By Thomas N. Warren
Standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been part of the fire service for many years. However, it has only been in the last decade or so that formalized, documented and, most importantly, institutionalized SOPs have become the norm. Most fire departments have SOPs in some form, but far too many departments have no SOPs, or they have SOPs that are minimal and in desperate need of updating.
SOPs (also known as standard operating guidelines) are, in their simplest form, a “how-to” guideline for firefighters to follow to achieve a desired goal. SOPs should not be viewed as rules and regulations but rather as a roadmap to achieve specific goals and objectives. The course of action directed in SOPs ensures efficiency, predictability, consistency, and safety for all firefighters operating on the fireground.
Firefighting is a very dynamic endeavor with many small firefighting operations occurring simultaneously in an overall effort to achieve success for the larger operation: fire extinguishment. All firefighters on the fireground, from the newest recruit to the chief, need to have a global awareness of all the activities occurring on the fireground and that each objective is achieved in a predictable manner.
As important as firefighting SOPs are to operational success on the fireground, developing SOPs for the many other responsibilities that modern fire departments face is crucial as well; they respond to many types of emergencies that require the same efficiency, predictable, consistency and safety as firefighting. Fire departments are routinely called to emergencies that can seriously injure or, worse yet, kill firefighters on a daily basis all across the country. The fire service has become the agency to call for incidents like natural gas leaks, infectious diseases, violent incidents, elevator emergencies, confined space rescues, suspicious powder responses, and active shooter/mass casualty incidents, to name a few. When a fire department is facing incidents such as these, it requires an understanding of the fundamental dangers presented and the mitigation options that a well thought-out SOP can provide.
For SOPs to be effective, they must be tailored to the capabilities of the individual fire department and its resources. An SOP for a building fire in midtown Manhattan will look very different from an SOP for a building fire occurring in a volunteer fire department in rural Idaho. Even though these two SOPs will look very different, the same core components such as water supply, life safety, incident stabilization, deployment, property conservation, and so on will be addressed to ensure efficiency, predictability, consistency, and safety for all the firefighters responding. The local fire department should develop its SOPs using the many SOPs that can be found online as well as using the Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations and National Fire Protection Association standards as a template.
Every firefighter should be given an opportunity to participate in the development of an SOP through the committee process. This participation will provide two valuable outcomes for the department. First, more ideas will flow when more people are involved. Second, the research necessary to develop an SOP will serve as a valuable training mechanism for the local fire department.
Once an SOP is developed, the next step is to ensure that all firefighters are trained on the SOP. Formal training is usually required, and that training can take the form of company drills in the firehouse or training programs developed by the department training division. SOPs are an important blueprint for all fire department operations and should be included in every promotional exam study material list. When firefighters are studying and preparing for a promotional exam, they will study these SOPs to the point that they become ingrained in the firefighter’s skill set. Nothing can compare to this level of enduring knowledge.
For any emergency response to operate efficiently, a formal approach to the incident must be taken. Efficient fire department operations will eliminate duplication of effort, increase accountability, and provide a higher level of situational awareness. Every firefighter on the scene knows what is expected of them as well as each of the other companies operating on the emergency scene. Picture what a building fire could look like without some basic operational plan. Fire companies would be free to operate as they saw fit, resulting in two or more handlines on the fire floor with none on the floor above the fire, or two ladder companies raising their aerials and venting the roof. This example illustrates a duplication of effort and inefficient use of valuable resources. This example also sets up the firefighters for an unsafe operation where unchecked fire can spread and trap them.
A basic SOP that sets in place the responsibilities of each fire company as it arrives on the fireground will eliminate this chaotic response scenario. Simply assigning a function to each fire company such as “first engine to the fire floor,” “second engine—water supply,” “third engine—floor above the fire floor,” “first ladder—forcible entry/roof ventilation,” “second ladder—search and rescue,” and chief—incident command does not solve any potential issues. A basic SOP such as this now places responsibilities on every fire company responding. The result is that every fire company knows what is expected of them, and they know what is expected of every other fire company. Together, they have laid the foundation for a successful and safe fireground operation.
In the example cited above, the fire department response to a building fire is three engines, two ladders, and one chief. This response places five fire companies and one chief officer on the road, responding to a building fire; every fire company now knows their role at the incident when they leave their fire station. If, for example, you are responding on the second engine, you know that you are responsible for securing a water supply to the first engine. Your thoughts will be centered in finding the closest fire hydrant and laying a feeder (supply) line to the first engine. Water is critical to every fireground operation, and every firefighter operating on the fireground is depending on you to achieve that objective. This SOP eliminates the chief trying to coordinate this essential function at every fire response. The same holds true for the first ladder company venting the roof to create a sustained flow path to improve conditions inside the fire building. The key for an effective fireground operation is that each objective is clarified and detailed in advance through the SOP, and every firefighter responding knows for what objective they are responsible. This predictability ensures that every objective is met and minimizes the chances for surprises during the firefighting operation.
Developing and using SOPs for emergency responses brings a sense of continuity within a fire department. Fire officers can follow the guidelines set forth in the SOP to make sound judgments at emergency scenes; incidents will be responded to and mitigated in a similar way every time. Fire companies throughout the department will respond to every building fire and follow the guidelines established in the SOP. Establishing this type of policy eliminates confusion when firefighters work in fire companies other than their assigned fire company. Equally important is that the building’s fire response will also be employed for all building fire responses in the future until the response SOP is rescinded or revised. This is especially important during multiple alarm fires, where fire companies who do not normally work together find themselves operating as a coordinated team.
The safety of our firefighters is the most important consideration when operating at any emergency. Organizing and deploying firefighters at emergency incidents always involves some degree of risk. Developing SOPs in advance of an incident allows us to take the time required to research the best methods for mitigation of any emergency. We can explore various options, review historic events, collaborate with outside experts, and test out various strategies.
During the development of the SOP, we have the luxury of time to also look at any possible risk to our firefighters. This allows us to intergrade a sound safety procedure into every phase of the emergency operation. When we look at mitigating an emergency event as a series of components, we can then address any safety concerns in a much more detailed way. As we all know through experience, we should always plan using the “expect the unexpected” principle, but by taking the time to prepare an SOP, we will place ourselves in the best position possible to minimize the risk to which our firefighters will be exposed.
Every fire department should have a series of SOPs that it can call on for most of the emergency incidents to which they may respond. It is incumbent on every fire service leader to develop SOPs for their departments and to revise their SOPs on a continuous basis.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.