BY RICK LASKY
A lot of people out there will tell you that it’s not important to be concerned with all of the little things that life presents you with—that it’s not that big a deal and you shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff.” They will explain that worrying about all of the small stuff, which they sometimes refer to as insignificant, does nothing more than complicate your life and create a whole lot of stress. But, I think that when you take a hard look at it all, often it’s the small stuff that we overlook or neglect to pay attention to that causes the “bigger” problems in life. I’m not recommending that you become a worrywart or go “nuts” over everything but just that you take a bit better care of the little things.
When you think about it, life’s really not that complicated. It’s rather simple if you let it be, as long as you’re willing not to let technology drag you completely to the other side. There’s a lot of good stuff out there, but keep in mind that you’ll still have to breathe, blink your eyes, and relieve yourself. Your Palm Pilot won’t be able to do that for you, at least not yet. So when you start to think about it, with all that has happened to us, maybe it’s time we started worrying about the little things—the not-so-technical things—again.
Many books out there try to tell us how to organize our lives—how they think we should live our life and do our job. They tell us “not to sweat the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff.” I just can’t agree with that, not when it comes to our job. Now, more than ever, is the time to sweat the small stuff. It’s what keeps us alive.
Read the reports. Read the articles. Look at the facts that led up to the fatality or injury. The vast majority of the time you’ll see that it was the small stuff that got us into trouble. “Saving Our Own,” “Get Out Alive,” and all of the firefighter rescue programs are great, but maybe if we had trained really hard on the little things, the small stuff, the basics, we wouldn’t have gotten into the jam that made it necessary for us to use what we learned in those classes. Often, it’s that small stuff that’s killing us. Before we can be good at all of the fancy stuff, we must be good at the basics. I know we keep hearing that, but it’s true. We have to know our job!
SOME OF THOSE “SMALL” THINGS
When you look at the leading causes of our fatalities and injuries—lack of command and control, not following standard operating procedures (SOPs), lack of an accountability system, and poor communications, for example—most of these can pretty much be broken down into smaller things.
Take following SOPs, for example. Doing this allows all of the players to play from the same playbook. We need to operate according to something. Sending a player onto the field and into the huddle to tell everyone to “go long” just doesn’t work for us. In a world full of “control-alt-delete” and all of the “hyperspace” stuff, we’re forgetting about some very important things. One that comes immediately to mind is, are we still working on our basic search techniques? Thermal imaging cameras are great. They’re awesome. But, what if you don’t have one or if the battery goes dead? You would still have to know how to do a conventional search. You would still need landmarks—an outside wall or a sofa, for example—and you would still need to get out eventually.
And, how are you at advancing hose? How many times had we heard our good friend Andy Fredericks say that getting that first line into place as quickly as possible can make or break the incident or that being proficient at hose advancement allows for a successful attack? Don’t wait until you’re inside to find out that you don’t have water or that your line is kinked on the stairs, out on the lawn, or wedged under a door. Bleeding off your line before going in would have prevented those problems.
Little things like that whole building construction-fire behavior thing. If you want to be good, you need to know fire behavior and building construction. You have to know how the building is going to react to the fire and how the fire is going to affect the building. Recently while a few of our firefighters were cleaning their rig, I asked them, “Who is Frank Brannigan?” I was trying to make a point to a couple of my chiefs. Well, they didn’t know. I gave them hints. I said, “He wrote a book.” When that didn’t help, I said, “He writes the bimonthly Ol’ Professor column in Fire Engineering.” They looked at me. I said, “They’re smaller articles on building construction—you know, information about some of the small stuff that saves our lives. By the way, next month’s drill will be on building construction.”
Or, what about Tom Brennan’s monthly column Random Thoughts? Once again, nothing fancy, just small stuff that makes a difference. A few years ago as I was delivering my “Pride and Ownership” speech at FDIC West in Sacramento, I ran into a snag. About five minutes into it, I looked out into the audience and right there in the middle of the second row was Tom Brennan. Well, I vapor locked—I mean, it was Tom Brennan! My sector C slammed shut. I could feel a pulsation in my temple; my eye started to twitch. But then I remembered that he was one of the reasons I was up there talking about Pride and Ownership in the first place. Like some of my other mentors, that’s what he’s all about. Another neat thing about Tom is that he has the ability to take things many people have made very difficult and complicated and break them down so everyone can understand them—little bits and pieces that add up to the big picture. You know, the small stuff. The rest of the speech went fine.
