Firefighters are always a call away, ready to tackle potentially dangerous situations. But while their job probably carries a ton of stress and responsibility, their methods and tricks can still apply to your job and everyday life.
Like any emergency personnel, firefighters work long hours and rely on a lot of teamwork. Since lives are often at stake, they also have to operate with pinpoint accuracy. It requires training, keeping calm under pressure, and knowing what to do at the right time. Within these goals, they have lessons for all of us—even if you don’t regularly save people from burning buildings.
Remember the Acronym SLICERS to Control Problems
Over the past few years, firefighters have adopted an acronym that details the steps to take when confronted with a fire: SLICERS. Firefighter Nation explains:
- Size up all scenes
- Locate the fire
- Identify & control the flow path (if possible)
- Cool the heated space from a safe location
- Extinguish the fire
- Rescue and Salvage are actions of opportunity that may occur at any time
While it pertains specifically to physical fires, the same principles can be used to tackle a difficult situation at work or home. When your brain experiences anxiety, it can be overwhelming. SLICERS is a protocol to follow so that you always know the next step to take.
Here’s how it works: First, size up the problem. For firefighters, this means taking a full lap of the building, reviewing its condition, and so on. In your work or personal life, that means analyzing the full picture of your project, not just the problem areas. Second, locate the fire or the problem. Firefighters identify where the super hot areas are and which parts are most dangerous. Similarly, you need to know where your pain points are—do note that you are not trying to identify the source of the problem, but what it impacts.
The “flow path” of a fire is, in Fire Engineering’s simple terms, how a fire moves determined by incoming and outgoing vents for air (since air is what lets a fire burn). Identifying and controlling the flow path is about knowing where the air comes from and where it’s headed. In your real-world issue, you need to identify the factor that keeps your problem going and how your problem reacts. Firefighter Nation stresses on this step:
The importance of identifying the problem of flow path cannot be underestimated. In the words of Charles Kettering, an influential designer with General Motors, “A problem well stated is half solved.” By identifying flow path, you’ve identified the path to success. This may be by controlling flow path, or operating in harmony with it. The identification of flow path is an item that should find its way into every after-action review.
Armed with the knowledge of the situation, the problem and the flow of events, you might think you are ready to tackle the issue at its core and eliminate it. But that’s missing a vital step: cooling the heated space from a safe location. Always make sure the priority is your (or your team’s) own safety. Tackle the most dangerous areas first and make sure they’re okay before proceeding to the next one. It’s a slower process than terminating the source, but it’s also a safer process. But this is not universal advice—there will be times when stemming a problem at the root is the better way to go. Finally, when you have that under control, it’s time to extinguish the fire completely.
The Rescue and Salvage operations are self-explanatory—if anything can be saved, save it. These two actions are always active, right from sizing up to extinguishing. Even while tackling your problem, if you spot any high priority item that can be immediately fixed, you do it right then.
The biggest takeaway from the SLICERS methodology is that while firefighting, it does not matter where the fire originated. Instead, it’s all about fighting the fire. All too often, when a problem crops up at work or in our personal life, we look to assign blame and figure out why it happened, rather than solving the problem first. That’s not the best use of our time.
Use Firefighter Color Codes to Sort Your Inbox and Lists
In rescue operations, firefighters use color labels to sort people affected by a fire. At Tutum, volunteer firefighter Bryan Lee shows how he used this system to tackle email by combining it with the Eisenhower Decision Matrix.
The diagram above is pretty self-explanatory, showing how you can tag your email with different colored labels and the action to take on each. You could also use the same colors to sort your to-do list so that your priorities are at a glance.
But as Lee writes in the blog post, there are actually five color codes for firefighters. The color white is assigned to those patients with minor or no injuries and so no further care is needed for them. The color black or grey is assigned to the deceased or those with severe injuries. Lifehacker reader Michael W. Perry expands on this:
For firefighters arriving at a disaster scene, a grey or black tag doesn’t mean “not urgent, not important.” It typically means someone so badly injured they either cannot be treated on the scene before they die or treating them would require so many resources that several others might die waiting for help. The “dump it” remark is right though. These people don’t get treatment beyond them palliative, i.e. a morphine injection for pain.
