SOPs: KEY TO GOOD LEADERSHIP
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are among the fire officer’s greatest tools. A functional definition of an SOP was developed by Chief Alan Brunacini in his book Fire Command (published by the National Fire Protection Association). According to Brunacini, standard operating procedures are “a set of organizational directives that establish a standard course of action on the emergency scene to increase the effectiveness of the firefighting or rescue team.” Analyzing this definition part by part reveals some general characteristics of SOPs.
A set of organizational directives. These directions or orders, relative to a specific topic, apply to the entire organization (your fire department), stipulate what should be done, and provide personnel with guidelines or a general course of action.
That establish a standard course of action on the emergency scene. Personnel responding to an incident or emergency already have been given orders by their leaders on how to carry out the appropriate action described in the SOPs. It is up to the responders to size up the situation and to apply the appropriate procedures or policy established in the SOPs. The standard course of action for an engine company at a structure fire, for example, is to advance a handline to the seat of the fire. A department’s SOP for this response, however, also may require a backup line stretched or a second line above the fire. Our discussion here is limited to standard situations; nonstandard situations will be discussed later.
To increase the effectiveness of the firefighting or rescue team. This is the purpose of fire department SOPs. The procedures make individual firefighters, companies, and departments more efficient. When individuals and units are more efficient, operations are more efficient.
Consider the alternative. Without SOPs, every fire would be an adventure. SOPs, on the other hand, mean planning before the fire and being as organized as possible. Without standard procedures, what would members do at the emergency scene? Waiting tor orders takes time and decreases efficiency. And, what if the officer does not approach similar situations in a consistent manner? Your company, for example, goes to a car fire today, and the captain orders you to wear masks and to stretch a 1 Viinch line. Tomorrow, your company responds to a similar car fire, and the captain orders two booster lines and does not stipulate that masks be worn. The third car fire is going to be a real adventure! What will the captain want? Add to this scenario a bit of emotion because the line you chose did not match the one he/she would have chosen, and things really get interesting. Sound familiar? SOPs can prevent this type of problem.
TYPES OF SOPs
Some SOPs describe a policy or a procedure. These SOPs are written in general terms without many details. A policy SOP on turnout gear, for example, would not specify a procedure for donning the gear. It describes what the gear is, when it should be worn, and how it should be worn, but it does not say how or in what sequence the gear should be donned. The donning sequence would be a procedural type of SOP.
Procedural SOPs are highly detailed. A procedural SOP must tell firefighters what to do and in what order. The donning of turnout gear is an example of a procedural SOP. The procedure section of this SOP may state: “Bunker pants will be stored with the pants pushed down over the boots so they can be pulled up quickly. After pulling up the pants, suspenders must be pulled over and placed on the shoulders. Nomex® hoods must be donned next. Turnout coats then will be donned. Storm flaps and all buckles must be buckled. The firefighter then will don his/her helmet and put the chin strap in place under the chin. The firefighters then may don breathing apparatus to ride to the fire scene.”
Note that the SOP tells how to don the equipment, how to store it for immediate donning, and what constitutes complete donning. This example, of course, is deliberately simplistic. Procedural SOPs can be developed for almost all foreground operations. They can describe a procedure and, at the same time, assign responsibilities for accomplishing the procedure.
SOPs offer many advantages. They make the department’s policies and procedures clear. Written SOPs can be read and reread until they are understood.
Having the department policies and procedures in a format that is clear to officers and members alike is a major step toward reducing conflicts and “Monday-morning quarterbacking After the emergency, it is simple to determine whether the officer or firefighter did or did not work in accordance with the SOP. If he or she did not, circumstances of the particular emergency may have dictated that other, more appropriate, actions than those outlined in the SOP he taken.
SOPs give officers and firefighters guidelines to follow. Without them, personnel would have to evaluate every situation and do what the)’ think is right. If an SOP is in place, all the officer or firefighter has to do is remember the SOP’s directions and carry them out.
