How fire chiefs can better manage their time

Linda Willing

I recently worked with members of a fire department that 20 years ago ran 8,000 calls. Last year that same department ran 21,000. In that time, they have only added two more stations.

Talk to any firefighter and you will hear a similar story. They’re running two and three times as many calls today as they were 10 or 20 years ago, but they only have a few more resources to work with than they did before.

In some cases, departments actually have fewer resources to work with: less money, fewer stations and firefighters, the same equipment from a decade ago.

There are several reasons why the response load of most fire departments has increased so much. In some places, the population has swelled due to a housing boom.

The fact that everyone has a cellphone now means that routine calls that might generate five calls in the past might result in 50 911 calls now. Dispatchers are overwhelmed and find it difficult to screen calls, and firefighters find themselves running on seemingly endless incidents that may not even require emergency response.

And then there is the fact that most fire departments today do much more than they did 20 years ago. In addition to taking on significant new roles in advanced life support and transport, hazardous materials response, wildland fire mitigation and technical rescue, fire departments also do many routine activities such as child car seat installation, public education programming, building inspection and pre-incident planning, just to name a few.

As a result, many fire department members, from the chief on down, find themselves overwhelmed and always playing catch up with tasks such as maintenance, training and routine communication like email.

Tools to help

Implementing some time-management tools can help. Determining how you are actually spending time is the first step. The best way to do this is with a time log.

Although sophisticated apps exist for doing this, a low-tech paper grid can work just as well. Create a table with blocks for each hour of the work day, then set some kind of notification every hour and make a brief note on the grid about what you primarily did during the previous hour.

For example, if you come to work and during the first hour you spend more than 45 minutes chatting with coworkers and checking email, that is what you log in. If you primarily spend an hour doing PT, but then make a few phone calls at the same time, PT would be the primary activity for that hour.

Time logs are for personal use only, and accurately reporting how you use time is the only way they can be helpful.

Pay special attention to time spent checking electronic media — email, texts and social media sites. Be honest — are you spending significant time every hour on these activities? Many people do.

Consolidating screen time into focused blocks that you engage in only a couple times a day is one way to buy back useful time.

Scheduling is also important for better productivity. When is your most productive time of day? Are you most energetic and focused in the morning? Are you more motivated later in the day? How about your crew or team — when are they most engaged?

Don’t multi-task

Don’t waste your most productive time of day with routine tasks like housecleaning. Those kinds of low-engagement activities can easily be fit in around other more important priorities.

When considering how to schedule activities, also pay attention to patterns in your response area. I knew one officer who preferred to spend his mornings on personal work in the station, then get out in the district in the afternoons for things like inspections and pre-incident planning.

However, his response area tended to be quiet in the mornings but very busy in the afternoon with traffic and emergency calls. He needed to adjust his personal preferences to match the needs of his district.

Multitasking is another big time drain. Studies show that focused work on one complex thing at a time is more efficient (up to 40 percent more efficient) versus trying to do multiple complex tasks simultaneously.

Becoming self-aware on personal time use and adopting new habits can help a lot with better time management. But in the bigger picture, the real issue is the setting of priorities.

It is not practical to take on more and more commitments and think you can achieve the same results that you did 10 years ago with the same resources. Something has to give.

In most cases, fire departments are reluctant to give up any services they provide. Not only is it a matter of pride and identity, but from a practical standpoint, once the fire department starts doing something, the community expects them to keep doing it.

For example, if fire departments decided to stop installing child car seats, they could only do so if some other group or agency agreed to take on that responsibility.

Deliberate downtime

Fire department managers need to be circumspect when choosing to take on new responsibilities. Can the department really provide the service with existing resources? If not, are there ways to increase capacity to meet the need? Is it OK to sometimes say no?

As chief officers must adjust to the current reality, so must firefighters. It is not reasonable to be running three times as many calls as 10 years ago and providing multiple other services, but also believe that station life will not be affected.

Some of the traditions that firefighters cherish — leisurely shared breakfasts, extended afternoon naps, weekend days entirely free except for emergency response — also have to give when it comes to these expectations.

Down time is important, especially for fire companies running many calls in a given shift. But there is a difference between taking a 20-minute nap after lunch and spending the rest of the afternoon watching TV.

Few fire departments are proposing that their firefighters work every waking hour on Sundays, but expecting those firefighters to set aside some time for training even on weekends is perfectly reasonable.

In the end, time management is about accepting the reality that there are only so many minutes in any given day — 1,440 to be exact — and much of that time is already spoken for with emergency response, equipment maintenance, training, eating, sleeping and personal hygiene.

How the rest of those minutes are spent is a matter of setting priorities, adopting new habits and making the commitment to follow through.

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