I recently bumped into an old friend who is still in public safety on the volunteer level after a career as a firefighter. The volunteer fire department of his community also had an organized dive team and my friend was on the team as well. Through the conversation, I learned —amazingly— that the team did not have an SOP – Standard Operating Procedure – for team operations. Amazed? Yes. Surprised? No.
In a real world scenario of limited funds and limited resources, often the development of an SOP takes a back seat to day-to-day operations. When this is coupled with the perception that SOP development is complex and time consuming, it is no surprise that a dive team may not have an SOP.
Basically, an SOP is a management tool that defines a framework of function and response for an operation. The level of detail or how “dynamic” it’s designed is an administrative decision, but in the end an SOP serves to act as a definitive link from administration leaders and policy makers to the personnel who take action and perform the duties associated with the SOP. In addition to standardizing response, it provides a means to reduce confusion, reduce liability and increase efficiency.
While some will argue…often a Chief or AC…that a high degree of “flexibility” is needed on a given call, line officers or supervisors do not have to be locked in to a hard-written SOP, as long as it’s constructed correctly. And, a team or department also has the option of having SOG’s…Standard Operating Guidelines, as well. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll keep our focus on SOP’s. Let’s take a step by step look at constructing or writing a Standard Operating Procedure for your dive team.
Given that policy plays a major role in any operations, developing a SOP is a group activity involving administration (policy makers), officers (on the scene decision makers) and team personnel. If your team is involved in mutual aid responses, then the group should also include these members, as well as third party members who may interact with your team. An assembly of this type will ensure that department policy is identified and defined, as well as allowing for operational decisions that need to be made. This group can then determine how detailed or basic, the SOP needs to be, specific to their jurisdiction or region.
This process starts with a needs assessment. The development team will ask themselves exactly what the SOP should reflect and how will it meet the team’s requirements. An examination of the jurisdiction’s needs will be incorporated as well. Other information to include: existing SOP’s from other teams; potential external factors that impact your SOP (laws, regulations, accreditation); local department/team history, including type of calls, frequency of calls, etc, and team capabilities.
Now the work begins. An analysis of the gathered information is basically a systematic approach of data and alternatives to achieve the desired outcome. It is at this point that the team will determine if this is possible. Questions you should be asking your team include:
- Can we incorporate this into real world operations?
- Will more training and equipment be required?
- Will it withstand public scrutiny?
Writing the SOP
In this phase, some of the decisions that will need to be made are listed below.
- Mission Statement. What is it we serve to do?
- Scope. What do we want to accomplish with this SOP? Is it for water rescue overall or just dive team operations.
- How detailed to make this. In normal circumstances, including too much detail may hamper personnel from carrying out their duties. Rather, give a broader range to accomplish the task.
- The SOP must be clearly written in plain language to avoid any ambiguity.
- Selection of words. Consider how words in the written version are used. Consider the words “will” and “may” are used in the following example: “Dive team members will use aluminum 80 cf cylinders for dives.” Or more appropriately “Dive team members may use available cylinders to accomplish the mission requirements”. Here is that flexibility the Chief was looking for.
- Include a review date of the SOP.
- Implementation. How will the new SOP be distributed? How will personnel be notified? Is training needed to fulfill the requirements of the SOP?
The Real World
Once in place, an evaluation process should be part of the SOP as well. After all, even the best laid plans are not always the best in certain situations and things don’t always go as planned. The review and evaluation process should be well planned and workable to determine if the SOP is effective and safe. In addition, an evaluation or review may be dictated by unforeseen circumstances, such as a call that resulted in less-than-desired outcome, personnel changes or funding changes. Having this review or evaluation defined ahead of time will save time and energy during any review.
In today’s working world, the internet serves to offer information and resources on a variety of subject matter, including SOP’s. ERDI forums, PSD forums and governmental agencies, such as FEMA, offer help and guidance. Much information is available at no cost and there are also companies that specialize in assisting FD or LE teams to develop their SOP’s.
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