I recently had the opportunity to work with a small department that was trying to upgrade its SOPs. I run into this quite often and have a standard starting question: why are you doing this? What I usually get is, 'Someone told us we had to or should.' This is a bad reason and doomed to failure.
Although most people think the "S" in SOP stands for standard, I think it stands for successful. SOPs are not handcuffs and should not be seen as such. They allow us to have safe, successful outcomes in a consistent manner; they allow everyone to know what is supposed to be happening and how to teach firefighters in a consistent manner to keep everyone safe.
The Incident Commander needs to be able to make decisions with limited, quickly changing and conflicting information. With so many limited pieces of quality information available, some consistent assumptions are nice.
If the IC knows that the incoming crews will take certain actions because it's in the SOPs, the firefighters are trained to the SOP and they know the expected outcomes, then the crazy world becomes a little less crazy. The IC will also know that each crew can be assigned a task, covered by SOPs, without having crews in conflict.
Great feeling For the line officers arriving on scene, not having to explain every step of an evolution — and knowing that your crew understands their roles — is a great feeling. Line officers should also be able to rely on SOPs to determine training outcomes for drills.
If you're wondering if a firefighter is up to speed, see if they can follow, repeat and understand the SOPs they will be expected to follow at the scene of an emergency. If you find yourself having to hold down the IC's position for an extended time frame as a first arriving officer, it's much easier to transfer control of the crew to a senior firefighter if you are comfortable that they know the SOP for the evolution.
As a firefighter, especially an entry-level firefighter, knowing what is expected of you from the department is very important. I doubt anyone who joins our ranks does so with the desire to make mistakes. But, without clearly defined expectations of the recruit, they are guaranteed to make mistakes with little chance of consistent corrections.
They may also find drills difficult, disjointed or useless if not formed around a central educational goal such as a SOP. Knowing what is expected also provides a great safety net for our people to work over. If they know the correct thing to do almost as instinct because it's been drilled into them, they can focus on successful outcomes. This base knowledge of the right thing to do actually also allows them to think outside the box — if they can see that something inside the box is not working, they become aware of the need to do something else.
As we as an industry try to better our responses and situational and operational awareness with Crew Resource Management, we must be able to rely on the intellect of our crews.
Working knowledge Having the base of a good working knowledge and understanding — which are not the same thing by the way — of sound SOPs allows our crews to give line officers much better support. In turn, it gives line officers the ability to begin to think in terms of information to help the IC. We all know that there is no time out in this little game we play — we either stay ahead of the information curve or we go defensive and hope to save the block.
I'm always amazed at how departments who don't have good SOPs are intimidated by the mere thought of beginning the process. But, if we think of it again in terms of the playbook for our game, then it might become a bit easier. Don't be shy about stealing a play that you like, but make sure you have the ability to carry it out. Once you have decided the play is generally right for your team, play with it, make it yours and change it based on your department's experience. SOPs are not intended to be stagnant documents and if you don't use them and amend them with the changes of time, ability and resources, they become useless.
Once you've got your playbook, drill to it! If you can't use it to drill with, it probably isn't a good SOP and should be rewritten. If you drill it, they'll use it — and begin to believe it. he actions of officers, from IC to line, must support and utilize the SOPs or else the crews will realize that nobody cares and it's time to freelance! If crews are having a difficult time staying on the SOP, recognize the problem, confirm the SOP for them, redirect them if necessary and reinforce SOP use.
Finally, the best enforcement of SOPs is when their use makes us look good in the field by doing the job in a professional manner. There is no better feeling as a crew, officer or IC than being on the scene, doing the job with almost telepathic-like proficiency and knowing you did it well. When we pull off the textbook play, we'll hit the playbook again and again.
About the author
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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