THE THREE “Fs”
Another of my mentors, Chief Eddy Enright, taught me about the “3 Fs”—Firefighters, Fire Apparatus, and Firehouses. There are some really great things to think about with each one.
Are we taking care of each other as we should? Why did it take the events of September 11 to get us to call each other brothers and sisters again? And, it has been nice not hearing that whole East Coast vs. West Coast and North vs. South thing, hasn’t it? We’ve come together as a team, one team. And the hugs feel better than ever. Are you taking care of the small things like your uniforms? Do you know what it all stands for and where it came from? What about your turnout gear? Is it ready and in good shape before you go in? Do you have an inspection program? Before you go in, do you take a look at your partner? Is he as ready as you are? Is your team ready? Did you wear your gear to the scene? Let me clarify, did you put it on before you left the firehouse? I remember an extra-alarm incident we had at our hospital. A mutual-aid truck company responded. We needed to put them to work quickly, but we were delayed because they had to put on their gear and get ready.
Do you bleed off your line, know the lengths and amount of hose in your hosebeds, and know how to get it there? Do you understand and know your nozzles and what they will and will not do? Can you go with a bigger line when necessary? Are you efficient in deploying it? Do you use door chocks to block open a door while you’re searching a room or to keep a door from closing on you and your hose?
Is your flashlight working? Do you even have a flashlight? As you walk around the exhibit floors at the shows you attend, after you buy all of the T-shirts you want, buy yourself a good flashlight. Carry two—yours and the department’s. Don’t rely only on the department’s. Don’t be stubborn. Your life is worth the investment.
Is your portable radio working and ready to go with a charged battery? Are you working to ensure that every firefighter has a radio? And if you have one, do you know how it works? What about your PASS device? Is it working? Do you know how to operate it? We used to call them slacker devices because if they went off it meant that you weren’t doing any work. But, to put it bluntly, do you realize just how many firefighters would be alive today if they had just turned on their PASS devices or made sure they worked?
Do you believe in rapid intervention crews? Do you have one ready when you’re operating on-scene? Do you carry side cutters or a tool you can use to cut another firefighter (or yourself) out of an entanglement of wires? Can you get to these tools when wearing your turnout gear? What about your accountability tags? Do you use them, or do they just take up space on your helmet or turnout coat? Doesn’t accountability start with each and every one of us, not with our officers or a board with nametags? Don’t we owe that to each other and to our families? Whatever system you have, are you using it? Keep in mind that the system you’re using is to accountability what the halligan bar is to forcible entry. If you don’t use it or don’t know how to use it, it won’t work.
How about your SCBA? Do you know it inside and out? It’s probably one of the most important things you’re going to bring to the fire. Another thought to ponder: Most SCBA malfunctions, about 85 percent, are the result of operator error. Get to know your SCBA on a first-name basis.
Are your tools ready? Do you take care of them? Do you know how to use them? Showing up on the fireground without your tools is not a good thing unless you’re good at magic tricks. And, get rid of the closet pike poles. You can’t force in with them, and you surely can’t force out with them. I have seen firefighters standing on top of chairs trying to reach the ceiling with them. I’m not really comfortable reaching up over my head in smoke and hoping to pull something down and possibly on my head. Grab a tool that will do some work for you if you need it to get you out in a pinch.
How’s the attitude in the firehouse? Do you have a good hydrant inspection program? How about your ground ladder skills? Are you addressing traffic control at accident scenes, and are you doing everything you can to get there (and back to the firehouse) safely?
Chiefs and company officers: How’s the attitude of the firefighters? Do they know that their officers care about them? Do their officers care about them? They’d better.
Chiefs and company officers make it all happen. How good are you at taking care of your members? Are you mentoring and building tomorrow’s leaders? Are you preparing them to move up? Are you helping your members with their promotional studies and study habits?
Are you taking care of that area we referred to in an earlier column as “people staging” while remembering that you’re building your own legacy at the same time? Are you walking the talk with your “values” and lifestyle? How well are you preparing your members or, for that matter, yourself for the future? Is their attitude in check?
Are you letting your members be firefighters? What about that other little thing called communication—shift to shift, roll call? When you don’t have roll call, you miss out on one of the most important times of the day. I’m not talking about the rumors that bounce back and forth but the information exchange about what’s going on or what happened the day before. I used to find it amazing that when you went to some firehouses for a visit or a cup of coffee and asked them what they thought about the fire the shift had the day before that they didn’t know anything about it. How could you not know about a job that happened in your own still district the day before? Besides, roll call is a great time to size up your people.
