Building Effective Teamwork

By Jerry Wells

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 fire service training programs. To teach successful teamwork and leadership concepts, I use one of the most popular sports in this country for comparison: football. I often cite examples from the Boise State documentary 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 not only the groundwork for a single successful season but the foundation of a very respectable multiyear 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 he is expected to do his 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 of many departments who 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? “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 through 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. 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. The company officer who is “on the ball” will have a roll call at the beginning of every shift. He gives all the members of his 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 a class and 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 then asked, “What did they say about the class?” One guy raised his hand and said, “I didn’t know where we were going 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, inspection numbers, and personal goals such as promotional exams. If I know what we need to accomplish in a given tour, I can set aside some time to study for the promotional exam. Officers who address the needs of the firefighters are well on their way to becoming successful and well-respected company officers.

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 the challenges. We are not riding the same apparatus, wearing the same gear, fighting the same fires, or 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 personnel to buy into 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 your 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. Take the time to interview them both personally and professionally to learn what value they may have for your team. We have to be able to trust one another. 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 10 years later that we have an employee who can’t do the job, and this is only possible because he was 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. We need to be actively involved in all training evolutions for a few 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 for not participating 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 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 veterans 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, you can keep the experience. I’ll take the rookie every time!

Another concept that is worthy of some discussion is that of standards. Coach Pete says, “We have standards, and it is my job to enforce these standards.” It is imperative that every company officer enforce the standards set forth by the chief as a minimum. In some cases, the standard of conduct that the company officer expects is considerably higher than that of the department. There is nothing wrong with that, but to be successful, the company officer must make everyone aware of the standards within which they are to operate. And once these standards are announced to all involved, he must enforce them. You can bet that the second someone performs below that level, all eyes will be watching to see if the company officer is really going to hold people accountable. Look at this as a teaching opportunity. Your actions today will set the tone for the future. Do you really mean what you say?

The fire service has been described as the ultimate team sport. So much of our success depends on the collective efforts of many individuals. 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 every individual performing at a high level. Many separate and individual tasks will need to be successfully completed to safely and efficiently run an incident. Do most of the planning prior to the emergency. Practice the plan until it becomes second nature. Commit many fireground tasks to muscle memory. Habits, good or bad, are hard to break. Whether in the firehouse or on the fireground, from East Coast to West Coast, career and volunteer, we are all on the same team.

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 the challenges.

JERRY WELLS is a battalion chief with the Lewisville (TX) Fire Department. With 26 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. He has been a volunteer in his community and served as an adjunct instructor at Collin County Community College of Fire Science.

Jerry Wells will present “Building Effective Teamwork” on Tuesday, April 17, 8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., and “Building Effective Teamwork” on Thursday, April 19, 2012, 10:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m., at FDIC in Indianapolis.

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