Rethinking SOPs/SOGs in the Fire Service
Should fire departments treat policies and procedures differently?
- SOPs/SOGs vs policies.
- Why don’t fire departments use policies?
- What can you do?
The fire service takes an almost entirely results-based approach to serving the community. Was the fire contained? Did the patient survive? Was the community served? The process to get there matters less than whether or not the outcome was successful.
While that is highly commendable, it can be difficult to run a top-notch department if everyone isn’t on the same page with how to get things done. This is no more evident than with how policies and procedures are viewed.
In fact, most departments don’t even call them policies, instead referring to them as fire department standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard operating guidelines (SOGs).
But here is the truth about SOPs/SOGs – sometimes they can be interpreted differently and applied inconsistently, yielding less-than-ideal results.
Therefore, having a playbook of consistent policies that gives everyone the same information, processes, and agreed-upon methods is paramount for running a safe and successful operation.
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SOPs/SOGs vs Policies
When it comes to having a winning playbook, fire departments traditionally rely on SOPs and SOGs rather than more formal policies. While they do share some similarities, they also have some differences.
Both fire department SOPs/SOGs and policies are official documents that provide instruction, methods, procedures, and requirements for how to operationalize things like bylaws, ordinances, plans, strategies, mutual aid agreements, and more.
They both provide a common set of standards by which every team member must follow. This ensures that everyone operates on the same page, performing specific tasks consistently every time. In addition, these consistent standards allow departments to realistically duplicate and predict the task results in the future and spot any weaknesses along the way.
Finally, both are designed to help reduce risks by anticipating the dangers, threats, and scenarios and giving firefighters the information and tactics needed to combat those risks. They aim to help improve the health and safety of firefighters.
Policies tend to be more rigid, whereas fire department SOPs (and particularly SOGs) tend to have more leeway or room for interpretation.
Policies tend to be fairly broad, while SOPs/SOGs tend to be more specific.
Failure to follow a policy tends to have more direct consequences than failing to comply with an SOP or SOG.
Why Don’t Fire Departments Use Policies?
When you think about other public safety departments, like law enforcement, you might wonder why they use more rigorous accountability to their policies while the fire service takes a more passive approach.
One of the reasons for this is the close proximity the firehouse brings. No one wants to be calling out their brothers for not following every step of a policy when they are so close. They don’t want that I’ve-got-your-back bond broken by what they might perceive as squealing or snitching.
Related to the “brotherhood effect” is the fact that stations often stick with the same fire SOPs/SOGs that have been around since they days when their parents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings were firefighters.
Long-established traditions permeate the station, making change difficult sometimes. Each new wave of firefighters simply adopt the attitude of “that’s the way we’ve always done it” because some of the standards probably originated decades ago.
Another reason for resistance to official policies? In general, fire service isn’t as heavily scrutinized as their law enforcement counterparts. Therefore, there isn’t as much risk of being sued for their actions (everyone loves firefighters!) or being the stars of the next YouTube video going viral.
What Can You Do?
If you want to hold your fire department to a higher standard and put more rigor around how you do things, it can honestly be tricky. This requires doing some delicate work throughout your whole organization to change the station’s time-honored culture and mentality.
However, doing so can impart lasting improvements on the success of the department and the safety of your community.
Talk about the need to raise the bar
Before embarking on a complete overhaul of fire department SOPs/SOGs, start some preemptive conversations around the need to adopt best practices and work towards a higher standard.
A good comparison might be to highlight the growing trend of fire department accreditation in response to the changing landscape of fire service. Decades ago, fire departments primarily responded to fire calls. These days, departments increasingly handle a variety of emergency calls for not only fires, but also medical aid, false alarms, mutual aid, and hazmat.
As the fire service continues to grow and evolve, accreditation marks one path of success for departments that want to stand out among their peers and continue to deliver the high-quality, all-hazard emergency service that communities expect.
Just like achieving accreditation signals a level of excellence, holding your fire department to a higher standard of accountability through more rigorous policies also signals excellence. Policies help your fire department operate with safety, ethics, integrity, transparency, and accountability – the gold standard everyone in your station should want to aim for.
Implement a document management solution
As those raising-the-bar conversations start moving the needle towards change, the next step involves a more tangible action. You need to get your fire department SOPs/SOGs out of the binders they’ve probably lived in for years and into a modern document management solution.
When every second counts, it is imperative to keep your policies and other critical content (such as site plans and dosage charts) in a single, central location where firefighters can quickly and easily find them.
In addition to needing immediate, 24/7 access to key documents, keeping track of everything across multiple shifts and multiple stations can be difficult. A document management solution provides a sort of digital bulletin board where you can rapidly distribute key information about the risks, tactics, and procedures that keep firefighters safe and ready to respond.
In turn, this promotes efficiency and consistency throughout the department, as the software automates many tasks that you previously handled manually.
Drive real policy accountability
To boost accountability, it helps to get firefighters’ buy-in as you create or revise fire department SOPs/SOGs/policies. Ask for their input and on-the-scene insights, incorporating them into relevant changes as needed.
When they become part of the process, they are more likely to take ownership of the policies (and the need for them). This will also boost their understanding of the policies and improve compliance.
Next, you should require signatures on individual SOPs/SOGs/policies, and track whether or not members are following those policies in the field. This might be a big culture shift for some departments and you might get some pushback, but you will begin seeing department-wide results of operating from the same playbook with precision and consistency.
The team will laud the improvements in firefighters’ performance and safety, and this will provide a more long-term benefits than maintaining the status quo. Plus, this will help in your efforts to achieve and maintain compliance.
Train to your policies
The reality is that firefighters go through more training than probably any other public employee. They are constantly working to improve their performance and keep up with the latest tactics and techniques with safety and success in mind. But their training and policies need to work together to support one another and validate the way different activities should be performed.
As such, you should look at ways to incorporate the wording, steps, or requirements of the policies in your training as a way to reinforce the information and the behavior you want to implement. This provides a great way to move toward a more rigorous policy culture as you work this into your ongoing training. For maximum effectiveness in terms of information retention and behavior change, policies and training must go hand-in-hand.
A Better Way
The good news? You can do all this and more using PowerDMS. Hundreds of fire departments already use PowerDMS to simplify how they manage their SOPs/SOGs, improve internal communication, and track how their firefighters are complying with their crucial content.
Keeping everything in one easy-to-use, always-accessible location helps future-proof your department. With PowerDMS, you can literally put critical information in the palm of firefighters’ hands (via our powerful mobile app) on the way to an emergency call, empowering them to plan an on-target course of action when they arrive on the scene. Then, on the return trip and back at the station, they can again pull up the post-scene protocol to ensure safety, accountability, and compliance from start to finish.
Don’t wait until there’s a problem – implement a total policy management solution today.