WHEN TO “Sweat the Small Stuff”

By Mark Wallace

How you react in the most extreme emergency will be a reflection of how you behave every day. We are creatures of habit. Many times we act or react without specific thought processes. We take the path of least resis-tance at times. And we have a natural tendency to like the things that are most comfortable to us.

Try to replace a veteran firefighter’s bunker gear or helmet, for example. Sure, the new stuff is of the latest design, is lighter, and provides a higher degree of protection; but still, it’s not his “still-good,” comfortable set of gear.

The fire service is at a crossroad that deals with differences in the generations of our personnel. We may have three different generations of personnel in a single fire company. We have senior personnel working side-by-side with new recruits. They think and may act or react differently.

We have excellent training programs with preceptor and mentoring components built in and the greatest availability of quality training ever. Our equipment has many modern features and uses the latest technology. Wages and working conditions, although never perfect, have made great strides in many areas. Still, we are missing something.

Even with all of the advances, we have people who do dumb things. It’s not intentional. It’s usually not life-threatening by itself, and it doesn’t necessarily involve the violation of any policy. Still, it is having a significant impact on the fire service.

Having been a chief for 14 years and in the fire service nearly 34 years, I have observed quite a few situations called different names by different people, depending on the circumstances involved. Some call them accidents, mistakes, goofs, mishaps, missing the target, doing okay, or just getting by. They all involve outcomes that are not what we would characterize as “Doing your best.”

Don’t get me wrong. I have the highest regard for firefighters of all descriptions. I think we have some of the most highly committed, highly educated personnel of any profession. The respect shown to today’s fire service is well-deserved and hard-earned. So it is important to understand that I am not describing all firefighters but rather a few members who, through their actions or lack of actions, set bad examples for the rest of the fire service.

Unfortunately, some of the ones I think need to think about this article may be the least likely to read it. My hope is that this article initiates some thought processes and actions among those who are out front and performing at a high level of effectiveness so that they, in turn, will put pressure on those this article is about to raise the bar of acceptability and safety.


Fire departments can be divided into two types: rule-driven and value-driven. In rule-driven organizations, the response to problems of behavior or “goofs” is to write another rule. The new rules prohibit each “goofee” from goofing again. The theory is that firefighters will follow the rules. By making a new rule, the organization has dealt with the problem and can move on. Violate the rule again, and there will be consequences (theoretically). The problem is that as the rulebook gets thicker and thicker, virtually everything becomes prohibited, but no one can remember or follow all the rules. Plus, firefighters are very inventive and will always continue to find new and unique ways to become a “goofee.”

In a value-driven organization, the department reverts to a focus on its values and compares the behavior or outcome with its core values. Expectations of behavior are placed on each member of the department on a 24/7/365 basis. Once the core values are defined, the “goofee” is counseled and reminded of the core values and expectations of behavior and desired outcomes. If anyone has any questions about the values, any supervisor up to and including the chief will be willing and able to discuss the issue in detail. Consistent or large goofs have consequences. If that was all it took, this article would not be needed.


Unfortunately, the rate of line-of-duty deaths and lost-time, on-the-job injuries has changed little in the past too many years. Something has to change. In reality, there are many things that must change, but let’s focus on just one: sweating the small stuff.

We can look at and evaluate what we do from several perspectives. One of the perspectives is that of the citizens who actually do pay at least a portion of your salary. Would they say you were doing your best if they stopped by the station or just happened to observe you as they drove by? Sure, we are a 24/7/365 service, but their view of us doing our best occurs only when they happen to stop by, see us on the street, or watch us respond to an emergency. They are happy when our destination and purpose do not involve them, but when they do, the citizens are even more attentive to our behaviors. They will determine whether they are getting their “money’s worth” every time they see us. And the vast majorities of them don’t know or care whether you are a career firefighter or a volunteer firefighter.

There are at least two messages I really want to convey: (1) What you do and how you do it matter constantly while you are on duty or otherwise “representing” the fire service, and (2) the small stuff we do counts. How you perform on a daily basis will be how you perform in a true emergency. It is simply the formation of habits. It’s easy to justify some of our attitudes based on the routine situations we face every day. We all fall into that trap because it’s one of the hazards of being human. What we don’t and can’t know is if the next call will be the one that presents life-threatening critical decisions or requires careful and exact actions to be successful, or else someone (including us) could be killed.

