Teamwork, Our Most Important Tradition

By Kevin A. Tuohy

Honoring those who’ve gone before, and paving the way for those who will follow. These have been basic principles of the fire service for longer than most of us can remember. But how often do we incorporate these principles into our activities on a very real level? All firefighters go through the academy, then probation, and reach acceptable levels of performance within our profession. No less would be tolerated. But there is so much more to our chosen calling than “acceptable levels.”

The respect and reputation enjoyed by firefighters has truly been earned by those who have gone before. That reputation has never been as a group that performs to merely acceptable levels. Firefighters have always been known as a group that performs to the highest levels in every situation, from emergency situations to gathering together to help someone in need. From making impossible rescues to granting wishes for a sick child or a struggling family–this is a constant of firefighters everywhere.

“The new guys just don’t get it.” “The old dinosaurs should leave if they can’t keep up with the changes.” We’ve all heard these statements before, and the one you agree with most can most likely be determined by your time on the job. Like it or not, things change. Attitudes, work ethics, technology all change…but for a profession that places high value on tradition, one of the most important concepts to keep unchanged is the tradition of teamwork. We rely on each other more than most ever will. If we don’t understand, appreciate, and dedicate ourselves to teamwork, then we and those we serve will most surely suffer.

The fire service has always been a paramilitary entity, carrying on the traditions of rank, chain of command, accountability, and more. Teamwork is preached from your first day in the academy. Yet for all of the great things firefighters have accomplished through the years, we have no Babe Ruth, no Joe Namath, no Wayne Gretzky. There have been outstanding firefighters, but not one who stood so far above the crowd that he received credit for putting the fire out single-handedly. We have always achieved great things and accomplished the seemingly impossible the same way–through unbeatable teamwork. And our teamwork simply must be unbeatable. Like the military and the police, we are the last line of defense, the free safeties to the world. We have no 911 to call. I have always been humbled and amazed at the way firefighters have always come together to solve any situation. The way a strong team comes together to make a raging firefight look like a well choreographed ballet would not happen without a shared dedication to duty. Firefighters must trust that you can rely on each member of the team to perform their assigned task in the most difficult situations.

We face opportunities to engage this teamwork to do amazing things more often than we realize. While we all know we must come together as a team each and every time the alarm sounds, we can also use this amazing trait in so many ways that present themselves. In the wake of September 11, 2001, I was presented with the opportunity to join two other firefighters in a fundraising effort for the families of the firefighters killed on that day. Our goal was to raise and deliver $30,000. The goal was large for amateur fundraisers. We simply put out the opportunity for fellow firefighters to join in the cause. Within my department, the response was at the same time both phenomenal yet predictable. Members came forward to help establish public contact points in each battalion. New and old firefighters of every rank from boot to chief showed up at every event we used to raise money. In the end, our goal of $30,000 became a check for $1.1M presented to the FDNY Widows and Childrens Fund. There is no way three firefighters could have done this alone. But again, through the teamwork that is understood by those who share the most intense experiences together, we achieved the seemingly impossible. Since then I have seen similar scenarios play out on various scales time and time again.

By offering ourselves and our help, we have been invited to share in some of the most honored and just plain fun traditions of our fellow firefighters across the country and even the world. The actions of so many West Coast firefighters trying to help our brothers and sisters in the east after September 11, the Midwest after Oklahoma City, the South after Katrina, and a thousand less renowned events have resulted in things like our firefighters being invited to march as an official entry in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade, and similar events in Savannah, San Francisco, Denver, and more. We have hosted large groups of firefighters from Seattle, Boston, New York, Dublin, Florida, and more to join us in Orange County for a week of amazing revelry and camaraderie. We have had members of these agencies be part of each others’ personal lives, ranging from small and large group vacations all over the country to being part of each others’ family events from graduations to weddings. These events have forged friendships that will live forever, friendships that never would have existed had merely “acceptable performance” been good enough.

Teamwork within your crew and nearby units or agencies is an absolutely crucial component of our job. Taking advantage of opportunities to display and expand that teamwork beyond our everyday borders will allow you to be part of bigger solutions you never dreamt possible, and yield rewards you never imagined. Don’t miss out on what may be some of the most memorable events in your career and your life…take every opportunity to be part of teams beyond your everyday routines. In this way you will have honored the past, and certainly paved new and exciting paths for those who will follow.

Train hard, hone your skills, and don’t forget to joke, argue, laugh, and get to know your crew as well as you know your family. Nobody spends more time together in intense circumstances than those in rescue professions. Nobody needs to understand each others’ strengths, weaknesses, moods, responses more than we do. You can’t learn that by being separated from each other.

Kevin A. TuohyKevin A. Tuohy retired at the rank of captain after 31 years with Orange County (CA) Fire Authority and a total of 34 in the fire service. He is now the owner of which sponsors and creates charity challenge coins for the World Police & Fire Games and other organizations around the country and firehouses.

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