Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters

During my “Fifty Ways to Kill a First Responder” program, I discuss how standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) can be helpful in the formation of situational awareness and in making critical incident decisions. Much to the chagrin of the policy makers in the audience, I also discuss how SOPs and SOGs can be harmful to the formation of situational awareness and cripple good decision making.

The former seems easier to comprehend. When employees have SOPs or SOGs to follow their performance is consistent and predictable. When a crew arrives at an emergency and performs according to a standard, then everyone arriving after them knows what to expect. There are few surprises when all the crews using the same playbook. To this end, SOPs and SOGs are a great tool to build consistency and predictability into operations. In fact, developing and using SOPs and SOGs are one of my top 10 situational awareness best practices.

So how can SOPs and SOGs be harmful? In training, responders should use the standards. It’s a simple premise. Train to the standard. Perform to the standard. However, there are times when the standard way of doing things won’t work. The circumstances of the incident are not covered by the standard. When this happens, what is a member to do?

Essentially, they have two choices. First, follow the standard, regardless of the circumstances. Or, improvise a unique solution to the novel problem. Which will they do? The answer, surprisingly, will be based on how rigid the organization views their standards and how much resiliency the organization has built into their decision making processes.

Let’s run through a couple of made-up fire scenarios to see how this plays out.

Scenario 1: The fire is in the back of the structure. The standard says attack from the unburned side, meaning the crew is going to advance the hose line through the front door. It’s a drill they’ve practiced over and over again at the burn building. Fire in the back. Attack from the front. But the front door is barricaded and fortified. Attempts to force entry are not working. Because the policy says attack from the unburned side, additional efforts are given to making entry. The process takes five minutes. All the while, the fire is growing in the back of the structure. Crews are not willing to veer from the standard because they fear the consequences.

Scenario 2: The fire is in the back of the structure. The standard says attack from the unburned side. During training, the crews practiced in accordance to the standard until they were good at the skill. However, the instructor then created scenarios that did not fit the written standard. The scenario of the barricaded and fortified door was built into the drill. During the exercise the students were encouraged to improvise a solution. Then they were encouraged to improvise a second solution, then a third. This creative problem solving, performing on purpose in ways that does not conform to standards, builds resiliency into decision making. And this is a critical skill to develop in responders. Standards can’t cover everything and responders need to be taught how to resolve issues where the standards don’t work. They also need to practice the deviations. And they need to be encouraged and rewarded for their creative problem solving efforts.

Unless you can develop and implement standards that cover every possible scenario responders will face, you may want to work in building resiliency into your members’ decision making. It will improve their situational awareness and their safety.

About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. In addition to his 30-plus year career in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters (www.SAMatters.com) has enjoyed over a million visits since its launch in October 2011. He can be reached via e-mail at Support@RichGasaway.com.