Create an Inspired Team in 100 Days or Less

While under my command, I witnessed a group of individuals bloom into a unified team. The station ran drama free because we focused our energy on achieving shared goals. Helping each other reach personal and professional goals created a natural bond in the station that transferred seamlessly onto the fireground. Our motto, “Work hard, but play harder,” kept us focused on training while reminding us to have fun and enjoy the job.

How Did This Happen?

The reputation of firefighters’ ability to work together and accomplish anything led to a friend, also a dentist, approaching me in tears. Dr. Landry was having difficulty managing her dental office and claimed her employees were sabotaging her business. She did not want to let her patients or her family down, but she was overworked and stressed to her breaking point. Micromanagement had gotten the best of her because she didn’t trust her team to do their jobs without her constant supervision. Trapped doing the employees’ jobs on top of her own meant she had no time for her family, no time to pursue outside interests, and barely enough time to provide quality care for her patients. Desperately, she reached out to me for help.

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To keep her business from imploding, I presented her with team-building lessons I learned from 20 years of fire and military experience. After explaining a few leadership techniques and dispelling her misconceptions, I grouped the lessons into these four steps using the acronym FIRE:

  1. Focus your time on achieving goals.
  2. Inspire your team to be self-motivated.
  3. Reduce your responsibilities and build on your team’s strengths.
  4. Evaluate and improve your conditions regularly.

Dr. Landry incorporated this plan and learned how to train, trust, and inspire her employees. As a result, she was less stressed and worked fewer hours. Not only did her employees and clients see major improvements, but her family benefited from “getting their mom back.”

Fast-forward two years: Because of retirements, injuries, and babies being born, my battalion chief chose me to be the acting captain of Station 2. Considering I was not the most senior firefighter or the one with the most certificates, I was pressured to prove the chief made the right decision. Like Dr. Landry, I was desperate to build a strong, motivated team that wouldn’t let me down. I incorporated this same plan as a guide to train and inspire them. Following is what I learned from the mistakes and victories of my first 100 shifts as a fire officer.

Days 1-5: Focus on Achieving Your Goals

Establish personal goals. You must establish clear goals before you can achieve them. The night before my first shift, I wrote down my personal goals for the next day, the next week, and the next month. Early the next morning, I burst through the station doors confident and with purpose because I had a “map” to keep me going in the right direction. Without establishing a plan, I would have wandered that first day; there is no telling where I would have ended up or what I would have failed to do.

Establish team goals. On a floor plan in an office building or a mall, it says, “You Are Here,” and it directs you to the nearest exit in case of a fire or an emergency. This map is important to guide everyone in the right direction and keep them from getting lost.

It is equally important to create a “map” for your team to guide them in the right direction. Called your Mission Statement, it guides you toward your “Primary Goal” and keeps your team from getting lost along the way. After all, how can you expect the firefighters to know where to go and what to do if you don’t establish a destination and create a map to get there?

Action: Sit down with your team and answer the following questions together:

  • Who are our customers?
  • What are their expectations of us?
  • What do we want them to say about the fire department to their friends and family? (This answer is your team’s primary goal.)
  • What are three services that support our primary goal?
  • Do we want to be known as the most professional firefighters in town, the fastest fire extinguishers, the most respectful property savers, the cleanest station, the most aggressive ventilation gurus, the most physically fit team, the go-to extrication experts, and the most polite emergency medical services (EMS) crew?
  • What do we want our customers to feel, achieve, or become after they receive our services—joy, relief, comfort, safety, trust, pride? (This may be the toughest question to answer.)

Action: Put these answers together using the following template.

  • Your crew’s name.
  • Promises to the primary goal.
  • “For the citizens of _________ [your community’s name].”
  • “By proudly providing _________ [service 1 and 2].”
  • “So they can ____________ [become or feel this way].”

Congratulations! Your guide is complete. You now have a great Mission Statement that expresses your crew’s Primary Goal with services that speak directly to your customers while describing how you will improve their lives. Frame this guide and display it proudly, make it into a T-shirt or catch phrase, or chant it as a morning mantra; do whatever it takes to see it regularly and practice it every single day on every single call. Inspire your team!

Days 6-10: Establish Expectations Early

Determine the expectations of each position. What do you expect from your driver, the new firefighter, and the senior firefighters? Next, find out what your team expects from you. Are these expectations balanced? Are the firefighters given enough time, tools, and training to adequately complete their assignments?

Action:

  • Meet your crew at the kitchen table.
  • Ask them their expectations of each position. Write down their answers large enough so that everyone can see them with additional space to add to them later. What do you expect from a probationary firefighter, an engineer, and a good senior firefighter? What tasks are everyone expected to perform? What attitude is each person expected to maintain?
  • Ask them their expectations of you, the officer. What roles are you expected to perform? What attitude is important to maintain? Write down these answers.
  • Post these answers in the kitchen for a month to remind everyone of their responsibilities.
  • If you are inspired to do so, add to them.

Days 11-20: Inspire Your Team

As a leader, your most important job is to help your teammates achieve their personal and professional goals. Once their goals have been determined, it is imperative that you provide the training and tools they need to successfully achieve them. To determine their goals, sit down with each member and conduct a Conditions, Actions, and Needs (CAN) report. Most likely, you are familiar with these reports from their use on the fireground. They serve as a valuable evaluation of the fire conditions and a way to acquire the resources needed to complete your task. Conducting a CAN report at the station will achieve similar results.

To begin, sit with each member individually and listen. Ask the firefighters how things are going. Are they happy at work? Are they confident in their abilities? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What do they want to achieve in the future? What are their one- and five-year goals? These questions will determine their current conditions.

