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Between Alarms: April 2014

Have you ever wondered how you could life-hack your own firefighter world?

March 26, 2014
By Arjuna George

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Have you ever wondered how you could life-hack your own firefighter world? I am fascinated with the concept of life-hacking and finding solutions to maximize today’s to-do lists and manage the hectic world of fire fighting. No longer is fire fighting just putting the wet stuff on the red stuff; the craft deserves and requires so much more. It may seem impossible to balance your work and home lives when there is a smorgasbord of things fighting for your attention.

The 80/20 rule, or Pareto’s Principle, may be the answer. Pareto’s Principle is named after Italian economist and professor Vilfredo Pareto and has been around for a century. The concept has more recently been made famous by British author Richard Koch, who published The 80/20 Principle in 1997.

The 80/20 rule could be our secret to success in training, human resources, administration and other areas. The key is to do more with less – to spend less time and expend less energy. The 80/20 rule is essentially a priority setting tool; it allows you to concentrate on the things that matter and spend less time on the non-productive time suckers.

The rule basically states that just 20 per cent of the things we do really matter, while many (80 per cent) are, in fact, unimportant. Looking at my daily tasks through the 80/20 goggles reduces my stress and allows me to be more productive. 

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Consider this: 20 per cent of your high-maintenance co-workers (difficult people) take 80 per cent of your time; 80 per cent of your time training ineffectively delivers just 20 per cent of your knowledge; 20 per cent of the things we worry about each day are in our hands – the other 80 per cent are out of our control.

This rule gives us the freedom to focus on the 20 per cent that matters, and allows us to work not just smartly, but work smartly on the right things. 

There are plenty examples of this in the fire service: 80 per cent of the work that gets done in the station is completed by just 20 per cent of the staff; 80 per cent of the extreme physical work we do is conducted at just 20 per cent of the incidents.

So how can we use Pareto’s Principle to effectively manage our lives at the fire hall and at home?

Time management – Our days are packed with emails, phone calls, incidents, paperwork and everyday tasks. What on your daily to-do list takes up 80 per cent of your time but equals just 20 per cent of your daily production? Identify the tasks on which you could spend 20 per cent of your time that would yield 80 per cent of the desired outcomes. Koch says that repeating this step can reduce the time committed to certain tasks to a little more than six per cent of what it was originally.

Delegation is a major component to time management and the 80/20 rule. Find the 20 per cent of tasks that you are good at and delegate the rest to others who have the skills. Build a team to which each member contributes his or her best 20 per cent and you will have the safest, most productive working group imaginable.

Dealing with people – As we said, 20 per cent of the difficult people in our jobs or lives take up 80 per cent of our days with their complaints and negativity. One way to manage this situation is to reward the other 80 per cent often; the other 20 per cent will fade away or, even better, will change their attitudes. Why not flip it, and spend most of your time rewarding those who are positive and hardworking?

Personal life – Is work-life balance possible? The key is to find the 20 per cent that makes a personal difference for you and spend 80 per cent of life making it happen.

Recruitment – When times are tough it is hard to be selective in recruiting, but hiring the best and will prove to be the best move for our organizations. Don’t settle for mediocre.

Training –
The few hours we have for training are priceless so we must maximize their effectiveness. Identify high-risk and low-frequency skills so we know where to focus our energy. Another great tool is known as “flipping your classroom”. This process flips the material being presented, allowing for more hands-on time and better team learning. This technique uses the 80/20 rule – we can now spend 80 per cent of our training time working the skills and building that muscle memory. To sum it up, spend 80 per cent of your time focusing on the 20 per cent that that will kill you!

Communication – Spend 80 per cent of your time listening and 20 per cent engaging in good-quality communication.

Decision making – The 80/20 principle allows us to make quicker and better decisions. The concept is to gather 80 per cent of the information that is accessible then base your decision off that. The other 20 per cent of the problems are probably unknown anyhow, so this allows you the freedom to be more decisive.

Koch says great leaders employ the 20 per cent spike. “The spike is a distinctive strength in a person that is unusually powerful, so it’s in your best interest to train and develop your spike to Olympian standards.”

It is time to hack your fire-life and gain your control. It is time to become an 80/20 firefighter and develop your 20 per cent spike.


Arjuna George is a 15-year veteran and the deputy chief of operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C. E-mail him at ageorge@saltspringfire.com and follow him on Twitter at @AJGeorgefire.


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