By Calen Maningas
At the start of our career, many of us were told perception is reality, meaning no matter how hard we support our intent, whatever is interpreted by the receiver is his or her reality. The question then is this: If perception is reality, how are your standard operating procedures (SOPs) perceived?
SOPs and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) may be used interchangeably depending on the department, but SOPs will be the terminology used for the remainder of this article. SOPs are used to ensure that decisions made by employees to overcome daily problems are in line with the organization’s mission, vision, and values. Variance to SOPs should be seen as an exception to the policy, only acceptable when faced with contraindications to the policy. A problem arises when SOPs are not maintained or relevant.
Consider this: Your department may have existing SOPs that in most cases are effective, but what about the cases where the SOPs aren’t effective? This issue should be approached with accountability. If you hold your members accountable to all the SOPs but irrelevant SOPs are still in existence (“unchanged since 1981”), what is the perceived value of your operating procedures? The SOPs that are considered irrelevant but still found in the manual are dangerous both physically and organizationally.
These “overlooked” SOPs do not add value to the department. Members will not value the procedures as a whole, thus promoting an environment of complacency and undermining department buy in. Furthermore, the department cannot hold members accountable to certain parts of the operating procedures and not others. If expectations are not clear, how can we understand what’s required of us? We no longer live in an era where the “good old boy” system will navigate all issues. This leaves your organization vulnerable to litigation and liability both internally and externally.
What happens when a firefighter has to defend his actions in court, stating he was following the department SOPs? While this is good justification, a savvy lawyer can discredit the firefighter and the organization by extorting irrelevant policies. Maybe your department still has SOPs on unit response for units that no longer exist, or your SOPs contain a smoking policy allowing smoking in certain areas of the stations even though all city buildings have been smoke-free for years. Inconsistencies cause SOPs to lose all validity and reliability.
The other side of this coin is internal issues. With irrelevant SOPs, a lot of gray is left between the black and white. If you are proceeding with disciplinary actions toward an employee, are you able to justify the violation by stating it is policy? Again, a response to this statement may be, “Why am I liable to this procedure when SOP 1019 hasn’t been enforced since 1991?” In some cases, employees may try to use out of date or unenforced SOPs as collateral, such as signing a no-tobacco policy while continuing to use chewing tobacco under the pretense, “We all do it.” If the conduct does not meet the desired output, should the department be held accountable as well?
SOPs must be placed on a periodic review process, and members of the department should be held accountable to conduct such a process. SOPs should be viewed as a living document, continually changing with internal factors, such as department culture, and external factors, like new technologies and governing agencies. Periodically reviewing the organizational SOPs will ensure reliability and validity. Additionally, periodic reviews will ensure the content of the SOP is in line with the intent of the SOP. Periodic reviewing will allow the department to continually performance monitor its actions and ensure the organization is operating effectively.
Things will not always go as planned. Murphy ’s Law tells us that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Modern society views this as “anything that can go wrong will go right 99 percent of the time.” This leads to what Astronaut Mike Mullane describes as the normalization of deviance. Reoccurring situations, alleviated with mediocre practices, may not always lead to unfavorable results. Our organizations must review SOPs to identify and eliminate complacency.
Depending on the department, periodic reviews may be conducted in various time frames. Departments with a smaller set of SOPs may review them on a four- or five-year time frame, keeping pace with the review of the department’s strategic plan. Larger departments or departments with a larger set of SOPs may consider going through a certain number of SOPs every two to three years to ensure that the SOPs are current by the five-year review of the department’s strategic plan. If the strategic plan, mission, vision, and values change, the SOPs must also reflect the change.
A team to review SOPs should not be completely comprised of upper management or senior staff. While senior staff may have the final say, a review group comprised of various ranks, skills, and levels of seniority will promote organizational buy in. This also allows for the diverse population of your department to have input.
Allowing the whole organization to be involved may prove to be burdensome. Instead, consider having a core group to review the SOPs and create specialized groups or committees to review specific areas. The special groups may have certain attitudes, skills, and knowledge. For example, involve those with technical rescue skills to review SOPs regarding such skills; consider hazardous material (haz-mat) personnel to assist with haz-mat SOPs and include EMS personal to define EMS protocols. Gather input from external stakeholders for SOPs that pertain to external actions, such as policies requiring legal or administrative activities.
