The Triangle of Solid Standard Operating Procedures

by Dave LeBlanc

There is more to standard operating procedures (SOPs) than just words. These documents form the backbone of our existence. They govern how we operate and they ensure that everyone is on the same page. They are the top point of the Triangle of SOPs. The other two points are Training and Discipline. Without these points, our SOPs are not worth the paper on which they are written.

So what’s in a name, anyway? Some departments have SOPs, some have standard operating guidelines (SOGs.) Is there a difference? Quite simply, it doesn’t matter what you call them; the only real important words are the first two–standard and operating. Some people get all wrapped up in trying to explain that a guideline gives you more flexibility and that a procedure is more iron-clad. However, an Army general was once told he couldn’t do something because it was “against regulations.” His response (and I feel it fits in the SOPs to some extent) was that regulations exist to guide the officer in his decision making. That cannot cover every possible situation; therefore the officer needs the flexibility to deviate from the written word. The understanding is that deviation is the exception, not the rule.

Across the country there are those who feel SOPs exist to cover us so that we have something to fall back on, so we will not be held responsible. Others feel that we must have SOPs because somewhere it is written that we should; however, they fall short when it comes to ensuring SOPs are followed as designed. There are still others who feel that just having a “book of words” will be sufficient if everything goes bad and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health comes to visit.

Does your department have a truck company? Is it staffed by duty personnel or on a recall? Who will force entry? Are they prepared to do it? Who will search? How will they search? What type of ventilation will you use? Who will do it? Can it be coordinated with fire attack? Who has the first line? Who has water supply?

These questions represent the nuts and bolts of the basics that must be done at every structure fire. No one will argue about the need for them to be done. The issues are how they get done and by whom. The how and by whom have to be realistic for your department and based on staffing, equipment, mutual-aid resources, and response area. In essence, SOPs should be designed as a playbook for us to follow to handle each type of incident. They should spell out STANDARD responses and STANDARD functions for personnel. Why? So that when companies are dispatched to a call, everyone will have an idea of what their role will be and what tools they will need to accomplish it.

By knowing their roles in advance, firefighters are better able to perform their size-up based on what their role will be during the incident. Officers will be better able to perform their size-up and determine a course of action. And each company that arrives after the first will know what it should be doing and what role it will take based on the SOPs. It’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s almost too simple. Right?

Unfortunately, some officers subscribe to the “Mother, may I” mentality. They do not encourage their firefighters to think on their own. They do not want their firefighters taking any actions without their specific instruction. This leads to micromanagement of the most basic tasks. It also leads to officer overload, in which officers are so busy worrying if Firefighter Smith took the halligan with him that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

It is important to understand the objectives for each particular incident and that procedures are crafted so that your personnel and equipment can accomplish them in the safest and most effective manner possible.

For SOPs to work effectively, they must be current, trained on, and backed by some discipline. Why is it that we always see discipline in a negative light? Is it a bad thing when a sports team is referred to as “well-disciplined?” Not every violation should result in days off, but your crew needs to expect that the procedure will be followed. If it isn’t, then they must give you an explanation for why they deviated from procedure. Perhaps there was a good reason, or maybe the procedure needs to change. Regardless, there has to be some accountability. 

There also has to be training. SOPs cannot just be written and read with an expectation that they will work. SOPs should be based on the training and skills in the department, and training should be based on the SOPs. This isn’t a one-time thing for when the SOP is issued; it should be part of every training session. The most basic actions must be defined and trained on, such as where each firefighter rides, what tools to use, and what lines will be stretched based on the conditions found. These procedures should be expanded to multicompany drills so that each company can operate as first-due, second-due, and so forth.

As an example of the benefit of repetitive training, let’s consider U.S. Airways Flight 1549. When the plane struck the birds just moments after takeoff, Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles had 208 seconds to make the hundreds of decisions required and to safely put the aircraft into the Hudson River. Just 208 seconds! Granted, Captain Sullenberger had more than 19,000 hours of flight time, so one could say he was an experienced pilot. But a water landing is the most difficult landing for which pilots are trained, and even pilots in command are required to train in simulators so that the extraordinary seems routine. But still, how could they do what they had to do–the hundreds of decisions, the radio updates, the procedures–in 208 seconds? They were able to perform because there are SOPs for handling the loss of thrust from both engines, and they trained on these SOPs in simulators so that the unimaginable events of that day became just another “routine” emergency.

Think about it on your next shift. Do your SOPs work? Have you trained on them? Were they followed at your last call? If not, maybe it is time to change things.

Endnote

“How Sullenberger Really Saved U.S. Airways Flight 1549,” by Rick Newman US News and World Report.

Click to EnlargeDave LeBlanc started his career in the fire service in 1986. He is a lieutenant assigned to Harwich Station 2 in the Harwich (MA) Fire Department, where he began working full time as a fire alarm operator in 1993. He became a firefighter in 2000. Previously, he was a call firefighter for the Dennis (MA) Fire Department and a volunteer for the West Haven (CT) Fire Department and the Allingtown Fire Department in West Haven, Connecticut. He has a bachelor’s degree in arson Investigation from the University of New Haven. 

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