Jerry Wells: Firefighting: Career or Volunteer The Ultimate Team Sport

By Jerry Wells

I have been in the fire service for almost 29 years now.  I survived many years when training and personal accountability concepts were only in existence if the company officer of a particular crew enforced them, and this did not happen departmentwide.  The thought of drills or “training” brought about negative emotions because of things that had been allowed in the past.  I have read headlines in newspapers and watched local news stations as they report the latest story involving a firefighter and whatever this firefighter was accused of at the time.  Have you ever noticed that our occupation is always brought into the story?  Actually, that is what makes the story. The fact that it was a firefighter, a trusted public servant, or one of the “heroes” in the community was the only reason it made headline news in the first place.  This profession, whether career or volunteer, comes with tremendous responsibility.  So here lies the question.  Are we teaching this responsibility in our organizations to our new recruits in their first few days on the job? What about our tenured members?  Character traits such as duty, discipline, honor, personal responsibility, and tradition are all concepts that must be discussed departmentwide.

I remember my first FDIC.  I took one particular classroom session in which the instructor, Chief Tom DeMint from Colorado, used the Fort Collins FD Policy manual to make several of his points.  Did I mention this manual was THE 1900 Edition?  Yes, the year 1900, and the rules, regulations, policies, and training demonstrations were almost identical to the ones we have printed today.  In 114 years, we are still dealing with the same issues, trying to train on the same ideas from more than a century ago.  Do we have a certain “standard of conduct” for our membership? More importantly, if we do, do we enforce this standard?

In October 2010, fireengineering.com ran an article titled “How Are YOU Marketing MY Fire Service?” Several examples were discussed of how we as individuals have a responsibility to the fire service (each other) to wear our uniform honorably, whether on duty or off.  The T-shirts we wear, the stickers we put on our automobiles, and our personal conduct all have the potential to impact one another.  I saw a young firefighter in a H.O.T. class at FDIC one year who had a sticker on the back of his helmet, his RED helmet, I might add, that read “Do I Look Like I Give A S%#*?”  WOW!!  I could not imagine what would happen in my department if someone tried to display something like that for all the “customers” to see.  Individual responsibility is important so that the whole American fire service maintains a good reputation. 

From this same line of thinking I wanted to find a way to continue to remind those willing to listen about why we got in this “business” in the first place. The answer is through building effective teamwork.  Effective teamwork has a direct effect on the success of any fire company.  This is obvious for emergency incidents but it also applies to everyday station life and our fire service training programs.  In an effort to teach successful teamwork and leadership concepts, I use one of the most popular sports in this country for comparison: football.  Examples are taken from the Boise State documentary called “Out of the Blue: A Film About Life and Football” from Arts Alliance America.  The new leader of the team, head football coach Chris Peterson, explains his philosophy on coaching and player expectations, all of which can be valuable to adopt in our fire service.   As more time passes, his coaching and life philosophies are proving to be the groundwork for not only a single successful season but the foundation of a very respectable multi-year football program. 

Training does not have to be a bad word in your department.  If it is, then it is time to start changing the training culture.  The fire service is a team sport.  We must depend on one another.  We need to teach each member that they are expected to do their part for the success of the entire team.  We have to start thinking more of “we” and less of “I.” 

The term “be here now” is a philosophy of Coach Peterson.  This is one that every fire department in this country should adopt.  I know many departments that are currently struggling with this problem.  Does your department still allow firefighters to carry personal cell phones?  If so, does this privilege come with guidelines designed to keep the job responsibilities the number one priority?  Are your firefighters spending more time texting and surfing than training and responding?  Is the #1 job still the #1 job?  “Be here now” is a simple concept.  When it is time to respond, when it is time to train or check your gear or equipment, then BE HERE NOW.  NO distractions = NO mental mistakes.  What do you think about a sign positioned over the station door into which you enter at the beginning of every tour that simply says “Be Here Now”? It simply reminds us that once inside this door, we have a job to do.  I am not so disillusioned that I can’t remember firehouse life.  As a matter of fact, I still live 24 hours at a time in a firehouse.  When it is time to have fun, then have fun knowing that everything else is ready for the next emergency.

Set goals. Meet expectations.  This sounds simple and should be.  It also can be addressed on many levels.  Our company officers who I consider to be “on the ball” will have a roll call at the beginning of every shift.  They give all the members of the team the goals and expectations for the day.  This includes scheduled training, public education assignments, inspections due, or just new business for the day that needs attention. What’s for lunch and who is cooking are musts to get nailed down at this time. Firefighters do not like surprises.  They want to know and have the right to know the plans for the day.  

