Harry Carter: Teambuilding: The Key to Fire Service Success

By Harry Carter

Let me offer an important thought to you.  Our fire departments are facing unprecedented problems preparing to protect the citizens we are sworn to serve.  “So what?” you might reply.  Every part of life is facing problems, what is so special about us?  Let me further suggest that many of the problems that you and I face each year are not being caused by sources outside of our own agencies. 

What is the major problem facing all organizations today?  Let me further refine the statement to limit the problem to our fire department environment.  What is the major problem which you and your fire department are facing today?  It is something that Mike Callan of Connecticut touched on at a Fire Department Instructors Conference many years ago.  As a matter of fact, it is so important that there is a Latin phrase to govern your responses to it: Est ubia mia; this translates roughly to read, “It’s all about me.”  This is the “Me Generation” type of nonsense that grew out of the 1990s and created a great deal of societal selfishness.  This is something you and I have observed in our organizations for many years now.  Far too many people seem only to do those things that they perceive will provide them with some sort of direct and personal benefit. 

It is attitudes such as this that present our fire department leaders with a wide range of problems.  Our departmental leaders begin to wonder:

·                     Why can’t we get our work done?

·                     Why can’t we stay within budget?

·                     Why aren’t people showing up for our fire department drills?

·                     Why have people stopped responding to our emergencies?

·                     Why can’t the people in our fire department see my vision?

These are the sorts of questions that can keep a fire chief up at night.  The fire department is nothing else if it is not a team operation.  I have never seen a fire extinguish itself.  I have never seen a motor vehicle accident victim extricate or treat himself.  Everything we do requires a team-oriented approach to deliver our wide range of services.

Each of us as a fire department member is under pressure to do our part in the overall operations.  In the career world we face such issues as the following:

·                     Threat of layoffs.

·                     Threat of station closings.

·                     Budget cutbacks leading to staff reductions.

·                     Pressure to perform from people who do not have a clue as to what we do.

In the volunteer fire world, the pressures are different.  Here are a few points for you to ponder:

·                     How can I fit the fire department into my employment situation?

·                     How can I fit the fire department into my family commitments?

·                     How can I make my percentage to stay active?

·                     How come some other folks get all of the breaks?

·                     How come the officers take care of their friends and not the rest of us?

It is critical for you to understand that there are some overhead requirements each of us must address when we are in positions of leadership.  It is not about playing favorites, although it might seem that way in certain situations.  No, it is about motivation.  Each of us in positions of leadership must come to sincerely care for each person as an individual.  Do not refer to your troops as “Hey you” or “Hey, you guys.”  Come to know and appreciate each of your troops as an individual, with certain talents, capabilities, and shortcomings.

It may be that you will have to think of your fire department team as a puzzle.  Each person is an individual piece with which you must work.  It is my opinion that you cannot create a solid team unless you understand each of the pieces of the puzzle presented to you.  Each person is different, and you must know and understand them as such. In that way you can put the right piece in the proper place.

It’s all about making the work environment interesting and challenging.  In addition, it is about the active promotion of cooperation and teamwork among all members.  You need to ensure that you are providing opportunities for growth and empowerment among your people.  It is also about the leaders being able to set the example for the troops. 

Let me suggest that there are six basic tenets that you must use for your fire department to be able to provide excellent service. They need to be at the heart of your efforts to create an effective and efficient fire department, one that is able to provide quality service to your community.   These tenets are as follows:

·                     The team’s number one priority is to deliver stellar products and services to their customers.

·                     Always treat fellow team members with kindness and respect.  Be considerate!

·                     When faced with a problem, always work toward a team outcome that is ethical, legal, and safe.  If the problem is about the team’s operational level, seek appropriate advice and approval.

·                     When dealing with fellow team members, remember: It’s all about empathy.  A team made up of diverse personalities is essential to performance.  Compensate for other’s idiosyncrasies, and realize that these differences make for a more productive team.

·                     Consider how what you do looks to your team!

·                     Communicate clearly, openly, honestly, and often–the four corners of a solid team foundation (COHO).

If you think about it, these are really common sense things you should do anyway.  I like to use the Boy Scout Laws to guide me in my work in the fire service.  I have not been a Boy Scout for more than 50 years, but I can still quote the laws as a guide to how I intend to live my life. 

A scout is:

·                     Trustworthy

·                     Loyal

·                     Helpful

·                     Friendly

·                     Courteous

·                     Kind

·                     Obedient

·                     Cheerful

·                     Thrifty

·                     Brave

·                     Clean

·                     Reverent

How much better would the world be if we all clung to these long-established guides to the living of life?  We must work treat people as we ourselves would want to be treated.  Ah, the Golden Rule.  Let me assure you that the task of creating a solid, well-trained team must be built on the solid, bedrock foundation of the rules I have laid out for you in this article. 

As you work to move through your day, try to remember that while you might have plans for your day, so do other people. The hard part to remember is that they do not know yours and you do not know theirs. To get the job done safely and efficiently, you must share with others, cooperate with your fellow team members, and coordinate your efforts with those of the other folks.  Do not assume anything, because you know what happens in that case. 

Encourage the members of your team to come together in setting the goals and objectives for your future operations. Brainstorm to get new ideas from your team.  It is critical that you not discourage thoughtful contributions.

It is critical for you to communicate continually with your team members.  Praise frequently, and criticize rarely and gently. Consult with your team members about their part of the job and share your views with others.  Be sure to really and sincerely welcome the thoughts of your team members.

Counseling your fellow team members is critical.  Accepting their counsel and criticism is critical. Always be ready to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself.  There is no “I” in we.  One is too small a number to achieve greatness.  Everyone has a place where they can contribute. More challenge to your members = the need for more teamwork.  That is why you must stay on top of the training and mentoring of your team members.

I have long believed that the team is no stronger than the weakest link in the chain of organizational operations.  As the leader, you must provide vision and direction.  It is critical to stress that no vision on the part of the leader equates to no action on the part of the team.  As the leader, you have to be willing to pay the price for a great team.  All things being equal, a better leader makes for a better team.

Remember that a great team has to be flexible and adaptable. When everything is going good, nothing hurts.  It is up to you to create an organization that does the best possible job when it comes to protecting your community.  If you build a solid and capable team, you will be able to enjoy a great deal of success.  As the leader, you are the key to that success. Do not miss the opportunity. 


HARRY R. CARTER is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township (NJ) Fire District #2. He had a 26-year career with the Newark (NJ) Fire Department. He has also had a 39-year career with the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township, New Jersey, serving as chief in 1991; he serves as company chaplain and is an active life member. He has a doctor of philosophy degree in business from Capella University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Safety Leadership at Capella.