How the Simplicity Principle Affects Firefighters
By Jason Ramsdell
Oh, what a year 2020 gave us. Amidst serving the public with the backdrop of a pandemic, elections, protests, a capital insurgence, political turmoil, and our personal lives, did anyone pay attention to the mysterious monoliths randomly placed throughout the country? These were plain pieces of metal placed upright in seemingly random places. My first reaction was a joyous homage to the late Stanley Kubrick and his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although, on further analysis, I found these actions as an overlying symbol and reminder of our constant battle between simplicity and complexity during chaotic and confusing times.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a story centered on a mysterious monolith that appears on different planets but initially appears on Earth. Gorillas become fixated on a monolith, and it gives the perception that it may have elicited the first man-made tool, which consisted of a simple bone used as a hammer and ultimately as a weapon. The story fast forwards to a complex world of space travel and the human relationship with artificial intelligence. Humans have advanced simple tools into technologically advanced tools to help achieve their mission. Sound familiar? These advanced tools began to compromise an important mission and led to an elegant battle between human and machine with humans resorting to simple maneuvers to overcome machine. (This is an opinion on the symbolism of 2001: A Space Odyssey; you can formulate your own opinion.) The plain, simple-looking monolith makes another appearance as to somehow ask the viewer to balance their thoughts between the complexity of artificial intelligence, technology, tools, and how they interact within the human mind to affect behavior.
Let us come back to reality. Our personal lives are comprised of smartphones, passwords, 24/7 news, emojis, software updates, streaming services, universal remotes, Alexa, and many more. The trends of society leak into professions, and the fire service is not immune. Have you been keeping up with the advancements of our apparatus? We are living in a world where the driver/operator can now control the pump from a smartphone, among other things. Artificial intelligence companies around the world continue to develop and advance fully automated firefighting robots and vehicles to assist firefighters in completing their duties. The simple horse-drawn pump has been technologically advanced into future unmanned apparatus to make our jobs a little easier and safer. Anything that makes our job more effective, efficient, and safer is always optimal, but we must be careful in allowing too much complexity to control our lives.
Tips on administrative functions, leading, managing, conflict resolutions, and personnel issues are a click away. These clicks may lead to lengthy articles (such as this one!), videos, flow charts, and 10-point plans. If this happens, do this. If that happens, do this and then that. If we strip down this information into bite-size, simple words, and concepts, we would be amazed how often the answer lies in the simple things.
As humans and firefighters, we are guilty of seeking out complexity and allowing it to control our lives. Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”1 Who does not love a spy thriller that involves 10 culprits, a conspiracy, multiple countries, secret codes, parallel universes, a McDonalds, and a pet ferret? We tend to become bored and unfulfilled when we are left with the simple answers and conclusions. Who wants a mystery to end without going down a rabbit hole? While complexity lies within our favorite movies, songs, and books, as humans and firefighters, we should embrace trimming down problems, concepts, tasks, and duties to the simplest form.
Occam’s razor was developed by William of Occam in the 14th century and simply states, “Never undertake plurality without necessity.”1 The razor implies using a mental tool to trim the edges to arrive at the simplest explanation or solution–in other words, Keep It Simple Stupid or make it firefighter proof. Imagine a defense attorney arguing different theories and relying on many assumptions and coincidences to protect a client. On the other hand, we often witness prosecutors applying Occam’s razor by removing the assumptions and following simple, logical steps as to why the defendant is guilty. Again, we crave the complexity of the alternative theory but feel disappointed when the simplest solution prevails.
Julia Hobsbawm wrote a book called The Simplicity Principle, which lays the foundation for counterbalancing our need for complexity with simplicity. Her principle is based on two central ideas of keeping it simple and learning from nature.1 Keeping it simple requires us to reverse engineer complicated systems and find simple workarounds for the complex systems in our lives and work.1 Nature gives us beautiful patterns involving the six-sided hexagon such as carbon, honeycombs, and snowflakes.1 Six is a perfect number (a number equal to the sum of its divisors–i.e., 6 = 2 + 3 + 1), and many of our everyday numbers are either multiples or factors of six.1 Two in/Two out, a 24/48-hour schedule, a 48/96-hour schedule, at least two lines pulled, at least a team of two, etc. Hobsbawm drew her inspiration for the simplicity principle using the number six from Euclid, who is considered “the father of geometry,” to develop six sides of simplicity.1 As a math enthusiast, I can appreciate the connection between perfect numbers, geometry, patterns, and order as it pertains to keeping things simple. The answer or process is often right in front of us, but we must be willing to relearn a simplistic approach.
