Turn Around Leadership

By JAMES McDERMOTT

Recently, while I WAS teaching a fire officer class, I asked the students to stand up, introduce themselves, state why they were taking the course, and voice their expectations for the class. One of the students indicated that his goal and that of his fellow firefighters at his table were to overthrow the current regime running their engine company. After injecting a little humor into the student’s comments, the class’s team of instructors questioned the firefighter for a better understanding of his comments and the situation to which he referred. The firefighter’s list of grievances included a lack of drills, poor turnout at alarms, and a general decline in morale. It seemed that the company had gotten into a rut, and the current slate of officers did not have the leadership skills to turn the company around.

In the volunteer fire service, most companies and departments will experience highs and lows based on several factors including but not limited to fire activity, personal conflicts, burnout syndrome, tragic events, and leadership or lack thereof. I will often ask up-and-coming officers if they would rather become captain or chief of a unit that was at its top and running smoothly or inherit a department that was floundering and dysfunctional. Most who take the first choice seem bewildered by the members who choose the greater challenge of trying to right the sinking ship and who continue to display the drive that exemplifies the best of the volunteer fire service. For those who elect to lead a unit that needs a new direction, the following tips might be helpful.

Team-building exercises. How many working fires do you go to a year? How many training evolutions are conducted annually? Do you think the combined sums of these questions are enough to ensure the cohesiveness of your unit? If you’re like most of us, the answer is, “No.”

To build the team and improve morale, our firefighters and officers must work together regularly. Since one drill a month and several working fires a year won’t make that happen, you need to capitalize on other opportunities. A company pancake breakfast and other fund-raising events are always great opportunities, but you also need to look farther outside the box. Enter a group in a local 5K race to benefit a charity, and have those not running cheer on the runners. You can also have the unit do some landscaping at the house of a member who is deployed overseas with the military. Also, see if the widow of a past member needs a new roof or if the rigs need a good cleaning and new coat of wax. Any of these events will not build team unity overnight, but several combined over a short time will start to yield positive results.

Early in my time as a volunteer, my captain, who subscribed to the “Mary Poppins” management style, had a knack to make every choir or task fun and challenging. When he walked into the room with an assignment, everyone would quickly get to work as a team, regardless of the complexity of the task. The assignment always concluded with the members sitting around the table with several pizzas and some good-natured firehouse ribbing. If you choose this method of team building, include everyone in the unit or, at least, invite and encourage everyone’s participation. Choosing just a few of your pals to help you regularly will yield devastating negative effects and create division instead of unity; members will feel unwelcome and be driven further away.

Some companies assign individuals work assignments to be completed during the course of a week or a month. Self-contained breathing apparatus inspections, apparatus cleaning, fuel level checks, and starting gas-powered equipment are a few examples. To increase unit cohesiveness, schedule these activities as a company drill, and have all members participate.

Spring cleaning. How does the firehouse look? Is there a lot of clutter on the apparatus floor? Is the station dirty, and does it have several burned-out lightbulbs and paint peeling off its walls? It might sound like a minor issue for firefighters, but a general cleanup of the station and apparatus will reflect a positive attitude within the unit. Members putting a fresh coat of paint on the walls, painting new lines on the apparatus floor, and cleaning up the tools could be a positive team-building exercise.

Get the buy-in. Set a schedule, and have individual meetings with firefighters and officers to inform them of your team-building plan. Solicit constructive criticism and positive ideas on how to succeed in this endeavor. Stress the need for their assistance. Getting the buy-in from senior members and unofficial organizational leaders will help ensure your success.

Phone calls. E-mails, text messages, radio notifications, and department or company calendars are all good avenues to keep all members informed regarding drills and other relevant events. However, when a firefighter receives a personal phone call or has a personal conversation with a line officer reminding him of the drill and encouraging his attendance, the chances of his attendance and active participation increase greatly.

Regularly scheduled drills and meetings. In addition to their fire department commitment, most members are busy with family and work-based responsibilities. They are willing to adjust their schedules to attend training, but when those drills get cancelled regularly, they will drop significantly on a member’s priority list in the future. Drills thrown together at the last minute or drills that don’t challenge or educate the firefighter will have the same effect.

Eliminate the cliques. It’s not easy, but it’s not a pipe dream either. Any group dynamics class will discuss the positive and negative effects of a clique. The goal here is to build a team, not several teams, in a company of 40 firefighters. Think of the positive effects when 40 firefighters are working together to achieve the same goal. Minimize the number and size of the cliques, and work to mold them into one cohesive unit. Assigning members from different cliques, age groups, and years in the department at company events will have a dual positive effect. It will enable senior members to share their knowledge with junior members and also help form the team.

If you feed them, they will come. A regular company meeting is another great opportunity for team building. Most meetings include discussions on serious firematic issues and safety concerns. Take advantage of the opportunity of having the firefighters together to conduct a quick drill or have the members perform routine apparatus and equipment checks. Concluding or starting the evening with some food normally encourages participation and provides another avenue for the members to connect.

New logo/motto. Consider a new look for your unit. Establishing a motto or logo and issuing T-shirts or hats that express this new direction can help instill pride in the company. Remember, the fire service was built on tradition, so seriously evaluate the benefit of replacing a motto that has been around for 100 years. However, incorporating the old with the new can be a win-win situation.

Assuming command of a company or department that is on the down slope is a great challenge to your leadership and management skills. Networking with others who are in the same situation or have prior experience in this type of situation is extremely beneficial. Change will not come overnight; you need to commit for long-term results. However, the rewards of success are great for the company, the department, and the community we serve.

A general cleanup of the station and apparatus will reflect a positive attitude within the unit.

JAMES McDERMOTT is a 24-year veteran of and battalion chief with the Fire Department of New York, assigned to Battalion 39 in the East New York section of Brooklyn. He is also a deputy chief instructor at the Suffolk County (NY) Fire Academy and a firefighter with the Centereach (NY) Volunteer Fire Department.

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