I recently received an email from a somewhat culture-shocked chief about standard operating procedures (SOPs), standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and the challenge of getting firefighters to understand and follow them. In a nutshell, he had retired from a large metropolitan department and is now a chief in a rural fire protection district that had no established SOPs/SOGs. In the best interest of his firefighters, he started to implement some SOPs/SOGs.
As you might expect, the chief quickly encountered some pushback from members of his department. He faced the “this ain’t the way we do things” and “we’ve never done this before, so why are we doing it now?” attitudes. (Side note: It amazes me, and I shared this with the chief, that in this day and age, with all the tools firefighters have, department leadership often still has to force firefighters to be safe in even the simplest ways (wear PPE, conduct training, etc.)
Why the attitudes? Because firefighters all too often believe that “we’ve always done it this way” is a valid reason to stick with the status quo. They don’t acknowledge that this explanation isn’t any more valid than department leadership dictating that something will be done in a specific way “because I said so.”
So how would you resolve an issue like the one the culture-shocked chief encountered?
First, firefighters must understand that SOPs/SOGs have been developed in accordance with the fundamental basics of operations, are primarily intended to help improve the health and safety of the firefighters, and ensure that tasks are done in a specific way every time so that the results of the task are reasonably reproducible and predictable. (This also allows us to analyze our processes for weaknesses.)
Second, if a firefighter disagrees with a guideline, give them a process to change it. Provide firefighters with the opportunity to make changes to guidelines—within reason. Ask yourself questions about the proposed change: Does it improve, or at least maintain, the level of safety? Is it based on research and science (e.g., changing an SOP/SOG to allow for a higher exposure level of CO without an SCBA)? You get the idea.
So often SOPs/SOGs come down from higher-ups and are meant to be accepted as is. In some cases, that’s the way it needs to be; however, this can send the wrong message if not balanced with the ideas and needs of the line firefighter.
Get your firefighters involved in the initial SOP/SOG development and revision process. Push them to make it personal, to take ownership, and you’ll get better understanding and better compliance.