Teamwork and the Big Red Truck

By Dave Murphy

I recently read an excellent book by Yogi Berra, You Can Observe a Lot by Watching/What I’ve Learned About Teamwork from the Yankees and Life. As expected, it was punctuated with Yogi’s insightful one-liners. Although Berra was primarily referring to the winning attributes of the unstoppable New York Yankees of the 1950s, his remarks are easily applicable to the United States fire service. Let’s examine of few of these attributes in that context.

The delivery of emergency services is not a game; somebody is most likely having a very bad day when we go out the door. People die, and sometimes these people are firefighters. You cannot change what you find when you get on scene; however, your team’s initial actions should strive for a best possible positive mitigation scenario in the first few minutes. So what exactly constitutes a “win” for us? Just for the sake of simplicity, here is a very elementary checklist:

A Fire Service “Win”

  • Did we arrive safely in a timely manner? 
  • Did we safely use our skills correctly and efficiently with compassion? 
  • Was a timely after-action review performed? Can we be ensured a safe, efficient response will occur the next time we go out, regardless of the situation? What did the team learn from it?
  • Did we make it safely (considering long-term effects) back to quarters or our homes?

If all of the above indeed occurred, that is a win in my book! A winning tradition does not come overnight. We just can’t say we are going to be great and, poof, it happens. How do we become a winning team? The answer is through hard work, which must derive from a committed effort from all department members (and the political forces that fund and govern us) over a sustained period of time. In every sport or workplace, team play always works.

What are some of the hallmarks of a team player?

A team player

  • Accepts roles and responsibilities.
  • Positively influences the team on a daily basis.
  • Does what the team needs him to do.
  • Motivates other team members.
  • Always demonstrates a great work ethic.

Successful teams are based on trust and loyalty. The main thing is to work together, not against each other. Yogi noted that the Yankees continually worked on the fundamentals; mental mistakes were inexcusable. How often does firehouse conversation discuss a lack of attention given to fundamentals lately? There will always be mandated outside pressures to accomplish a multitude of things, but what is stopping your team from working on the fundamentals within your own group?

Have you watched any football lately? Individual players now seem to seek personal, not team, glory. They do their little dance, thump themselves in the chest-- for what? Doing their job and collecting their millions? Do they realize how self-centered and glory-minded they appear? A fire company is a team, a company is a member of a battalion; we work in unison, we depend on each other to get the job done. No one person puts the fire out; it was a team effort--from dispatch to the mechanics that keeps the rigs on the road.

Being on a team, any team, is a challenge. Facing disappointment is facing life. It’s important to maintain control of yourself. Team and trust go together. Trust is a great motivator. Respect your team. Good teams keep themselves in line. The fire service is a dynamic atmosphere, and emotions often run high. Never be afraid to speak up; just think before you do. It’s bad enough to put your foot in your mouth; you certainly have no right to put it in everybody else’s mouth.

Hustle, which really means to play to your full potential, actually means pride. One of the all-time Yankee greats, Joe DiMaggio, always ran to his position. Often playing injured, he said that members can play with fear but not without enthusiasm. DiMaggio always reminded his teammates, “You're Yankees; act like Yankees!” I think the fire service can learn a lot from that statement. Always remember: Someone is watching you.

The only way to earn trust is to earn it. If you’re on a team, it’s up to you to prove it. Punctuality is the same as respect; get to work early, and be prepared to go. What does showing up late say about you? Don’t slack off in training. Never give the idea that you're not committed, even in practice. The more you share, the more you trust. Wearing a uniform promotes unity. Berra pointed out that Yankee uniforms did not have names on the back of them, thus furthering the team concept. Being a part of a team means protecting your teammates. It is very hard to re-earn trust once it is lost.

Don’t rely on “sour grapes,” as that’s the easy way out. When you blame something or someone, you lose perspective. It does not fix anything. Another overused and misused phrase, “my bad,” is not the same as saying you’re sorry. If you are mad, disgusted, frustrated, or worse, take a pause--a long pause if necessary. Don’t say something you will regret. Never embarrass another teammate; it’s a hurtful thing to do and can’t do any good. You can’t take it back once it is said.

Managing is not a walk in the park. Players/firefighters sometimes have to adjust to special roles--even roles they don’t terribly love. Getting every employee to understand his/her role is important. Even if a player sits next to the water cooler, that player is a part of the game. Not every job is a glory job, but it still has to get done. A good team will pull together and get the job done, even as the glory boys often drive away. Managers are there to make decisions, but they should always be fair and always have valid reasons for the decisions they make.

How do good teams become better? A team’s best player can have a serious impact by providing confidence, being unselfish, and by finding joy in teammates’ successes. Anyone can use a good mentor, a person who cares and knows more than you know. You don’t have to love the person beside you to play alongside him, but you must try and be able to separate the personal from the professional. I think that’s a good line of advice on which to end.


You Can Observe a Lot by Watching/What I’ve Learned about Teamwork from the Yankees and Life. Yogi Berra with Dave Kaplan. 2008. ISBN 978-0-470-07992-8.

Dave Murphy retired as assistant chief of the Richmond (KY) Fire Department. He serves as an associate professor in the Fire and Safety Engineering Technology program at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is a past eastern director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association and as a principal member on NFPA 610, Guide for Safety & Emergency Operations at Motorsports Venues.

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