I recently taught this program in which I began with the question, “How many of you knew you were going to training today?”  By using this question I was hoping to hear that the information had been passed on from the day before.  I would have followed up by asking what did they say about the class but one guy raised his hand and said, “I didn’t know where we were having training until I got my headset on in the engine.”  How effective would a “roll call” be at this house informing every member of the plans and responsibilities for the day?  There is also a long-term advantage to this concept of setting goals and meeting expectations.  I am speaking about monthly and yearly goals such as training hours, inspections numbers, and personal goals such as promotional exams. Officers who address the needs of their firefighters are well on their way to becoming successful and well-respected leaders.

Continually getting better is another concept that we must all adopt.  Create a culture where there is some sort of training every day, to the point where it is expected from the troops.  This job is way too dangerous, way too dynamic, to think you can rest on your laurels for 20-30 years and expect to keep up with our challenges. We are not riding the same apparatus, wearing the same gear, fighting the same fires, or even responding to the same emergencies that we did even 20 years ago.  We are not working with the same people (socially speaking) either.  We have to keep up to keep alive.  There is no place for complacency in this business.  Why can’t we get our people to buy in to this concept?  We should be hungry for the daily feedings of fire service knowledge.  It seems most departments depend on one or two people to maintain the energy.  It is one thing to be a self-motivated, high energy, study of the profession, but will you keep it up for the duration of the career?

As company officers, we have a responsibility to know our company members on an individual basis.  Know what motivates them, what they are passionate about.  Do you take the interest to interview them both personally and professionally to learn what value they may have for your team?   How will each member react in a stressful situation?   We have learned that all employees who walk into the firehouse are not cut out for this line of work.  I don’t want to find out ten years later that we have an employee who can’t do the job, and this is only possible because they were allowed to dissolve into a substation with very little expectations. We also have individual responsibility to function confidently at drill.  This is often the place where real trust is lost or gained.  You need to be actively involved in all training evolutions for several reasons, to work with your people so that you know how they will react and they will know how you will react, but also to gain confidence from other company officers on your shift.  Are you “that guy” who seems to always have an excuse why you can’t participate in company drills?

The success of every fire company is dependent on strong company level leadership.  If the legitimate officer at a given station does not stand up and lead, then you can bet someone else will fill the vacuum.  Sometimes a strong and confident driver/operator rises to the occasion.  Other times it may be a senior level firefighter. Your senior firefighters can be a great asset to your team as long as you acknowledge their value and can learn to use their influence within your company.  They can indirectly handle many situations before the problem ever becomes noticeable.  However, they can also be the source of major frustrations.  There is an old saying “There’s no substitute for experience.”  This is true as long as the “experienced” person is useful.  Oftentimes the 15- to 20-year firefighters are the problem.  They’ve been there, done that, and now you can’t tell where they end and the recliner begins.  In this case, keep the experience.  I’ll take the rookie every time!

We also have a responsibility to our retirees and those who have died in the line of duty to tell their story.  Honor them by keeping their story/legacy alive.  I would hate to think that I put in 25-30 years in this business consciously working to build a good reputation and the day I walk out the door is the last day my name is ever mentioned.  We owe something to those who have paved the way for our existence.  What programs does your organization have in place to honor the past members? 

I describe the fire service as “the ultimate team sport.”  So much of our success depends on the collective efforts of many individuals–individual responsibility that affects the greater group. In other words, we must depend on one another.  We depend on one another to be prepared to do the job, both mentally and physically. We depend on one another to work together in training so that we can know how well the team will perform.  We, as officers, must emphasize that everyone in the organization has value, and successful incidents depend on these individuals and how well they work together. 

Whether you use the *“Two Minute Offense” as we do here in Lewisville, Texas, or you make assignments differently with every incident, many separate and individual tasks will need to be successfully completed to safely and efficiently run an incident.  Complete most of the planning prior to the emergency.  Practice the plan until it becomes second nature.  Commit many fireground tasks to muscle memory. Habits, whether good or bad, are hard to break.  Whether in the firehouse or fireground, from East Coast to the West Coast, career or volunteer, we are all on the same team.

*Two Minute Offense is a term I use to describe our preassigned approach to all working fires.  Each firefighter knows his assignment on a working fire by the seat in which he is assigned. 1st,2nd,3rd Engine, Truck Company, OV, and Medic Unit, and Battalion Chief’s aide all go to work with very little radio traffic, just like the no-huddle approach in a football game. A declaration of “working fire” also activates our FD chaplain and our reserve group, volunteers responsible for rehab and the support unit, also very important members of our team.


Jerry Wells is a battalion chief with the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. With 29 years of service, he has served at all levels from firefighter/paramedic to battalion chief. He is a second generation firefighter and has a bachelor’s degree in emergency management from the University of North Texas.