Everything we do should be done in a manner that makes us better and more prepared for the next big call or the next exposure to the dangers of emergency service. If you don’t create the habits of success during the routine situations on a daily basis, you will not be prepared when it really matters—during the critical stages of an emergency incident.

We need to “sweat the small stuff.” The little habits we create may mean little by themselves, but coupled with all the other little habits we form and follow, they have a significant impact on our operations. They leave a gap in our service, or they fill the gaps in our effectiveness and in our outcomes.

I have seen people make numerous and consistent mistakes concerning the small stuff in the fire service. Some are the result of a lack of attentiveness; others are the result of not putting in the effort to do the task correctly or of taking shortcuts. Sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge and failing to put the time necessary into really learning the job. In and of themselves, they are of little consequence. As a reflection of the total attitude of a department, I am concerned about our future as a fire service.

It’s the little things that make a difference. Consistently sweating the details will at some point in your career make the difference in the outcome of the emergency incident. It’s creating the habit of consistently doing the right things and doing your best. It’s creating a habit of life-long learning. It’s creating a habit of making every day a training day. It’s creating a habit of playing mental “what-if” games. It’s the habit of giving your best, each time, all the time.

Following are some examples of how to “sweat the small stuff.”

  • Get to work a few minutes early so that you can have a proper shift change discussion with the person you are relieving. Discuss the calls from the shift before. What tools and equipment were used? Were there any problems? Is anything broken or missing? Were problems encountered with any piece of equipment, tool, appliance, or apparatus?
  • Get on a creeper and roll underneath your truck regularly. Know what is under there and if there are any changes from your last inspection.
  • Understand all the parts of your truck, how it operates, and how it is supposed to perform.
  • Know every tool and appliance you carry and how to use them. Know where your tools are located, and make sure they are married properly for effective operations. Clean and sharpen them appropriately. Preventive maintenance is critical to reliability.
  • Is there actually air in your SCBA tank? Are all the parts there? Are your straps preset for easy donning?
  • Do you train on some skill every day (without fail)?
  • Do you know your district (all of it)? Where is the fire department connection or the alarm panel in a building? Is there a preincident plan? Is it complete and accurate? Is it kept where you can take advantage of it during an emergency incident? Have you physically walked the property and familiarized yourself with its hazards and complications?
  • Have you driven down every street in your district?
  • Have you preplanned all of your target hazards?
  • Are you equipped to deal with the hazardous materials stored in your first-response district?
  • Do all of your fire hydrants have the same thread? If not, how can you tell them apart in the dark?
  • Do the fire department connections in your first-response district have threads that are compatible with your hoselines?
  • What buildings have rapid entry key boxes?
  • Are there standpipes, sprinklers, and wall hydrants for every building?
  • Can you find and operate the fire alarm panels or annunciators?
  • Can you get your overhead doors up even if the power is out at the fire station?
  • Do you have a backup fueling plan in case your normal fueling location is out of service?
  • Do you have a plan for bringing portable toilets to the scene of long-term incidents?
  • Do you have a backup plan for dispatching in case your dispatch center is out of service?
  • How do you get fuel to the scene of long-term fire incidents to fill your pumper’s fuel tanks during extended operations?
  • What happens if an incident takes longer than one shift? Have you preplanned mid-incident shift changes?
  • Can you tie all the knots you need to accomplish the needed tasks?
  • What do you do if all of your on-duty shift’s bunker gear is contaminated and may no longer be used?
  • What if your breathing air filling station is out of service during an extended incident?
  • How do you feed crews on an extended incident?
  • Where do you evacuate citizens during emergency incidents?
  • What do you do “if all else fails”?
  • Who is in charge at a motor vehicle or transportation accident involving hazardous materials?
  • Whom do you call if you need a crane in an emergency?
  • Who is in charge if an incident crosses jurisdictional boundaries?
  • What is your plan if a plane makes an unscheduled landing in your jurisdiction even though you don’t have an airport?
  • Do you send a city council member an ambulance bill for transporting him to the hospital after he has a heart attack during your budget presentation?
  • What do you do if your rope is too short and you need to rescue a window washer from a high-rise building?
  • Where can you land a medical helicopter to transport a critically injured patient? Do you have a plan that includes preestablished landing zones complete with GPS readings?
  • What do you do or not do at the scene of a bomb scare?
  • Who are you going to call if you find military ordnance in your jurisdiction?
  • How do you decontaminate a large group of people who believe they have bee

    *The list can go on and on.