Criteria should be established by which to evaluate SOPs during the periodic review process. Consider the following criteria:
- Based on precedents set by current court cases, are the SOPs viable legally?
- What were the original intentions of the SOP, and what problem was the SOP trying to overcome?
- How are the intentions of the SOP carried out by the firefighters?
- What internal and external changes occurred once the SOP was implemented?
- Department behaviors, citizen responses.
- Is the SOP still current, and was the purpose accomplished?
Relevancy and Validity
SOPs must first be reviewed for relevancy and validity. Relevancy can be ensured by correctly connecting the topic at hand to current issues. If SOPs describe how a department intends to operate, then they must be adjusted to keep pace with an ever changing society. Ensuring SOPs remain current will provide for safe practices in a society full of new technologies and new obstacles.
SOP relevancy may be threatened by internal and external factors. Internal factors such as a misinterpretation of the intent of the SOP may lead to undesirable outcomes. External factors, like newly changed policies from regulations and governing bodies, will cause an organization to change its practices to stay current. SOPs must be reviewed to ensure the content is relevant to the current times and needs of those the department serves.
Review should also take place to ensure the content of the SOP matches the intent of the SOP. Do the original intentions match the outcomes created? This type of review should consider the performance of the SOP or, in better terms, the performance of those operating under the SOP.
Performance, Creation, and Special Reviews
The physical outcomes or performance of the SOP and those carrying out the SOP should be measured to ensure they are in line with the expectations put forth by the SOP. By evaluating the actions of the employees, a baseline can be established to ensure the SOP accomplishes the intended purpose. When considering the performance, one should ask, “Is the right thing is being done?”
SOPs that are newly created or implemented should be evaluated within one year. Objectives should be set to serve as benchmarks to measure the progress of the newly created SOP. By scheduling an SOP to be reviewed within the first year of creation, the organization is held accountable to evaluate the effectiveness of the SOP and improve on it with appropriate changes. Once again the question being asked is, “Is the performance of the employees in line with the expectations of the SOP?”
Each individual department should also establish special criteria warranting a review. Special criteria may include, but are not limited to, any of the following:
- Changes or revisions in policy to consensus standards, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Fire Protection Association, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
- Changes in local government.
- New precedents established by legal decisions.
- Incidents requiring review.
- Demographic or economic changes to the community.
- Operating agreements with other agencies.
- Changes in departmental resources.
Once the SOPs have been reviewed, a department must consider appropriate methods of disseminating the information to the members at large. Leaving the implementation to one member will lead to failure of the policies. Firefighters cannot be held accountable to SOPs if they haven’t been informed of the SOP. To ensure compliance and buy in, all employees must have access to the SOPs. Consider multiple forms of media to distribute the SOPs, such as printed and electronic.
On receiving new or revised SOPs, reading them may not be enough. Training may be needed on the implementation of the SOPs to clarify the content and intent to those involved, along with identifying the desired competencies required of the SOP. To ensure that the SOP has been reviewed and trained on, the department should consider a formal acknowledgment process or verification from each department member.
SOPs should be an ever changing, living document. Implementing a schedule to update SOPs allows an organization to measure progress and make appropriate changes. Each department should consider an appropriate timeframe and establish the best practices for SOP review. Providing for input from all levels within the department will lead to buy in and compliance. In addition, SOP revisions must be distributed throughout an organization and acknowledged.
Once the information has been provided to the members, a process to train the department on the additions or revisions should be used. Being accountable to review and update SOPs provides the framework for safe and efficient services along with adding value to the community.
For additional information, review “Developing effective standard operating procedures,” FEMA, U.S. Fire Administration, www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-197-508.pdf.
Mullane, Mike, “Stopping Normalization of Deviance: A Safety Program,” http://mikemullane.com/stopping-normalization-of-deviance/.
Calen Maningas is an 11-year veteran of the emergency and fire services and is a lieutenant assigned to Station 3, technical rescue, for the Rapid City (SD) Fire Department (RCFD). He has nationally recognized instructor certifications in swift water and rope rescue and has been awarded the South Dakota VFW Fire Fighter of the Year. Currently heading a community risk reduction pilot program, he has served as a member of the RCFD Strategic Planning Committee, Human Relations Committee, and Public Education Team and is part of the Standard Operating Procedures Review Committee. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration and is completing the the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer’s Program along with a master’s degree in executive leadership.