Our brains are already complex enough. Let us add the complexities of the variety of calls we run, group dynamics of our crews, and our personal lives. Let us not forget about the current environment outside of our homes and fire stations. These different combinations are asking for a simplicity remedy. With so much mind stimulation, we cannot forget what drove us to become firefighters, husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. Our minds crave the complexity, but neuroscience research reveals that we have limited working memories of only four to seven things at any given time.1 Now think about all the slide presentations that contained more than seven bullet points per slide (look up the 7 x 7 Rule). Think of our checklists with more than seven tasks. What is our optimal span of control again? This list can go on and on. Neuroscience research also reveals that our minds are not wired to multitask, yet we place expectations on ourselves to complete multiple tasks at once.1
As firefighters, we may often find ourselves lost in the noise and forget what our basic purpose is. Mission statements and slogans are common among all organizations, and we quickly lose focus of these simple words given our complex lives. I joined the Army during the “Be all that you can be” days. I will not be wrong in saying every fire department’s mission statement revolves around public safety, property conservation, and prevention. Trimming down an organization’s mission statement into as few words as possible has proven to be effective for many successful departments and organizations. A mission statement represents an organization’s front end business aspect. In other words, the customer will receive the mission statement although the back end, or business end, is very complex with many moving parts. When we serve the public, they are receiving our services without all the complexities as to how they were delivered, managed, and processed. We do not arrive on scene and begin explaining different tax rates, auto aid agreements, pay structures, overtime procedures, policy numbers, training schedules, employment laws, or different acronyms. We are often guilty of having complex means to reach a simple end. Why not trim down the complex means to reach an improved end?
There are certain complex means that are necessary to complete our jobs and live our lives, but the other “noise” coupled with assumptions may get us in trouble. Unnecessary noise that does not or should not affect your ability to be a firefighter should be recognized and questioned if it fits in the scope of accomplishing the mission. It is at this point where we should ask ourselves what is important and not important in being effective and efficient firefighters. Do we want to add more complexity or reduce it? Fire chiefs are often tasked with developing their department’s mission statement, but why not have a simple personal or crew mission statement? Simple statements will help dictate if our actions and inactions are helping achieve the mission statement. Accomplishing a personal mission will help the crew’s mission, which is effectively serving the public.
As mentioned before, our personal lives and societal trends leak into our professions, and the fire service is not immune. Complexity tends to create abstract or unrealistic expectations, which ultimately lead to added stress, anger, or depression. This added stress at home has the potential of staying with us at work. Add the complexities of the job and serving the public, and this has the potential of a snowball effect of compounding stress. If stress levels increase at work, the probability increases that this stress will come home with you. There are many studies that explain how stress leads to physical and mental health deterioration, time lost at work, and lack of productivity. We often hear of muscle memory regarding our firefighting and EMS skills. I propose that we introduce mental memory regarding personal health through the simplicity principle. Frequent mental visualizations of our simple, personal mission statements are a first step in teaching and reteaching our brains to at least consider simplicity in our lives. This is easier said than done, but just remember the rules of habits and lifestyle changes: Start small, simple, and one day at a time. Pick out a few stimuli and ask yourself these questions: Does this affect my duties at home or work? Will these stimuli help or hurt my productivity at home or work? Depending on your answers, mentally slice the edges of each stimuli, and keep only simple portions that will help you become more productive. If it is just noise, cancel your subscription.
We are in the business of saving lives, but it may be a struggle if we cannot preserve and improve our individual physical and mental health. The best piece of advice I received throughout my military and fire service career is, “Doing the basics will keep you out of trouble and doing the basics will get you out of trouble.” Small pieces of simplicity offer an easy counterbalance of our complex world. Pick your trimming tool of choice, hopefully a simple one, and cut out the noise that is reducing your productivity and increasing your stress. Develop a few simple words or statements that you value, and mentally exercise your actions and inactions to help accomplish your personal mission, creating a domino effect ending with quality service to the public and your family.
- Hobsbawm, J. “The Simplicity Principle.” 2020. Great Britain: Kogan Page Limited.
Jason Ramsdell is a lieutenant, a 15-year veteran of the Oak Hill (TX) Fire Department, and an Army veteran. He has a master’s degree in public affairs and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.