    • Be where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there. It matters that you are on time for an appointment, such as showing up for work or a training course. When you sign up for a class, it is a commitment even if it is inconvenient and you forgot about a conflict or suddenly have a conflict that you didn’t know about. It’s a detail that’s important. When you are on a committee, you are supposed to attend the committee meetings and be prepared to act on the issues presented.
    • Make sure the overhead doors are all the way up when you drive out of the station, and don’t put them down until you are all the way in or out.
    • Don’t stand on a rescue rope—EVER. Even after comments were made about this important rule, a couple of people continued to step on the rope. Some people seemed more interested in the prospect of the consequences rather than the underlying issue of why this rule is important. Even the small amount of dirt you grind into a rope by walking on it or the stuff that gets into the weave of the kernmantle when dragging it across a “debris field” at an incident scene results in damage to the fibers of the rope if it is placed under a load while contaminated. It’s a detail to pay attention to and one that you hope you and your peers have not neglected when the weight of the window washer, his scaffold, and you are being held up only by your rescue rope. It’s not the time to prove gravity or test the limits of your equipment.
    • Don’t move the truck unless everyone knows it’s going to be moved. Leave sufficient space between vehicles when parked end to end so that no one gets pinned between them if a vehicle moves at the wrong time.
    • Remember to properly dress your knots and tie safety knots to finish a rope anchor. An improperly dressed knot may reduce the strength of the rope by up to 50 percent. It’s a bad thing when your 98 percent knot is reduced to a 50 percent knot.
    • Turn off the stove when you leave the station for a call so you do not burn down the station while you are out inspecting for fire hazards. At least 18 fire stations burned down last year. More had smaller and less damaging fires.
    • Don’t fall asleep when the chief gives a class, even if it’s really boring. He might have information that you need to know—plus, he won’t be very confident that you can perform in a safe manner for an extended period of time at an emergency incident. Get enough sleep while off duty so that you can operate in a safe manner while you are on duty.
    • Training is better for you than spending your day watching music videos, afternoon talk shows, court TV, etc. If you just have to watch TV, try a training video. Spend free time improving yourself and finding better techniques to keep safe. Adopt the attitude that every day is a training day. It may have been some time since many of you were in the recruit academy, but your citizens still expect you to be well versed in basic knowledge, skills, and abilities. You might even find that it’s fun and that the days go by much more quickly.
    • If you’re bored, read a book. Most departments have wonderful books in the library of each station.
    • Know the details of your fire pump and how to get the best from it. Every firefighter should know that the rated capacity of a fire pump is achieved at a pump pressure of 150 psi.
    • When you train, don’t get hurt. A proper physical fitness program conducted daily would help prevent many of the injuries sustained during training. Focus on stretching and aerobic fitness with moderate strength workouts.
    • Don’t break equipment because you forgot to put it back or failed to properly store it. Pay attention. Do not rely on indicators to properly store the equipment you just used or close the door that has been opened.
    • Don’t move a truck without conducting a 360-degree survey to make sure you are ready to move. Look up, and don

      Pay attention to the details. “Doing your best” is not limited to when it’s convenient or when someone is looking. “Doing your best” is doing everything possible to be the best you can 100 percent of the time. It’s striving for excellence. It’s looking back at the task you’ve just completed and being able to honestly say that you did a great job.

      Your life, the life of your team, and the lives of the victims you are tasked with saving may be in the hands of your habits. When the pressure goes up and stress levels are at their highest, you will revert to doing things based on the habits you developed. Look back at your last shift or the one before that and ask yourself about the habits you have adopted or the habits you are creating. Then DO sweat the small stuff!

      MARK WALLACE is chief of the McKinney (TX) Fire Department and former chief of the Golden (CO) Fire Department. He taught fire investigation throughout the United States and in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand for more than 20 years and taught fire investigation courses for the National Fire Academy. He is a past president of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs Association and the author of Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence (Fire Engin-eering, 1998) and has had numerous articles published in fire service-related magazines. He is the sole proprietor of Fire Eagle Ltd., a consulting firm.

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