In short, the fourth category of “not urgent, not important” could be better classified with a white label, while a black or grey label is used for “important, but too costly to address”—that way, you are aware of a big problem and why you are skipping it, rather than unceremoniously dumping it. For example, you might have a situation that requires a lot of money and a big team to deal with it, but those would drain resources to a point where more problems crop up.
Breathe, Listen, and Rely on Muscle Memory
When an emergency alarm goes off, firefighters have to address it as quickly as possible. This thread at the Firefighter Nation forums details how many firefighters prepare for a call. It’s a fascinating thread with several experienced firefighters (many with over 25 years on the job) weighing in with how they handle it. Almost all of them talk about how rookies and youngsters have a tendency to jump out of bed and rush to the truck—something they did too at that age—but it’s important to control that adrenaline to do the best job.
Truckie Jay writes:
I find taking a deep slow breath, holding it and thinking of nothing else but that breath then blowing it out through my nose has always worked for me. It takes that hyper edge off the adrenaline rush, calms my nerves and clears my head.
Almost every firefighter in that thread talks about how listening to the whole call is key. You need to pay attention to the full information being given, because our brain has a tendency to listen to a bit and fill in the blanks. We’ve talked about how to improve your listening skills and many of those lessons are restated in the forum.
Finally, you should try to repeat certain patterns so that you don’t have to think about them when they come up. Muscle memory is a powerful tool and the more you can harness it, the better off you will be, says volunteer firefighter Ethan Vizitei:
You need to make your muscles just KNOW how to do this so that you don’t slow your body down by thinking about getting dressed. How does that happen? Patterns. Don your gear in the same way, everytime, with the same motions, and in the same order. That means when you doff your gear, you put things in the right place (each time). Once you’ve got your pattern, repeat it until you’re sick of it.
Muscle memory isn’t going to help you deal with an issue like an argument with your boss, but it can help in pressure situations where you are rushing to meet a deadline. For instance, the muscle memory of keyboard shortcuts can help get a lot done in quick time, as opposed to having to think about each step you have to take.
Slow Down and Practice Your Skills
Firefighters have to go through a tough test to be accepted in a squad, but more importantly, they have to regularly keep practicing drills. Over the course of your life, you’ve probably learned several skills, but how often do you practice them to keep them sharp?
We’ve talked a lot about the science of practice and the best ways to practice, but the important thing is making yourself do it over and over. Scott Lycan of the Nova Scotia Firefighters School says firefighting is no different from problem-solving, so the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Vizitei has a great tip on how to practice so that your efficiency peaks. It’s all about slowing things down:
If you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast. When I practice a piano piece, I slow it down to the point where I have ample time to think about good solid accuracy for each upcoming note and to make sure I’m making the most efficient movements possible, traveling the shortest distance between chords, using fingerings that allow me to keep any extra motion to a minimum. After practicing it this way a few times, I can speed it up again to full tilt, and my fingers are still reaping the benefits of those slow and careful repetition.
So when you have the opportunity, slow down your work, observe how you are doing it, and refine it for efficiency. Once you have the most efficient method, practice it repeatedly and speed it up.
Be Patient and Appreciate the Small Joys
You think your life is stressful and people often bother you with their problems? That’s nothing compared to the average day of a firefighter. Automatic fire alarms (AFA) set off and firefighters have to respond; people call them for small issues and they have to respond; and every time, they have to be prepared for the worst. It’s a high-stress job that can easily frustrate them.
But experienced firefighters know that problems are a part of life. And if you read through various firefighter forums and websites, you will invariably find that most of them have an optimistic outlook towards life and its problems. They learn to take failures in their stride, but they invariably embrace the small joys, whether it’s a kid thinking of them as Superman or getting a good meal from someone who appreciates what they do:
On the wall behind him is the Multi-Cultural Faith Calendar issued by the West Midlands Fire Service. When I point this out, he turns round, checks the date and notes that today is the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri. “Might be some nice food on offer if the AFA goes off at the temple,” he grins.
The next time you are complaining about the huge pile of work in front of you, take a leaf out of the firefighter’s book and have an optimistic outlook. If it helps those in one of the most high-stress work environments to keep going, it’s probably good for you too.