One very common problem with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) is their propensity to be way too long. Therefore the only people that read them are those who absolutely have to. Administrative SOPs (policies) sometimes have to be long due to the fact that there is often legally required information included.
Operational SOPs, on the other hand, are SOPs that address incident scene response or on-scene procedures. When these become lengthy the objective can get lost in the text, the useful information necessary for incident operations is often hard to locate when needed, and the expected outcome can get misinterpreted causing performance issues. The very people they are supposed to serve (the firefighters and EMTs) are left scratching their heads and frustrated.
Operational SOPs are your team’s game plan for a given opponent. They shouldn’t be lengthy. They should illustrate a standardized response. Pre-planning, training, and exercises should address the potential twists that the incident can throw your personnel, and the possible solutions. Not every twist or turn can be covered in an SOP. Personnel undergo training and gain experience to differentiate between when they can stick with the standardized response, or when they need to call and audible. Being SOPS, they should leave room to call an audible. This is called judgment, and you are fortunate when your personnel have it. The one rule for calling an audible is that everyone responding must be advised via general radio announcement. That rule should be covered in a separate SOP (ICS, Communications, etc.).
Life threatening safety issues, and fall back positions, beyond the norm (in a target hazard SOP for example) should be addressed. An example of a target hazard SOP would be an SOP for oil refinery response.
Like objectives, operational SOPS should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. To make operational SOPs work for you and all of your personnel, whether in the field, in the office, or in training, they should include the following structure:
Number, Title, Page #, and Revised Date at Top of Each Page
Able to be viewed from any page so you know that you have the most up to date SOP in your hand or on your screen.
Purpose: One-Two Lines at Most
A purpose statement is only necessary if the title doesn’t already explain the purpose. Otherwise it is just a waste of space on an already limited one or two page document. The purpose statement shouldn’t be the SOP, shouldn’t be longer than the SOP, or try to address all the what-ifs. Keep it short.
Response Plan / Procedure First
List resources to respond, bullet pointed or in a table, very brief.
- MVA w/Injuries: Eng, ALS Med
- MVA w/Entrapment: Eng, Truck, ALS Med, Heavy Rescue, BC
Field-Usable Information on 1-2 Pages at Most (front and/or back of first page)
List strategies/tactics/tasks/priorities in bullet points. List safety concerns, contingencies (only if abnormal). List riding assignments and/or rig pre-assignments if applicable. If personnel regularly recertify on the SOP (conduct hands-on training at periodic intervals), they will know what to do when they get there. The SOP should be reviewable in one-to-two pages of quick reading. When SOPs are structured in this manner, the first two-sided page can be torn out of an SOP manual and/or kept a field notebook and used for an on-site briefing if necessary.
Tip: Utilize modern technology to make the first two pages of each SOP available online, separately from the rest of the SOP, for use and review with smart phones whenever needed.
Example: An obscure SOP used only in disaster situations, such as radiological patient monitoring procedures, can be reviewed quickly on-scene. A team briefing can be held based on this document prior to deploying personnel into a potential danger zone, thereby meeting hazmat response requirements.
Index Should be Last, and Include:
- Explanatory Information – All that extra information that you need to review, revise, and make sure that the SOP is complete, including tables, charts, diagrams, pictures, step by step training evolutions, etc. The NFPA does this for many of their standards and can be used as an example.
- Evolutions/Examples – Step by step, pictures, etc. for hands-on training. The evolutions can be cross-referenced to online videos, handbooks, task books, for personnel to perform for practice and recertification. Skill sheets, customized to your department, if used, can be included here as well.
- Reference Links to Other SOPs or External Information – Should be cross-referenced with NFPA JPRs and competencies so that department training program, initial or ongoing, can substitute appropriate SOP and evolution(s) with Firefighter-I and II required skills.
For example, the evolution(s) in the index of a car fires SOP can reflect NFPA 1001-2013 Firefighter-I, 5.3.7 “Attack a passenger vehicle fire operating as a member of a team,” as well as 5.3.3 “Establish and operate in protected work areas at emergency scenes.” If the SOP in fact does adequately cover the cross-referenced Job Performance Requirements (JPRs), then this portion of each operational SOP could form a Firefighters Handbook for your organization.
Again, use technology and the power of the Internet to separate the SOP information from the taskbook and handbook information for convenience.
Lastly, share your SOPS and make them available online so that each firefighter can easily access the most up-to-date information, and so that your neighboring departments know how to play the game when they are playing on your field.