Know someone who always has their hair on fire? Find yourself in fire-fighting mode all the time? Are you ever NOT putting out fires at work? Until I started researching this topic, I’d never noticed just how many phrases related to fire came up in the workplace. So it got me to thinking – is there anything we can learn from firefighters about how to handle fires at work?

After a long discussion of how to put out fires at work, a retired firefighter remarked: Of all the steps we learn to put out a fire, the most important one to start with is to understand the fire before trying to fight it.

Understand the fire

When firefighters arrive on the scene they start with observing. They are looking at the color of the smoke and where the smoke is coming from.  Determining if there’s anyone in imminent danger (themselves or others). The heat of the fire is also considered, as well as what kind of fire it is (electrical, flammable gas or liquids, kitchen fires, etc.).

The key here is to not rush in to start attacking the fire. Instead, it’s to fully comprehend it so that they have the right materials, follow the correct steps, and don’t end up getting themselves (or others) hurt unnecessarily.

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However, this ability to read a fire comes with experience over time. And, it takes patience.

For most of us, these are not our first inclinations when our hair is on fire.

How do I know? Well, largely based on the phrases we use when we are talking about ‘fire’ in the workplace.

Examples of common work-fire-related phrases.

Hair on fire: A sense of urgency or extreme agitation.

Fire-fighting mode: Short-term fixing of problems, suppression of symptoms of problems

Putting out fires: Spending time on problems that need to be solved quickly, rather than in a calm, planned way

When you have your hair on fire, know when to use a fire extinguisher and when to call in help

Often times, when I see people trying to handle fires at work there’s an assumption that they are the ones that have to put the fire out. But there’s actually some handy questions that firefighters offer to know if you can self-help in the case of a fire. And, if the answer is no – it’s time to call in help.

Deciding if you should use a fire extinguisher if your hair is on fire

In an article by Convergence Training, there’s several questions to ask yourself to make this decision.

1. Is the fire small enough and contained enough that YOU can put out the fire?

When you think of the current fire you’re facing at work.

How big is big? How large are the consequences if the project were to burn down? Are there many different groups, divisions, projects, or agencies impacted? Or, is it impossible to know just how many people are actually impacted?

If it honestly seems manageable and relatively contained – then self-help makes sense at this point to use a ‘fire extinguisher’..

2. Is the fire extinguisher available and within relatively close reach?

Again, in the work scenario this is about understanding the resources you have available to help you fight the fire.

For example, would it require contracting staff to solve the problem? If so, how long does the contracting process take? If it takes more than a year to get feet on the ground then it means your ‘fire extinguisher’ is neither available nor within close reach.

3. Is the fire extinguisher available the kind you need for the fire you have?

In real fires, it’s important to remember that there’s a different kind of fire extinguisher for if you’re fighting a grease fire versus a chemical fire versus general combustible material like wood. Similarly, you can’t just use whatever fire extinguisher is around and hope that it puts out your fire at work.

So, if we followed the previous example, you may have contractors on staff, but they might not have the right expertise that you need for this particular situation.  I often see this when someone requests additional staff for their team – and the response is “But you already have 5 people on the team.” The question is – are they the right 5 people.

If your environment is one that’s often chaotic, it may be a god idea to read our post on how to hire team members that are prepared to work in that type of environment.

4. Is the fire extinguisher fully charged?

This is where resilience comes in.

You might have enough people and the right people – but are they too burnt out to fight the fire? Often times, if your hair is on fire you may not have stopped to understand the fire. As a result, you and your team are at risk of being too burnt out to fight the fire effectively. In which case, it’s time to stop and reconsider priorities and consider calling in some help.

So what do you think – how do you handle it when you have your hair on fire?