Developing a Department "Playbook"

"Plays" from your department playbook should be simple, hand-drawn instructions showing key points of operation and access. Illustration Homer Robertson

Do you remember that day in Sunday school when they taught us, “Give a man a fish feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish feed him for a lifetime”? I was there, but I can’t say it all soaked in like it should have.

The point: Those of us who have the responsibility to provide training, such as department training officers and company officers, hand-feed a lot of information to our troops when it should really be a two-way street. Trainers should provide the best and latest information, and fire companies should make the best of what we provide to raise their competence level.

This month’s column addresses the playbook concept. Although it’s not on a biblical scale, this concept is an important way to ensure your firefighters are “feeding themselves.”

What’s a Department Playbook?

If you look at any football team, from your kid’s peewee team to the Dallas Cowboys (America’s team), they all have some form of playbook. The playbook’s size and level of sophistication will vary based on the needs of the team.

Similarly, every fire department must have some form of a playbook. Just like any football team, we’re trying to take large groups of people and get them to perform plays that produce consistent results. Both firefighters and football players should study the playbook, practice the plays to produce standard outcomes, and then routinely review to maintain competency.

Some would say that our standard operating procedures or guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) serve as a form of playbook and they do—to an extent. We all understand the need for a well developed SOP, but our classic need to “cover your ass” has created so much detail in the written formal document that it’s almost impossible to get down to where the rubber meets the road, like basic fireground operations.

The department playbook will serve to support the detail-oriented written SOPs by providing simple details on the tactical level. Note: I’m not suggesting we must “dumb down” the process, but in many cases a picture is worth a thousand words.

Playbook Benefits

The playbook offers some consistency to daily fireground operations. In career departments, this could be from shift to shift or from one side of town to another. In the volunteer service, it’s rare to have the same crewmembers on every call; the playbook ensures everyone is running the same play.

Note: The playbook should not be viewed as an on-scene or en-route guide. The football quarterback only has the play name or number written on his arm—not a drawing of it. Fire department “plays” should also be committed to memory well enough so that members can recite them without looking at the playbook.

Playbooks are also an excellent way to help new members get up to speed. If you have 50 plays in your book, a new member can study them daily and absorb them at their own rate.

Finally, if you’re a company officer or department training officer who’s always at a loss for a topic to train on, the playbook is a great friend. Just pull out a few plays to use as a coffee table or whiteboard session that can also be reinforced by hands-on training.

Building a Playbook

Step 1: Brainstorm with your crew to develop your department’s play list. You could have anywhere from 30–100 plays—or more—but let’s not be overachievers: Start by developing 10. They can be routine operations, such as laying supply lines, or the most complex operations, such as a rope rescue situation over a cliff where you would have to deploy several lines and have anchor points off the truck. Don’t limit yourself when developing your play list.

Step 2: For each play you develop, draw (by hand) a simple picture showing key points of operation, such as apparatus placement, line size and location, pump pressures or ground ladder placement. You can also make notes, a list of items that need to be accomplished or simple benchmarks.

Step 3: Review plays with department members and update as necessary. Your playbook is a living document.

Hit the Field

The beauty of the playbook is that it works to reinforce the basics, whether through self-study, group review or company-level hands-on drills. Those basics have been the hallmark of great fire departments for years.

Remember: Simple is good. The great playbook is built one play at a time.


Sample Playbook List

  • Water shuttle
  • Forward supply line lay
  • Reverse supply line lay
  • Air ambulance load zone
  • Wildland direct attack
  • Roadway apparatus placement
  • Aerial ladder placement
  • Wildland exposure protection
  • Securing utilities: electrical water and gas
  • Laying supply line down a long and narrow driveway

Current Issue

April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4