Fire department SOPs: A fresh approach

SOPs built around general expectations rather than specific behaviors will improve morale and be easier to enforce


Whenever I work with fire departments as a consultant or trainer, I always ask to see their SOPs or SOGs before working onsite. Reading these manuals is not only informative about specific policies in place, but also provides clues about organizational culture.

Often I am given a several-inches thick notebook full of very specific rules and procedures. These manuals will often include policies so specific that they apply to just one situation. I call these "Rules with People's Names on Them."

Terry backs over a ladder at a fire scene and a new rule is written about backing near ladders. Sean sends out a rude joke via department email and Pat wears a red T-shirt under a uniform shirt. And now you have Terry's rule, Sean's rule Pat's rule and so on.

These manuals can become so unwieldy that nobody ever reads them, unless they are studying for a promotional exam.

There are several problems with writing SOPs in this way. The first is purely practical. It is simply impossible to write a book of rules to address every potential situation that might arise. There will always be an exception, and therefore, a new rule.

The bigger problem with such books of rules is the effect they can have on morale and accountability in the workplace.

Morale killer
The vast majority of well-selected and well-trained people will want to do the right thing, and will use their best judgment in any given situation. They don't need a detailed rulebook and having one is likely to undermine rather than enhance their natural best instincts and efforts.

True, some may say, but what about those people who inevitably want to push every limit and test every rule? Certainly such people exist in most organizations.

But unless an organization is in serious trouble, these people are usually a very small minority.

So leaders have a choice. They can trust no one until they earn it. Or they can trust everyone until they prove themselves to be untrustworthy.

As one management expert has said, organizations should hire people they can trust, and then trust them completely.

I always thought it was ironic that fire departments trust their members with people's lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, but feel that they must write a three-page SOP on how a $50 petty cash fund should be managed.

Focus on principles
What would happen if fire departments were to take the approach of creating policies that are principle-based instead of case-specific?

For example, a fire department could include as part of its shared values that all members will behave in a professional manner while officially representing the department, either on or off duty.

Such a statement potentially covers a lot of ground, from childish behavior during a training class to offensive use of social media.

If someone does something to breach this shared value, that person can be asked, "Do you feel that your action reflects on the department and yourself in a professional manner?"

The key is to hold the individual accountable for personal choices rather than force everyone in the organization to live under endless bureaucracy and rules that really only apply to a few.

Then policies can be distilled down to those that truly do apply to everyone, such as the fact that all members must have a valid driver's license, or that no member will break federal, state or local laws when doing their jobs as firefighters.

One rule
Too many rules have two bad effects on members of any organization. For the vast majority, endless rules make them feel disrespected and untrusted by their leaders. They can kill motivation and initiative.

For the so-called problem employee, vast books of rules just create a challenge, a way of figuring out how to game the system.

If you have people in your organization in this latter group, you have a real problem. You have either done a terrible job with hiring, or more likely, have not done a good job preparing leaders, dealing with issues as they come up and holding people accountable for their choices.

Years ago, Nordstrom department store revised their approach to standard operating procedures. They reduced their employee manual to one 5- x 7-inch card with only these words on it:

Welcome to Nordstrom
We're glad to have you with our company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high. We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules: Rule 1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.

Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

What would be the result if all fire departments operated along the same philosophy — under the assumption of trust, competency, and inclusion? What underutilized potential might be tapped? What might be possible?

About the author

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board.To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.

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