Guest Article: The Triangle of Solid Standard Operating Procedures

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

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

The Triangle of Solid Standard Operating Procedures
Dave LeBlanc

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.

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.

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

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  • Jeff Schwering says:

    Dave, as usual, you speak the truth. We all know when any of the three points of the triangle faulter, we are left with an interesting situation to say the least. We must stay the course and continue to train even under difficult circumstances. Great article Brother!

  • Michael Bricault says:

    -Dave, this is a nice piece. It is always refreshing to see that my problems on a local level are not new or unique.
    -I agree that SOP’s are for creating standard responses; a play book that all players are familiar with.
    -And I really believe that far to many fire officers believe that they are the only ones on the rig that can think and therefor treat their firefighters like children. These firefighters are grown men with families and responsibilities that have been trained to the same standards as the officer in charge.
    -The police don’t treat their new hire or low ranking men in the same childish manner as the fire service. So the questions is why aren’t firefighters treated the same way.
    -Because far to many fire officers are incompetent themselves and believe that their men are just as deficient. As you pointed out, training and familiarization with the SOP’s by ALL could solve this problem.
    -The smart company officer learns the abilities and deficiencies of his men and exploits the abilities to the advantage of the company and trains on the deficiencies.
    -Professional firefighters should be treated as such, professionally… and held to a professional standard. Officers, stop the hand holding BS and treat your men like professionals. If they have deficiencies then address them through in house training. This goes a long way at alleviating a lot of unnecessary stress experienced by company officers on scene.

  • Art Zern says:


    Again, a job well done. Thanks for highlighting an important topic, perhaps one of the most important as we seek to provide excellent service.
    As I see it, the goal of any fire department, shift or company should be to get to a point where the performance and behavior of its members is both consistent and predictable. The best, most efficient departments don’t leave this to chance, they provide the policies and procedures that along with training and persistence provide for consistent, predictable performance and behavior.
    As you point out, it takes commitment and discipline to ensure that SOP/SOGs are carried-out, discipline on a personal level, discipline on a company level and discipline on an organizational level. Without the required level of commitment and discipline, any system will eventually revert back to the “easy way” or the “old way” of doing business.
    So why don’t many departments (including my own) have a set of solid, sound, complete and comprehensive set of SOP/SOGs? Unfortunately, that is the easy answer here…’s hard work to develop, maintain and enforce SOP/SOGs. However, as you identify, SOP/SOGs should rightly provide the backbone of our training and response programs. So many of us have been injured and killed due to a lack of SOP/SOGs …….or lack of training on existing SOP/SOGs…..or a lack of enforcement of existing SOP/SOGs……or violations of existing SOP/SOGs….etc

  • Dave LeBlanc says:

    Art and Brick, thanks for the kind words. A follow up question is what can be done to effect that change in a Department? It is definitely easier said than done….

  • Chris Garniewicz says:

    To paraphrase my driver the other shift, “Firemen without tools and assignments are just spectators”. Great article.

  • Rick says:

    I am not a firefighter so its amazing to me what you guys need to consitantly learn, practice and perform. I had no idea of the importance of standard operating procedures, never thought about it I guess, for you guys, but after reading this post I have a new respect for what you guys do. Don’t get me wrong, I have always considered you heroes to society, but without getting an insiders eye, you never realize all the work that goes into any organizations success. Nice post!

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