the River City Fire Department will use River City resources to fight River City fires. River City SOPs will make River City a happier and safer place.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINIis a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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