Is There Ever Enough Time?

By JOHN K. MURPHY

On Mars, a year is 635 days long and a day is 52 hours long (Earth time). Just imagine what a volunteer firefighter could accomplish in that time—one long day for training, emergency response, and personal and family time, with more time available for sleep. Fire chiefs would love it; they could compress into those hours that much more training, more community services, additional station maintenance, and increased responses.

Working on “Mars time,” would you still have enough time? Probably not, as time is taken up by such factors as your work schedule, training, drill and meeting night, families, vacation, exercise, children, spouses, and a host of other activities that do not include sleeping, eating, and just relaxing.

Do you schedule vacations and, while on vacation, schedule what you are going to do when you get home? Or worse, do you try to cram so much into your vacation that you need to go home to rest? In the privacy of reading this article, you can admit to actually going to work to rest, as you’re so busy at home that work becomes a vacation.

We need to change our attitude about our workday and our relaxation time. Volunteer firefighters and fire officers are among the vast number of Americans—hard working at their regular jobs, conscientious, and law abiding (other than driving too fast)—who feel incredibly pressed for time. Reversing your relationship to time is the only way to free yourself from time’s grip. You must make a fundamental shift in how you think about time.

Move away from the idea that certain activities must continually give way to the demands of other activities, and move toward the idea that the activities you value are, in fact, important. Some ways to move toward that goal follow.

Focus on what’s really important. It is much easier to be busy than to be effective. Certainly, training and emergency responses are important, but what happens when you return to the station? For volunteers, we get caught up in the routine and mundane “make work” projects. Is it more important to train in pump hydraulics as opposed to cleaning the toilets? Is it more important to go online and complete a safety class or roll hose? We have a tendency to blur what should be a critical distinction between what’s urgent and what’s important. Urgency can become an addiction, so put important things first. Acknowledge that you can’t do it all, and narrow your field of activities by making those tough choices as to what merits your attention.

Enjoy what you do at home and at work. How many times have you said, “I love working [or volunteering] here”? It’s mostly because you enjoy the process of a project, not just getting it done. The process of accomplishing a task is just as important as accomplishing it. In Zen speak, it’s the journey. Of course, sweeping the firehouse floors and scrubbing the toilets are not tasks I would consider in this classification, but if you work on a major project, such as implementing a prefire plan for all of your commercial structures or obtaining your degree in fire sciences, enjoy the process of getting there as much as you will enjoy the rewards on completing the project.

Make a list, and set long-term objectives. If you know where you are going, those little things in life designed to trip you up remain “little things” and won’t distract you. Written long-range goals will help to identify your priorities and will help save time. This is important to your future goal whether it be to become a fire officer or a fire chief or to be the best volunteer firefighter your department has ever had. Make a standing and adjustable weekly schedule, and set key and daily objectives (like Time Management 101). Writing down what you want to do and what you have to do to accomplish your goal will provide a better road map to prioritizing those necessary tasks that balance work and play.

Exercise and eat smart. Research indicates that the time you spend on regular exercise and eating smart more than pays you back in greater overall personal productivity. Studies show that volunteer firefighters who exercise regularly and eat well call in absent about half as many days at their regular jobs and are more available for their volunteer activities; suffer fewer injuries; and file about half as many health claims, measured in health dollars, as firefighters who don’t exercise. It is an unfortunate statistic that in our industry almost half of the firefighter deaths in 2008 were attributed to cardiac arrest. Exercise and proper nutrition can reduce this statistic. Many departments may also provide exercise facilities. If yours does not, then find a gym or health club and enroll. This could be a family, crew, or department program. It’s up to you to decide a proper course of action.

Sleep is an important component to efficiency and recovery.Today’s average sleep time is 7½ hours a night, down from 8½ hours in the early 1900s. This hour reduction in sleep results in a 20-percent loss of performance efficiency. Firefighter sleep interruption adversely impacts this efficiency, causing many organizations to consider volunteer shifts, where the volunteers are assigned a shift to accommodate this need for uninterrupted sleep. Of course, no wants to miss the “big one,” but those calls are few and far between, and those “all hands” events do not interrupt the required sleep cycle. If you are at a busy volunteer station, your chances of decreased efficiency, increased mistakes, and possible injury on the job rise exponentially as the hours of assigned or assumed work increase and the opportunity for uninterrupted and quality sleep decreases.

Do not neglect spiritual balance, as Stephen Covey states in his many books. It is just as important as the mental and physical aspects of your health. Regardless of your beliefs, maintaining balance in these three areas will enrich your daily personal and professional interactions. You will also be rewarded by the stress reductions many find as a result of this spiritual balance.

Create simple solutions. Take the time to do nothing, play, and just say “no.” Telling your chief, “No, I am in my personal recovery time” may not sit well, but even the busiest times at work or at the fire station necessitate a few minutes to “do nothing.” How many times, when given the opportunity to do nothing, do you feel as if you are “wasting time”? Be kind to yourself; you cannot possibly do everything. Saying no and doing nothing assist in your personal recovery time.

Identify, make sense of, and manage your limited and precious time.Escaping this time limitation is a matter of setting priorities; saying no; and maximizing the use of exercise, spirituality, family time, and play as part of your daily activities. It is okay to do nothing and develop personal strategies to accomplish this important personal goal.

JOHN K. MURPHY, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, FACC, is a deputy chief (ret.) from Eastside Fire & Rescue in Issaquah, Washington; a practicing attorney; CEO of the National Traffic Safety Institute; a physician’s assistant (PA-C) since 1977 with a focus in family practice and emergency care; and a fellow, American College of Clinicians. He was a paramedic firefighter for more than 32 years, a chief fire officer, and a promoter and facilitator of health-care fire service issues. He is a frequent speaker on legal and medical issues. He acquired his physician’s assistant training from the University of Utah School of Medicine and has a bachelor of science and a master’s degree from Central Washington University. He also completed the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and graduated from Seattle University School of Law with a Juris Doctor.

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