This is a major advantage and a real morale booster. The junior officer, for example, now can act more confidently because he/she knows what the department expects to be done and how it is to be done. Imagine how the firefighter would feel if there were no clear guidance and every call were an adventure. How would success be measured?
Most members and officers would comply with department SOPs if they understand what is expected of them. This recently became clear to me in a simple, nonfirematic way. I could not understand why my dog Chester, a black Labrador, sometimes would sit and sometimes would not sit when I gave him the command, even though I did my best to be consistent with the voice commands. In an attempt to drive my point home, I found myself shaking my finger at him while telling him to sit. Soon, Chester had me trained. He would sit only when I waved my finger. Apparently, what I thought was a clear command was confusing to him. Now that we have agreed on the “SOP” for sitting— every time I shake my finger—Chester sits. I’m happy because he does what I want. He is happy because he gets a pat on the head (reward) for good behavior.
Firefighters, of course, are not retrievers, and shaking one’s finger at other people usually begets trouble. We all, however, need to understand what is expected of us. A properly written SOP clearly describes the department’s expectations of its members. The leaders are happy because members follow the procedures, and the members are happy because their leaders are effective and use positive reinforcement when members take the proper actions.
Another advantage of having written department policy and procedures is that it decreases emotionalism. Members may not agree with the written policy, but they usually will accept it if it is pointed out that the approach is more objective and consistent than one that states, “because the chief said.” This is an especially important consideration in volunteer departments, where chiefs can change every year or tu. Members also understand that written SOPs require time and effort to write and that they are not hasty, arbitrary, or capricious decisions. When officers use the SOP as a guide, there is little room for argument.
SOPs also promote a positive management climate for the department. They are proactive and solve problems before they occur. The turnout gear SOP given as an example, for instance, clearly is aimed at increasing firefighter safety and survival. That is a positive, proactive directive because it anticipates a hazard a firefighter will face and takes steps to reduce the dangers before they are faced on the fireground.
In addition, the SOPs act as a guide for solving problems when they develop. If a department, for example, has an SOP that says members are not permitted to ride the back step of an apparatus, a discipline or enforcement section can be added to the SOP. Remember, however, that the goal is to get members to understand and comply with the SOP. The first step in the discipline section, therefore, should be positive. It could say, “If an officer witnesses a member on the back step while the apparatus is in motion, the following judicial procedure will be followed.” The nature of the judicial procedure would depend on the way your department wants to handle it. Assuming the member is found guilty, he/she might be required to view a videotape that depicts apparatus accidents.
The second offense could require the offender to take a firefighter safety and survival course before being allowed to ride the apparatus again. The third offense could require that the violator perform extra duties around the firehouse or attend training sessions. Some punitive action should be required, but punishing volunteers by suspending them seldom is effective. This type of action results in an even more disgruntled firefighter. At some point, however, the department will have to take punitive action against members who consistently don’t comply.
COMPONENTS OF AN SOP
A tool as effective as SOPs has many important parts, although all SOPs need not have all of the sections listed below. Breaking the SOP down into sections makes it easier to read and comprehend.
Purpose. This section states the SOPs purpose, which could be expressed as in the following examples: lo describe the department policy on…,’ “To define the department’s role in…,’ “To set department policy on…,” or “To describe the procedure for handling….” This section should be only one sentence.
Objective. This section contains the goal of the SOP —for example, “to reduce firefighter injuries through the use of…” or “to provide a program that ensures….”
Scope. This portion of the SOP states in one sentence to whom the policy applies—for example, “This SOP applies to all members and officers of this department” or “This SOP applies to all apparatus drivers.”
Discussion. The discussion section contains the reasons for the SOP, the portion that gives department leaders the opportunity to convince members of the need for and positive effects of the SOP. It may include facts that support its need. For example, in the case of the SOP that prohibits riding on the back step of the apparatus, the discussion section can state that the year before, 26 firefighters were killed going to or returning from alarms and that many of them were killed by falling from the back step.
