Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Between Alarms: Set your department’s core values

Arjuna George   

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Sometimes we all need some direction on how to act and what to do. We often find ourselves creating mission and vision statements that are long, generic, and uninspiring. To help set your compass, Mark vonAppen, a California captain and founder of the Fully Involved blog, has created four simple rules he calls the Big 4. His concepts have spread like wildfire through the service.

The first time I came across these four simple terms, I knew they reflected my vision in a nutshell: (1) do your job, (2) treat people right, (3) give all-out effort and (4) have an all-in attitude. When I saw these rules, I appreciated the simplicity, and the fact that I can’t add anything more. I firmly believe the Big 4 sum up how we should lead our lives and run our fire departments. We should embrace these guiding principles between alarms, on incidents, at work and at home.

The Big 4 can be a tool to help pilot every member in your department, from those just entering the fire service to the leaders in your organizations. The rules are so simple, yet they cover so many components of a tight ship.

The first rule — do your job — sounds at first like an abrupt and almost rude suggestion, but when you dig deeper and really contemplate what do your job means, it is a positive matter-of-fact statement to follow. Doing your job doesn’t mean putting your head down, and simply being a “yes-person”. It’s the complete opposite. By doing your job, you are exhibiting professionalism and owning it, from the technical skills to human compassion. Doing your job means studying, training and challenging yourself daily. Be someone that everyone wants to work with. Take initiative, lead by example and do your best. The only way you can really do your job is by knowing it inside and out. Know what is expected of you, demonstrate drive and push for it each and every day. Above all, be professional.

The second rule, and one that I feel is paramount to success on the job and in life, is to treat people right. The late Alan Brunacini, a chief in Phoenix, was the godfather of treating people right. He used the phrase “be nice” as his department’s core value.


By treating people right, members must be supportive team players who respect everyone no matter their background or ideas. Be careful with your words, resolve conflict with humility and be open-minded to others. Recognize others’ weaknesses and strengths and work with them not against them.

The third rule is to give an all-out effort. By putting in 100 per cent at work and at home, you will succeed in every one of your goals. Train hard and train with purpose. If we have to ask ourselves if it’s good enough, then it most definitely is not good enough. There are no real shortcuts to a healthy organization. It takes energy, consistency, and drive to build a better team. Take pride in your job. Always be prepared to learn something new. Our job fighting fires is a risky one, so we should take any and all precautions. We should not be our own worst problem. Be fully engaged. Do the right thing when no one is looking. Always be conscious of what you are doing and how it may impact others and your job as a firefighter. Train, learn, push forward and don’t allow yourself to float by.

The final golden rule of the Big 4 is to have an all-in attitude. Having a good attitude is hard to judge, but you know when you see one. Be that firefighter with a good attitude, stay positive and give it your all. Service above self will always strengthen the team. Be enthusiastic about what you bring to the fire service and the community. Remain committed to constantly improving the fire service. Embrace the culture, improve the culture and strive for a higher personal standard. Contribute to the betterment of others by creating solid teams and delivering professional service to all. Be humble and learn from others. Never give up.

Many of the tips and suggestions I have put to paper are not just my own ideas. Our team at Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue (SSIFR) discussed and brainstormed ways we can live by the Big 4 to really understand what it means to us. We live the Big 4 every day, and by sharing our thoughts you may be able to bring these principles to your fire hall too.

A special thanks to the family at SSIFR, who helped me craft this column by defining the Big 4 in tangible, digestible pieces. Keep on living the Big 4, and as Capt. vonAppen has said, “excellence is your responsibility.”

Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in British Columbia; he has served on the department since 1997.  Twitter@AJGeorgefire
  @AJGeorgeFire @SSIFR

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