Rule 8: Do the Tough Stuff First

The choice to select the day's work activities is typically made by the company officer at the beginning of each shift. In fact, the list of duties is generally left up to the station/company commander with the exception of emergency responses and some planned events such as designated training exercises that are scheduled by a higher authority. Tough questions for the "boss" are what does the daily activity plan look like and what should be accomplished during the company's tour of duty for the next 12 or 24 hours? Seems like such a straightforward and simple question, but the variance in accomplishments (lack of consistency) between shifts and officers is mind boggling.

Most companies will make the most of a platoon day, while others may not be as successful in being as productive. Finding and maintaining a workload balance is a leadership art unto itself, as most supervisors quickly recognize. But one thing is for certain — if you tackle the difficult items at the beginning of the shift, they are exponentially likely to get completed in a timely fashion, rather than being put on hold until later. The time-tested adage, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today," comes to mind when I discuss the faults of procrastination.

There are many responsibilities and duties that are not pleasant or very desirable. As a firefighter, washing windows was one of those dreaded tasks that I never looked forward to being assigned to accomplish. In fact, I would attempt to "swap" house chores with another member (with little or no luck) whenever the windows were assigned for me to clean. It was always much easier to complete the house duties that I enjoyed (i.e., preparing the apparatus for response) and seemed to me to make a difference.

As a private (firefighter rank nowadays), I would even report for duty a bit earlier than my colleagues to ensure a better chance of being assigned more compatible house duties than those dreaded windows. However, I occasionally found myself with an assignment that was simply no fun. The older members would make encouraging statements like, "Take the bitter with the sweet, Rookie." Of course, those were the same folks who would work their hardest to make sure that all of the members were assigned tasks that they didn't necessarily enjoy completing.

If left to my own devices, I would have liked to swap duties (no doubt) or procrastinate and not start the hard stuff on that day. Either the task would be assigned to others the next shift around or the windows would become filthy under the "Private Rubin House Duties Plan." Needless to say, neither passing off the work nor not doing the required cleaning was an option, so I would reluctantly go about my duties when required to do the less-glamorous tasks. You could only wait for a working fire or "mega-trauma" code for so long before it was obvious that you were sloughing off your duties.

As I became a little more senior in my position and when I started up that promotion ladder, the harsh reality of having too much work to complete in one shift was becoming abundantly clear. The need to develop a priority system and to put the shift into some type of logical order was apparent. For a short while, I would go after the low-hanging fruit (easy stuff) and completely fill my day. That seemed to keep the higher bosses as well as my crew happy. However, when mandated projects were slipping through the cracks that I was causing, the less-than-desirable performance was noticed and a heart-to-heart discussion was held with the higher ups and this company officer. That was just about the time that I hit on the need to do the tough stuff first and meet all of my deadlines, not just the fun tasks. What a valuable lesson that I learned many years ago: Get the tough stuff behind you early in the shift.

Later in my career as a chief officer, I hated dealing with the end point of the discipline process (employee termination). It always felt like the department had failed by hiring the wrong person in the first place or not being able to reach the member with improvement programs before it was too late to save a career.

The tendency was to leave perceived "difficult job assignments" until the last possible time. Oddly enough, waiting to deliver bad news (about discipline or anything) never made the information better or easier for me to deliver. It just added to the agony of being the bearer of the unpleasant fact of process. It took a while, but I realized that this was not helping anyone and that handling the difficult personnel issues in a timely fashion was the only way to deal fairly with this difficult duty.

If you complete the tough jobs at the first of your shift, the day will get easier as you go. I understand that this rule is a blinding flash of the obvious, but it is important enough to remind everyone of its value and power. As a direct result of taking the tough issues head-on, you will develop a solid reputation as a member/officer who is a high performer and can prioritize properly, keeping the organization's needs ahead of your own. More times than not during a shift, that long-awaited response alarm would sound that allowed me to use my fire or EMT skills.

I signed up to be able to help people and for all of the excitement and challenge. If I had the fortitude to complete the less-desirable or more-difficult assignments before the action-packed events occurred, that made for a wonderful day at work. However, when I would let things get out of balance (fail to handle the tough stuff early), difficult times always seemed to be just around the corner. I can't count the number of times that I have completed budget documents on a weekend or stayed over late to complete personnel evaluation forms that were required for a member to receive a timely pay increase because an emergency event took up all of my shift time.

If you handle the most difficult items first, every day will seem like a holiday at work. Prioritize your shift time first thing each new day, recognizing that the most difficult elements of the day should be tackled as soon as you can.

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Previously, Rubin was chief of the Atlanta, GA, Fire and Rescue Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy and author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.