Now, back to the rumor thing. I’ve said many times before that this is the best job in the world. Could you imagine what it would be like if you didn’t have to worry about the rumors or about what the other shift was saying? I always found it funny that the belief that members of the previous shift are slobs and those on the next shift nitpickers reverses when the shifts change; then, members realize that their old shift had the slobs and the other shift had the nitpickers.
Seriously, could you imagine how much greater this job would be if we were nice to each other all of the time? How many times have you heard, “Why do we have to wait for a fire to get along?” Be nice, say nice things, and try to get along. Be a brother. The bottom line, again, is, we need to take care of each other and, officers, you need to take care of your people. There are too many people on the outside who don’t care about us. Again, the smaller things.
F#2: Fire Apparatus
Are you taking care of your rigs? Are they ready to go? Whether you work shift or come back for a call as a volunteer, will they start when you need them? If your shift starts at 7 a.m. and you catch a call at 8 a.m. and your rig doesn’t start, what’ll be your excuse? Being “dead in the house” an hour into your shift doesn’t cut it. Do you know what’s on your rig, or are you one of those people who runs around the rig slamming compartment doors when you’re looking for a tool? Knowing what’s on your rig is not going to happen through osmosis. You’re not going to absorb that information into your skull through the compartment door.
And, do you know how to use all the tools? Do you know what job is assigned for the particular seat in which you’re riding? Do you know what your task will be when you get there? Finally, does the rig look good? Once again, just small details.
The firehouse is your home. Do you treat it like your own? It’s supposed to look good. In the past when going to teach at a fire department, I used to try to get in a day early so I could become familiar with the department, the guys, and basically just try to get a good read on the department. A friend of mine shared something with me back then that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “All you have to do, Rick, is get there about 10 minutes earlier for class than you had planned. Take a look at the rigs. See how their hosebeds are finished. Take a look at their tools, at how they have their gear laid out, and look around the firehouse. Then take a look at the firefighters. Are they into their jobs? Do they have that love for the job? Or are they too busy reading the NASDAQ report? Is their number one job still the number one job? Doing that will tell you all you need to know about the department and the members.
RULES OF RESPONSE
In our place, one area in which we try to take care of the small stuff is in our response to incidents. We try to live by four very simple rules:
1. Every time we go out the door, we’re going to a fire. It doesn’t matter if it’s “just that fire alarm again.” When we leave, we’re dressed, we’re ready, we’re in the right frame of mind, and we have our game face on. Do that, and you reduce the odds of getting snookered and hurt. We fight off complacency.
2. There’s no fire unless we say they there’s no fire. We’ll take into consideration what the police officer or a civilian is telling us, but we’ll make that final decision. We don’t like surprises.
3. There’s no one in the building only if we say there’s no one in the building. Once again, we’ll listen to the information being offered, but we still search. We don’t want to miss the neighbor who came in the back door to help when everyone else was going out the front or the kid who snuck back home and didn’t tell his parents or rely on people whose judgment may be off because they woke up in smoke. Some of these people might not remember all who were in the house and may believe that everyone is out.
4. The fire’s not out unless we say it’s out, that it’s not above us or below us. When we ensure that the fire is out, we won’t see that ugly rekindle pop up and cause us embarrassment.
Follow these four simple rules, and you’re less likely to get yourself or your people hurt.
While abiding by the above four rules, we have on our mind our risk management statement, which I’m sure you’ve seen before:
- We will risk our lives a lot, in a highly calculated and controlled manner, to protect a human life.
- We will risk our lives a little, in a highly calculated and controlled manner, to protect property.
- We will not risk our lives at all to protect lives and property that are already lost.
Maybe you don’t have to “sweat the small stuff,” but taking care of the little things can often keep them from becoming big things.
RICK LASKY, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. Previously, he was chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department and training officer for the Darien-Woodridge (IL) and Bedford Park (IL) Fire Departments. While in Illinois, he taught at the Illinois Fire Service Institute and Illinois Fire Chiefs’ Association and received the 1996 International Society of Fire Service Instructors “Innovator of the Year” award for his part in developing the “Saving Our Own” program. He is the lead instructor for the H.O.T. Firefighter Survival program at FDIC West and is co-lead instructor for the program at FDIC and FDIC East. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and serves on the FDIC, FDIC West, and FDIC East advisory committees.