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Between Alarms – January 2013

Life is complex, the world is extremely hectic and the fire service has grown into an intricate, diverse art. How can we stay afloat when it feels as if we are treading water?

December 28, 2012
By Arjuna George


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Life is complex, the world is extremely hectic and the fire service has grown into an intricate, diverse art. How can we stay afloat when it feels as if we are treading water?

The keeping-it-simple principle is not profound or new, but sometimes we need to check ourselves and our operations and ask if we can simplify. Can we get the same results using simpler procedures?

I embrace technology and am an early adopter of new ideas and gadgets, but I also see the importance of going back to basics. Oftentimes, simple processes and equipment are easier to use and to maintain than more modern procedures.

For example, today’s fire apparatuses come with what looks like no moving parts on the pump panels. Does this save us time? Does this make us better firefighters? Does this advancement make it easier to do repairs? I have come to the realization that technology is not always the answer. People I have spoken with regarding the new-generation pump panels have had nothing but difficulties with them. This may be only a transition issue, but it is clear that such new technologies – though here to stay – are not without their problems.

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The fire service has morphed into a jack-of-all-trades response agency, and the K.I.S.S. concept may be the only tool we have to help us manage all these skills and disciplines. The fire service’s complex skills – from fire fighting to hazmat, and from tech rescue to medical training – all require expert skills and continued maintenance. If we make these skills more complex than they need to be, we will be in trouble and we will eventually sink with our life rings in sight.

So, how can we simplify our lives in the fire service? How can we take these extensive skill sets and make things easier and safer, while maintaining our objectives? Here are a few things to consider.

Are your department’s mission and vision statements short and simple? Keep your mission straightforward so that all can embrace it and follow it through. The brain can recall only seven items at a time; keep that in mind when creating new programs or steps in a procedure. There is a reason the recommended span of control on the fire ground is five to seven; it is a classic example of keeping it simple.

Are your department’s operational guidelines simple? Your department’s OGs are only as good as the members who can remember them. Our department has slashed our OGs in half and we plan to cut them in half again this year. We are not reducing our operations, or putting our safety in jeopardy, but rather making the OGs into documents that matter and that we can recall.

Is your accountability system simple? There are numerous types of fire-ground accountability systems; consider reviewing yours to ensure it is as uncomplicated and as safe as possible.

Are your engine hose loads simple? Can you reduce your loads down to one or two load types versus three, four or five? Unless you are loading and reloading your beds daily, it is almost impossible to expect firefighters to remember the different types of hose loads in addition to the numerous other skills they must maintain.

We need to decide what is important and what we can shorten and simplify. I would rather be proficient at a number of skills than mediocre at many. We don’t want to reflect the old saying that we are jacks of all trades and masters of none.

So, there is a time and a place for simplicity, but we need to be wary of oversimplifying our operations. There are obvious areas in which complexity is required or the skill or regulation is vital for our safety; these are best left as they are.

We do have great new tools to help us simplify our jobs and our lives. Tablet computers, smartphones and software apps are all super straightforward and very user friendly. Apps are, in essence, simplified software programs; there are usually no big bells and whistles, just basic and quick information available when you need it.

Another great tool with which the fire service is already very familiar is the use of checklists. The fire service has been using checklists for incident command, action plans and equipment checks for a long time, but are there other areas in which this simple, systematic tool can be used? The Checklist Manifesto, a book written by Dr. Atul Gawande, discusses how the introduction of quick checklists has greatly decreased failures and increased survival rates in surgery. He suggests using short and uncomplicated checklists that cover common fail points or high-risk steps. In the fire service we face high-risk, low-frequency situations that lend themselves to the use of checklists too.  

Our goal should be to find creative ways to keep things simple, to make our jobs clear and retainable. Technology and old-school methods should all be considered; use what works best for you and your department.

In the paid on-call, volunteer- and career-firefighter worlds, it is crucial that we simplify our tasks. We are always trying to make efficient use of firefighters’ time and energy, and we need to adapt in order to retain them, keep them focused and keep them safe. When firefighters reach a point at which they feel they are sinking amid new or unnecessarily complex procedures, we end up losing them.

Step back and look at how you can make things simpler in such a hectic business. Choose one task or program to tackle and find ways to make it simpler within your own department. If you are treading water, reach for the life ring and keep things simple and safe!


Arjuna George is a 15-year veteran and the deputy fire chief of 0perations on Salt Spring Island, B.C. E-mail him at ageorge@saltspringfire.com


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