The Simple Approach to Writing Effective SOPsThe Simple Approach to Writing Effective SOPs

BY FRANK VISCUSO

“You want me to do what?” That’s what I said, out loud, I think, when my chief asked me to write a standard operating procedure (SOP) for my department. I was a captain only for one year, and I had very little writing experience. However, I was assigned to the training division, and with that comes those dreaded “administrative” duties.

It was 1998. I was asked to write a procedure outlining the duties of the safety officer. How could I do that? I didn’t even know what those duties were at the time. After getting over the initial shock, I gathered my thoughts and began to work out a plan of attack. It began with my understanding that an SOP, or a standard operating guideline (SOG), is a simple guide for a department or an individual to routinely follow during day-to-day operations. Once I understood that, it was time to start the writing process. I stumbled through that first one, but 10 years and more than 50 SOPs later, I can say with confidence that the simple five-step format outlined in this article can help you to write an effective and comprehensive SOP regardless of whether you are a novice or a seasoned firefighter, even if you have limited writing experience.

Perhaps you may have heard of these steps before. They are known as “PRDIE,” which stands for Planning, Research, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate.

 

STEP 1. PLANNING

 

You’ve already conducted a needs assessment and identified the problem. The solution is to develop an SOP. Initiate this stage by forming a committee. It could have two members or more; the committee’s size may vary. The members should be motivated and knowledgeable about the subject on which you are developing an SOP. For example, any time I have to gather information about technical rescue, I consult with a firefighter on my tour who is a member of New Jersey Task Force 1. He has knowledge and skills that exceed mine in this area and is a great asset. When choosing members for your committee, look outside of your department for legal and expert opinions on the topic. Your committee should also include representatives of groups that will be affected by the SOP. For instance, if you are developing procedures to follow at an assisted living facility, include the manager of that facility in the process.

Once your committee is formed, schedule a meeting and choose a committee manager. This is the most effective way to facilitate coordination. If you are the individual responsible for developing the SOP, you should also assume the role of committee manager. At the meeting, effectively communicate the specific goals and objectives you are trying to meet so that all members have a clear understanding of the task at hand. Prescribe a course of action by delegating tasks; designate a timeline for their completion. Early tasks are mainly fact-finding and research oriented, such as those outlined in step 2 below. Members should write down their assignments so there is no confusion about who is assigned which task. Document what occurred at the meeting, and prepare a report for your superior. Take these two actions after each of the five steps in the process.

 

STEP 2. RESEARCH

 

It’s imperative that the committee members research all facts that are pertinent to this SOP. The best place to begin is with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards or by visiting credible Web sites like that of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), USFA.dhs.gov, for help. At the USFA site, you can type the topic for which you are seeking information in the search box and find valuable information. I found a sample SOP on Emergency Incident Rehabilitation on that Web site, which we revised and adopted. If the SOP pertains to the incident command system, consult with a member of your county Office of Emergency Management. In short, seek help from those in the know. It is also helpful to contact other local fire departments to see if they have an SOP on the topic. You can do this with a simple Internet search, since many departments post their SOPs on their Web sites.

When developing my first SOP on the duties of the safety officer, I called a battalion chief I know from another department who taught a class with the same title. He obviously had the majority of the information I needed to gather and was a tremendous help. While developing an SOP on thermal imaging cameras, I contacted a representative of the company that manufactured the cameras we purchased. He sent me a copy of an SOP the company developed. This call provided me with 90 percent of the information I needed. It’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel, especially since we are not in cutthroat corporate America, where sharing information with a competitor is frowned on and bad business. The brotherhood in the fire service is strong enough so that firefighters willingly share information with other departments.

Research every aspect of the topic at hand. If you are developing an SOP that would require training personnel or purchasing new equipment, and costs are involved, research those costs as well. Find out if there is money in the budget to cover the expenses or if there are grants or other means available to help your department offset those costs. Once the research is completed, the committee should meet again and move to step 3.

 

STEP 3. DEVELOP

 

During this meeting, gather all the information and discuss it. At this point, the arranging of the SOP will usually fall on one person’s shoulders—most likely yours. This is where the writing begins. Although that may seem intimidating, keep in mind that you are not writing a novel, you are simply developing an outline of procedures to follow.

SOPs should clearly state the actions each person is expected to take and indicate specific techniques and methods to follow to accomplish the tasks. There are various ways to format an SOP; however, all SOPs should have a title and a number. An effective SOP includes the following sections: Purpose, Scope, Responsibility, and Procedures or Guidelines. In some cases, Care and Maintenance, Contact Information, and References sections may be needed.

 

Purpose

 

This section should clearly state, in one or two sentences, the reason the document was developed. The Emergency Incident Rehabilitation SOP referenced earlier states the following: “1. Purpose: To ensure that the physical and mental condition of members operating at the scene of an emergency or training exercise does not deteriorate to a point that affects the safety of each member or that jeopardizes the safety and integrity of the operation.”

 

Scope

 

This section should outline when and where this procedure shall apply (in the firehouse, on the fireground, on the training ground, for example).

