The Triangle of Solid Standard Operating Procedures

Regulations exist to guide the officer in his decision making

By Dave LeBlanc

Originally published 20 December 2009

There is so much more to standard operating procedures than just words. These documents form the backbone of our existence. They govern how we operate, and they put everyone on the same page. They are the top point of the Triangle of SOPs.

The other two points are Training and Discipline. Without these points, our standard operating procedures are not worth the paper they are written on. So what’s in a name anyway? Some departments have SOPs, some SOGs. Is there a difference?

My feelings are quite simple. It doesn’t matter what you call them, the only real important words are the first two; Standard and Operating. Some people get all wrapped up in trying to explain that a guideline gives you more flexibility and that a procedure is more iron clad.

I remember reading about an Army General that was told he couldn’t do something because it was “against regulations”. His response and I feel it fits in the SOPs to some extent, was that regulations exist to guide the officer in his decision making. That cannot cover every possible situation; therefore the officer needs the flexibility to deviate from the written word. The understanding is that deviation is the exception, not the rule.

I am not so sure that everyone sees SOPs in the same light. You see, one great thing about the internet, is that we get the opportunity to talk to brothers all across the country and find out what they are doing, and share their experiences. In the course of these exchanges, I have discovered that some believe SOPs exist to “cover our behind”, so that they have something to fall back on, so they are not responsible. Others feel that we must have SOPs because somewhere it is written we should. However they fall short when it comes to ensuring they are followed as designed. There are others that feel that just having a “book of words” will be sufficient if everything goes bad and NIOSH come to visit.

Come on, you know you’ve been to fires like this.

Standard operating procedures should be designed as a “playbook” for us to follow to handle each different type of incident. They should spell out STANDARD responses. They should spell out STANDARD functions for personnel. Why you ask? So that when companies are dispatched to a call, everyone has an idea of what their role will be and what tools they will need to accomplish it. By knowing their roles in advance, firefighters are better able to perform their size up, based on what their role will be during the incident. Officers will be better able to perform their size up and determine a course of action. And each company that arrives after the first will know what should be being done, and what role they will take based on the SOPs. Amazing isn’t it? It is almost too simple, right?

Unfortunately there are some officers that subscribe to the “mother may I” mentality. They do not encourage their firefighters to think on their own. They do not want their firefighters taking any actions, without their specific instruction. This leads to a micromanaging of the most basic tasks. It also leads to ‘officer overload’, where they are so busy worrying if Fireman Smith took the haligan bar with him, they loose site of the bigger picture.

In order for standard operating procedures to work effectively they must be current, trained upon, and backed by some discipline. In that light, why is it we always see discipline in a negative light? When a sport team is referred to as “well disciplined”, is that a bad thing? Now I am not saying that every violation should result in days offs, but there needs to be an expectation that the Procedure will be followed. If it isn’t, then there need to be an explanation as to why there was a deviation. Possibly there was a good reason, or maybe the Procedure needs to change. Regardless there has to be some accountability. There has to be training. I know the ‘T’ word again. SOPs cannot just be written and read with an expectation that they will work. SOPs should be based on the training and skills in the Department and training should be based on the SOPs. This isn’t a onetime thing, when the SOP is issued, but part of every training session. From the most basic actions of where each firefighter rides, to what tools will be used, to what lines will be stretched based on the conditions found. Then expended to multi company drills so that each company can operate as first due, second due and so forth.

A little perspective about repetitive training; when Flight 1549 struck the birds just moments after takeoff, Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles had 208 seconds to make the hundreds of decisions required and safely put the aircraft into the Hudson River. 208 seconds, can you believe that? Now granted Captain Sullenberger has over 19000 of flight time, so one could say he was an experienced pilot. But a water landing is the most difficult landing that pilots are trained for. And even Pilots in Command are required to train in simulators so that the extraordinary seems routine. But still, how could they do what they had to do, the hundreds of decisions, the radio updates, the procedures in 208 seconds? They were able to do it because there are SOPs for handling the loss of thrust from both engines. They could do it because they training on these SOPs in simulators so that the unimaginable events of that day were in fact just another “routine” emergency.

So think about it on your next shift, do your SOPs work? Have you trained on them? Were they followed at your last call? If not, maybe it is time to change things.

“How Sullenberger Really Saved US Airways Flight 1549” by Rick Newman US News and World Report

Published by Data Not Drama

Data Not Drama is writings that provide a point of critical thought about firefighter fatality data and education, line of duty deaths, and risk. The main focus is to encourage less risk aversion and better knowledge on the subject of firefighter fatalities in firefighters, fire departments, and fire service organizations.

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