Responsibilities. Who is supposed to do what is spelled out in this section, which should be very specific. In volunteer departments, it also is critical to include information relative to who is responsible for checking to see that the responsible person is doing the job. A job or task, for example, may be the captain’s responsibility, but the assistant chief may be responsible for making sure that it is being done. A chain for reporting successes and failures also must be established.
Procedural SOPs. In the case of a procedural SOP, the procedure should be described accurately, simply, and completely.
Policy This applies to policy SOPs. This section may contain sentences such as, “It is the policy of this department…”
Annex. Subsections of the SOP that can be broken out easily could be included in an annex or appendix.
Doing this helps keep the basic SOP short and to the point. Annexes should not be used, however, if the continuity of the document is diminished.
When writing SOPs, consider the following:
- The SOP may have to be rewritten several times. The first draft will contain the basic thoughts, and subsequent drafts will close the loopholes, make the points simpler and clearer, and improve grammar and punctuation.
- When in final draft form, the SOP should be read by someone who is not familiar with its technical aspects to see if it can be understood. Such an individual will not get wrapped up in the technical parts and will give an unbiased opinion.
- Upon distributing draft copies for review, ask recipients for comments. Be sure to tell them that the document still needs some work; this will make it easier for them to provide
- constructive criticism. Constructive criticism also can be obtained from spouses or other family members.
- When writing SOPs, it sometimes becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees. Should this happen, taking a break for a few hours can make it easier for the words to flow.
- Keep in mind the intended target group of the SOP. The goal is to make the points clearly and simply. Leave large, confusing words for English class.
- Try to keep the SOP to one or two pages when possible. Topics should be very specific. An SOP entitled “Ventilation,” for example, could fill a book. The way to deal with such extensive topics is to break them into subtopics. Ventilation, therefore, could entail several individual SOPs such as ventilation of single-family dwellings, ventilation of multiple dwellings, and ventilation of commercial occupancies.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Many departments already have taken the time to write excellent SOPs, which a
- department developing its own SOPs can use as guides. It is quite all right if your department’s SOP is similar to another department’s, just as long as your SOPs are applicable to your response area and department.
- SOPs should be organized. The best method for doing this is to keep them in a three-ring binder. Custom covers could be designed for the binders, which should be distributed to each department member. If changes in the SOPs become necessary, only the specific pages involved need changing.
- All SOPs should be numbered and dated, and they should indicate clearly under whose authority they were issued. SOPs can be grouped by major topics such as fireground operations, response policies, and personnel safety policies.
- Remember that SOPs are just guidelines. They, therefore, should be written clearly and to the point, but they should not be so restrictive that they leave no room for common sense.
The following “SOP Scoreboard” lists questions that can help you assess the quality of your department’s SOPs. Each question should be answered with a “yes” or “no.” If you can’t quickly decide which answer to give, reply “no.” The goal is to have as many “yes” answers as possible. After evaluating your SOPs, go back and improve the sections of the procedures corresponding to your “no” responses.
- Is the SOP easy to read?
- Is its purpose clearly stated?
- Is its objective clear?
- Is its scope clear?
- Do you understand the procedure described?
- Does the discussion convince you of the need for the SOP?
- Are the responsibilities clearly spelled out?
- Are the procedures clear and logical?
- Are there any loopholes?
- Does it solve all the problems?
- Does it provide for enforcement and discipline?
- Does it establish a policy?
- Does it reference any standards, laws, or regulations?
- Is it numbered or clearly identified?
Is it in a standard format?
SOPs are used to set a standard response or desired action for a standard situation. SOPs never replace common sense. Sops never are followed blindly. SOPs sometimes need to be totally disregarded. Would it be smart, for example, for an engine company officer to force the use of the standard engine company procedure (stretch a line to the seat of the fire) if his engine is first on the scene, victims are in the street, and multiple victims are trapped? Of course not!
SOPs are key to effective leadership because they clearly describe to your leadership and members your department’s policies and procedures. But, most important, SOPs assign responsibility for certain expected actions both on and oil the emergency scene.