 

Responsibility

 

This section should list each member who shares the responsibility in adhering to the SOP and state the responsibility. At an incident, the incident commander, staff personnel, and firefighters have different jobs and would, therefore, have different responsibilities outlined in this section.

 

Guidelines or Procedures

 

This is the meat and potatoes of an SOP. It’s where the details are outlined. Use specific wording that leaves no room for interpretation. For instance, writing that a firefighter “should” do something is different from writing that a firefighter “shall” do that same task. Telling a child he “should” do his homework implies that it’s okay if he doesn’t do it. The word “should” leaves room for deviation, and although there are times when this is the right word to use, “shall” is more specific and makes the reader understand that the action outlined must be followed the way it is written.

Even the difference between the titles “Standard Operating Procedures” and “Standard Operating Guidelines” changes the dynamic of the document. A procedure is based on the “best way” to do something. A guideline implies that the firefighter should consider the action, but he may consider other options as well. Be sure to use the correct wording so that there is no confusion on what is expected of the individual.

If the SOP applies to specific tools or gear, it should also contain a section on Care and Maintenance. You can take the information in this section directly from the manufacturer’s literature that comes with the item. If you don’t have that literature, call the manufacturer and ask for a copy. I also include contact information for the company from which we purchased the tools and the organization that will service them when we must send the tools out for maintenance.

Add reference charts, logs, or other supporting information to the end of the document. They should be samples only. Number these pages in the same manner as the pages in the main sections of the SOP. End with a list of the references used to help develop the SOP. This will help with credibility and, of course, any future legal actions.

Once you have formatted the SOP, have each committee member review it for accuracy, and ask other knowledgeable and willing firefighters or subject experts to proofread it. They can also check for technical inconsistencies. I spend so much time cutting and pasting sentences and paragraphs that I tend to make simple grammatical errors that I can easily overlook. A first-time reader is more likely to notice typos. In this step, it is also important to develop a mechanism for evaluating the effectiveness of the SOP. This will be discussed more in steps 4 and 5.

 

STEP 4. IMPLEMENT

 

Do not implement an important document such as an SOP without first evaluating its effectiveness. For example, if the SOP is on vehicle extrication techniques, call a local towing company or body shop and see if it could help you secure an obsolete vehicle on which to practice the procedures outlined in the document. Bring a group of firefighters out to train and evaluate the effectiveness of those procedures. Once you conduct a training session or two and iron out the kinks, it’s time to bring that SOP to your chief or superiors to have them review it.

The committee or program manager should meet with the chief to review the final product and discuss the implementation process. This is usually done with a special notice with the new SOP attached. Include a date of implementation so there is no confusion about when the SOP becomes effective.

Once you have established and implemented an SOP, have all firefighters review it, and have company officers document it on their drill sheets. For incident-specific SOPs, your only option may be a tabletop drill on the procedure. For other SOPs, such as rope maintenance or setting up a mass decon shower, firefighters may be able to practice the procedures with a hands-on drill. When possible, choose the latter. Firefighters always learn more when they get their hands dirty.

 

STEP 5. EVALUATION

 

SOPs have advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, SOPs facilitate delegation, allow for consistency, enable leaders to manage more efficiently, and are based on the “one best way” to accomplish a task. The disadvantages of SOPs are that they lack flexibility; often take time and money to develop; and tend to stifle initiative and, therefore, become obsolete. To prevent this, remember “RER,” which stands for Review, Evaluate, and Revise. These three words are as effective and as essential in the firehouse as they are on the fire scene.

A big mistake many departments make comes a year or two after they implement an SOP; they simply place it in a designated binder and neglect to revisit it. I fell into that trap myself until our department recently planned an overhaul of every one of our SOPs. To my surprise, more than 80 percent of them needed minor revisions. In retrospect, it seems obvious that this would have been the case, given that many of them were more than 10 years old.

During the reviewing process, ask yourself or your committee simple questions such as, Is this SOP still an effective way to meet our objectives? Does this SOP contradict acceptable methods or standards that are followed throughout the fire service? Is this SOP still the “one best way” to accomplish the required task? The answers to these questions will determine if the SOP needs revision at that time. Also be sure to compare pre-SOP results with post-SOP results and evaluate whether your department has been more effective since this procedure was implemented. In short, as effective as an SOP may have been a year ago, it may be totally obsolete today. It is imperative that organizations cycle their SOP books through the planning stage often to ensure they continue to meet their goals and objectives.

I’d like to share one more thought regarding the development of SOPs: A good leader will not forget to reward the committee members and others who helped to develop the document. Some departments may go as far as to provide compensation days or overtime for those who spend time working on SOPs. This, however, is becoming less and less likely with the state of today’s economy. You may not have any control over how your department rewards committee members, but you do have control over how you reward them. At the very least, a simple thank you can go a long way.

FRANK VISCUSO is an 18-year veteran of and deputy chief with the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department and has written more than 50 standard operating procedures for his department. He is a New Jersey-certified level 2 fire instructor and author of Common Valor: True Stories from New Jersey’s Bravest.

 

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