Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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Between Alarms: One per cent better

March 27, 2020
By Arjuna George

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The fire service is a career perfectly suited to driven, lifelong learners. From your first day to retirement, there are endless skills to perfect, new sciences to adapt to and numerous developmental challenges. The secret is to excel just one per cent at a time.

Unfortunately, we often see members fall into a slump, feeling that they know it all and don’t feel the same challenge or excitement as they once had. Years may pass with no personal improvements, just coasting through in a state of mediocrity. Today’s leaders demonstrate something special and are always pursuing excellence with a keen focus on continuous improvement.

A very simple concept is focusing on getting one per cent better each day, also known as “the aggregation of marginal gains”. This idea was first coined by British Cycling coach Dave Brailsford who took a struggling cycling team from poor performers to Tour de France champions five times. Brailsford’s vision was to incrementally improve every aspect of their training and racing. He essentially hacked every aspect of the racer’s life — from sleep to food to clothing and equipment. Everything he did with his team slowly changed their execution one per cent at a time. All aspects of their performance were optimized and they excelled beyond expectations. It’s a simple concept people can use in both their professional and personal life.

To be a lifelong learner, you must build habits that allow you to continually improve with little effort. If habits aren’t formed, then the strive for excellence and knowledge tails off.

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When building solid habits, it is best to find ones that are obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying. In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear shares his four Laws of Habits. If your one per cent goal can meet these laws, you are on the road to excellence and self-improvement.

Starting today, make a habit of being one per cent better than yesterday. This golden nugget has been my habit for years without even knowing it. But, what is one per cent better? One per cent better can be reading one Canadian Firefighter article a day, studying the equipment in one cabinet on your apparatus, mentally preparing for an incident at a particular building in your community, joining an online forum that discusses new trends and tactics, taking an online course, and spending time on getting better acquainted with your crew. There is no excuse not to learn just one thing a day; commit to being one per cent better.

Just imagine if you dedicated to improving stretching a hose line one per cent better each day, or throwing a ladder one per cent better each day? Over time, with little effort, your performance level on those skills would be at the elite level. In a career where lives are on the line and time is of the essence, wouldn’t it be amazing to be elite in the basics of fire fighting? The best part is this would not take an onerous amount of time or effort. It happens so incrementally that the habit is easily sustained.

Committing to being one per cent better in your firehall or on your apparatus is also possible. Much like the British cycling team, making small incremental changes to your operations can greatly impact the team’s performance. Have systems in place that aid in ergonomics, pre-rigging, or keep tools properly mounted for rapid use. Even simple improvements, such as labeling the tools and cabinets for fast and efficient deployment, will make the team one per cent better.

It doesn’t stop there. One per cent better also can be used for your physical and mental fitness. Physically, this can simply mean 10 push-ups today, 11 tomorrow, continuing with the one percent factor. You can also use this simple habit to improve your mental capacity and health. Starting off with a one-hour meditation may be difficult to sustain, but starting with a 30 second meditation before work, adding a few seconds each day will allow you to continually build up to a minute or longer. These are the sizable habits you will find that stick and work.

This can also be used in your personal life; finding ways to hack your lifestyle to reduce unnecessary decisions, tasks, and general overload. Improving your day-to-day life can start by getting up at a certain time each day. Over time, waking up one per cent earlier will bring a sense of calm. Also consider reducing your time on your mobile phone by one per cent each day, avoiding the mindless scrolling that is both unproductive and unhealthy for your brain function.

One per cent better is a mindset that hacks our day-to-day life and operations in a way that opens the doors to achieving success each day. Our careers should never be allowed to become stagnant or dull. Building continuous improvement into your life helps maintain the edge. The habit of one per cent allows us to continually sharpen our saw and excel in this very important job.

Starting today, between alarms, focus on improving by one per cent and begin building the habit of excellence, and by this time next year, you will be 365 per cent better firefighter, leader, and person.


Arjuna George is chief of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue in British Columbia. He has served on the department since 1997. Contact Arjuna at ageorge@saltspringfire.com.


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