Fire Service Court: Implementing SOGs

In this column, members of the FDIC legal expert panel will respond to reader-submitted written questions related to legal issues. We will try to answer as many questions as possible, and in some instances, we will refer readers directly to attorneys in their home states. To submit a legal question, CLICK HERE. Every reader is reminded that the answers the attorneys in this column provide are generic in nature, and do not constitute specific legal advice, since each state may have different legal standards that apply. Always consult a licensed attorney in your home state.

How do you tactfully recommend getting your fire chief to implement updated standard operating guidelines (SOGs) as opposed to working under policies and procedures from the 1970s? By the way, what is the difference between standard operating procedures (SOPs) and SOGs?

John K. Murphy: At times, there are no “tactful” methods for implementing change on the job. Too often, it takes a catastrophic event to spur change. Your job is to avoid the catastrophic event that will drive change. Implementing SOGS or SOPs takes a lot of research and preplanning to prepare for the changes, especially since change is very difficult for those steeped in the traditions of the fire service. This is made even more difficult if there has been no adverse event forcing change. Reference material such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards are available as a guide for altering existing policies and procedures, and organizations such as the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Firefighters, the National Volunteer Fire Council, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and local regulatory agencies may assist in promoting change.

SOGs are guidelines that provide a mechanism for managing a difficult or unusual emergency or routine situation. Guidelines provide more flexibility than policies at the emergency scene. SOGs provide additional protections, since they are used to guide a response, as opposed to setting forth a policy that dictates a specific response.

Polices, on the other hand, are strict standards that govern a response. Generally, they are prefaced with the “shall” word. For example, a driving response policy usually states: “You shall not exceed the posted speed limit by 10 miles per hour (mph) on emergency responses.”

Now, who are we trying to kid? I have never seen a responding apparatus keep within that 10-mph policy. A better guideline found in many state laws dictating a response of emergency vehicles reads: “The driver of any emergency apparatus responding to an emergency may exceed the posted speed limits in accordance with the road and traffic conditions. The driver is responsible for the safe operation of the emergency vehicle.” That is a safer guideline as opposed to a policy.

The prevailing opinion among our attorney group is that SOPs are inflexible policies designed to be applied and enforced by the department. SOPs tend to be rigid in their interpretation and don’t allow for flexibility. They do not work well in field/emergency operations, and are better suited for administrative use. For example, a policy that states that “firefighters shall appear in uniform at their assigned stations 15 minutes before the start of the shift” is probably required in most departments. There is no room for flexibility; this creates the standard and is easy to apply and enforce.

If SOPs are created for field operations, however, and things go sideways at an incident, the command officer will probably make the required operational adjustments and violate the standing SOP. This creates a legal field day for those wishing to sue the department for breaching their own policies and damaging property, causing injury, or losing a life

As guidelines, SOGs tend to allow more flexibility in department operations. These generally are more applicable in field operations, which require flexibility to manage the event. Allowing the command officer the flexibility to manage the operation depending upon the situation creates a safe harbor for the command staff and the department and probably creates a safer emergency operation.

SOGs should be broad enough to cover most basic situations but not so restrictive that they inhibits the final outcome. During training events, SOGs should be applied so that the command staff and firefighters understand them, and a particular operational SOG should be part of the training exercise.

Of course, SOGs are not a license to violate existing state and federal law or those standards promulgated by OSHA, NFPA, or other standard-creating organizations.

In a nutshell, SOPs are better for administrative purposes and SOGs are better for field operations.

To effect change, the change agent must take the time to decide which policies require change; research the change and the effect that change would have on the organization; find other agencies that have incorporated those changes; and, finally, train to those standards. after placing those changes into a guideline.

Change agents must be patient. Change is difficult for all people, and difficult for most agencies. With conscious planning, you can compel the change in an organization that the department has been reluctant to adopt in the past.

John Murphy retired in 2007 as the deputy chief with Eastside Fire and Rescue in Issaquah, Washington, and as the chief of Sammamish, Washington, after 32 years of service. His legal focus as an attorney covers employment practices liability, employment policy, medical malpractice, personal injury, internal investigations, and risk management consultation for private and public entities. Since 1977, Murphy has been a licensed physician’s assistant in Washington State, focusing on primary care and emergency medicine. He served in the U.S. Navy (1969-1973) as a combat corpsman with the Marine Corps in Vietnam.

Subjects: Fire service legal issues, firefighters and the law, standard operating guidelines, SOGs, standard operating procedures, SOPs, fire department policy

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