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 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
SOPs should be an ever changing, living document.
Implementing a schedule to update SOPs allows
an organization to measure progress and make
appropriate changes. (Photo by Scott LaPrade.)