Next, determine what actions you and the firefighters can take to reach these goals and improve their conditions. What tools, training, and support can you provide that will help them succeed? Maybe they are ready to mentor the next rookie. Maybe they would be good as public education speakers for local elementary schools. Maybe they are interested in becoming fire investigators but do not know where the classes are offered. Do you have training or books you can offer? Can you find classes in different localities?

You can’t help the members reach their goals until you find out what their goals are. Use this CAN report to determine their current conditions and goals. Then, determine the actions they need to reach these goals while providing them with the tools and training they need to succeed.

Days 21-30: Reduce Your Responsibilities While Building Trust

At a fire scene, the incident commander (IC) assumes command and takes control the moment he arrives. There are dozens of jobs to be completed, but it is important that one person oversees them all to ensure they each get completed successfully. The IC uses a system known as the “span of control” to maintain order and control during emergencies.

The IC’s goal is to manage three to seven individuals at a time (with five being optimal). He is not managing all the components of the entire team, and he is not doing all the jobs himself. He is strictly managing three to seven other leaders and giving them the tools and training they need to be successful.

I found this same strategy useful in the firehouse for managing daily chores and activities. You cannot do everything yourself, so use your team to accomplish line chores and daily tasks within the station. Ask yourself many questions, such as the following:

  • Who would benefit from teaching EMS this week?
  • Who is expected to put out the flag each morning? Is he also expected to bring it in?
  • Who makes coffee and does the dishes?
  • Who is responsible for cooking and cleaning up for dinner and breakfast?
  • Who is knowledgeable in pumping?
  • Who can you count on to repair the chain saw?
  • Who should lead the workout this week?

Do these individuals know what is expected of them? Do you know what they are capable of?

Using your team’s skills, talents, and experience to achieve tasks they are good at will free up time for you to do more officer-specific tasks. Encourage them to teach and share things in which they are interested or skilled.

Give Trust to Earn Trust

Studies have proven that the human brain is hardwired to keep us all comfortable. It avoids discomfort and uncertainty by introducing fear and doubt. The only way to override this fear and doubt is to act with courage. A leader must trust his team, and trust takes courage. You must give trust before you can receive it; this means putting the firefighters (and yourself) in a position to succeed. Give them the training they need to succeed, provide the tools they need to be successful, and then step back and trust them to get the job done.

However, ask yourself, Will they make mistakes? Most likely, but they will become better with each one. Will they need additional guidance? Probably, and you will be there to guide them when they need help. Will you start earning their trust when you trust them to get the job done? You bet, because you must give trust before you can receive it.

Without the respect and trust of your team, you are simply a boss telling them what to do; this type of environment leads to disgruntled and unmotivated employees. Disgruntled and unmotivated employees are not inspired to be their best selves or work to improve the team.

Days 31-100: Evaluate and Improve the Conditions

Evaluate your conditions in the station like you do on the fireground. Ask yourself if things are improving or getting worse. Are you achieving your goals? If not, reevaluate your plans and correct them.

Observe your surroundings and read the conditions. Are your original strategies working? Is everyone happy and working toward their personal goals? Are your goals for the station being completed? Are you able to achieve your own goals? Do you need to back out and attack them from a different angle, like you would on the fireground?

Reading the smoke. A fire officer is trained to read the smoke conditions immediately on arrival at a burning structure. The color and condition of the smoke determine its temperature and location, among other things. This observation will factor into his fire attack strategy. Constant observation of the smoke conditions is vital to determine if the original strategy is working or if you need to initiate another plan.

Reading your crew’s attitude. You can’t expect every member of your team to be as passionate about the job as you are. A recent survey determined that less than 20 percent of people would continue working if they won the lottery; this means more than 80 percent of people employed would rather be doing something else with their time than working their current job. What does this mean for you?

Action: To invoke passion in the job, show the uninspired how achieving the team’s goals will benefit them directly. Harness your team’s individual strengths, interests, and desires and build on them to improve the entire team. One of our members is a good artist, so we had him create a new mascot and station patch. Another of our members is a trained fitness instructor, so he has helped us all get in shape while keeping it fun. Another member has a nutrition degree, so he has been instrumental in dinner preparation and helping us establish healthy eating habits. What individual skills can you harness that will benefit the entire team?

Reading your station. Studies have shown that keeping things clean and organized is instrumental to your mental health. One study found that people in homes they considered cluttered or who had unfinished projects were often depressed, stressed, and fatigued. On the other hand, those with organized and restful homes had higher levels of happiness, creativity, and productivity.

Action: Look at each room of the station. Is it organized? Do you see unfinished projects? Are there areas that have not been cleaned in years? Are there areas in need of paint? Do not get overwhelmed but instead focus on one room or project at a time. Work on it a little each day until it is complete. As more areas become organized, tidy, and clean, your team will be rewarded with pride, accomplishment, and a greater sense of happiness.

Read your own actions. Your team is looking to you for guidance and inspiration every day. Are you the example you want them to become?

Action: Review your own actions. Continue to improve yourself while you inspire others to be great. Be consistent; remember that new behaviors will only become a habit with consistency and time. Check on your current plan regularly, and be prepared to modify and improve it when necessary. Failing to locate and correct a small problem early can quickly escalate into a full-blown disaster.

A Guide to Success

Although my first 100 days as an officer didn’t go absolutely perfect, it did go better than I could have dreamed. Credit to my success goes to the guide I followed and the amazing crew I was fortunate to work with.

As a team, we created goals and worked toward them together. We determined expectations and roles early on so everyone knew their personal responsibilities. Each member was trusted to do his job and given the tools and training to ensure success. In return, I proudly became part of a group of individuals who unified into an inspired team of “superheroes.”


ERIN R. BARGER is a 17-year fire service veteran and a firefighter and emergency medical technician in Salem, Virginia. Before he joined the fire service, Barger was a member of the United States Marine Corps.

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