Small Group Dynamics: Building Your Fire Department from the Bottom Up

By Harry Carter

Many times, we in the fire service tend to think of fire departments as large, amorphous organizations filled with people all dancing to the same tune. My many decades of service in the fire world have taught me that this is not a proper observation of who we are and what we do. Although we all provide some form of the same basic tasks required of a fire department, we do it in a variety of ways.

In some cases, there is love within our departments; at other times, there is not. In some cases, there are coordination and team work. In other cases, not so much. Having dealt with literally scores of fire departments over the decades, I am here to tell you that a great deal of our success or failure as fire departments comes from the manner in which these agencies are built, nurtured, and maintained.

Let me suggest that it is critical to acknowledge that our fire agencies are built from the bottom up. It has been my experience that our fire departments are a series of smaller groups that come together as the large group we know to be a fire department. My research tells me that this is how it has worked with organizations of all types. So, just what is an organization? What is a group?  What are group dynamics?


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According to Gibson, Ivancevich, and Donnelly, an organization is, “… the pattern of ways in which people, too numerous to have face-to-face contact at all times and engaged in a wide range of tasks, relate to one another in a conscious, systematic manner for the accomplishment of mutually acceptable goals.” In our case, the common thread revolves around the delivery of a variety of emergency services.

Donelson Forsyth tells us that, “(A) group is two or more individuals who are connected to one another by social relationships.” It is the nature of those relationships that defines what an organization is and what it does. In far too many cases, the leaders of a fire department ignore the manner in which the constituent groups and members come together.

Group dynamics is a system of behaviors and psychological processes occurring within a social group (intragroup dynamics) or between social groups (intergroup dynamics). The study of group dynamics can be useful in understanding decision-making behavior, tracking the spread of diseases in society, creating effective operational techniques, and using new ideas and technologies.

Group dynamics are at the core of understanding a variety of social interactions such as racism, sexism, and other forms of social prejudice and discrimination. These applications of the field are studied in psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, education, and communications. However, they can also be used to study how fire department groups are formed and how they work. We must understand that group dynamics are at the core of understanding interpersonal problems, as well as various forms of social prejudice and discrimination.

How then is a group formed?  My research has uncovered that there are three ways of looking at small group creation. In the first instance, it is a formal creation of the fire department. Management appoints formal teams that are intentionally organized and resourced to address a specific and important goal or need. Informal teams are usually loosely organized groups of people who come together to address a noncritical, short-term purpose. Some examples of this are engine companies and truck companies.  In some instances, it is an informal creation within the structure of the department.  In other cases, it may be an ad hoc creation for a specific reason.

Although the whole person joins an organization, attention is usually focused on the partial person, the part of the individual doing the job. Individuals are employed by an organization to perform specific functions. They are placed in a group to perform a specific set of tasks. A culture then forms within that formal group among the members. That culture leads to the creation of an informal group with its own leaders and norms.

A study of these informal groups and their informal leaders can help you to better understand, organize, and lead your fire department. Because people have needs that extend beyond the workplace, informal groups develop within the formal group structure to fill certain emotional, social, and psychological needs. The degree to which a group satisfies its member’s needs determines the limits within which individual members of the group will allow their behavior to be controlled by the group.

Several major functions are served by informal groups. For example, the group serves as a means of satisfying the affiliation needs of its members for friendship and support. People need to belong, to be liked, and to feel a part of something. Because the informal group can withhold this attractive reward, it has a tool of its own to coerce compliance with its norms.

Groups also provide a means of developing, enhancing, and confirming a person’s sense of identity and self-esteem. Although many organizations attempt to recognize these higher needs, the nature of some jobs and their technology and environment precludes this from happening.

Groups can also serve as an agent for establishing and testing social reality. Individuals may share the feeling that their supervisor is a slave driver or that their working conditions are inadequate. By developing a consensus about these feelings, group members are able to reduce the anxiety associated with their jobs by sharing their thoughts with their fellow travelers.

It has been my experience that there are certain similarities, as well as differences, among the group formation scenarios in career, volunteer, and combination fire departments. In career situations the groups are set up by the department. There are line groups such as engine and truck companies. There are also staff groups (fire prevention, planning, logistics and supply).

In volunteer organizations, committees are created by organizational by-laws and corporate officer appointments. The fire officers are elected or appointed. One major difference comes from the fact that firefighting teams come together at the time when the department is alerted to respond.

In a combination fire department, the career fire and emergency medical service crews are set up by the fire department administration. Volunteer crews then form at the time of fire alarm and emergency notification. The potential exists for both full time and volunteer administrative groups and committees to be developed by the department.

Impediments to Cohesion

Three main things can affect a team’s cohesion (the act of working together well). They are environmental factors, personal factors, and leadership factors.

The first of these involves the environmental factors that influence the growth and development of your personnel. Here are some things for you to ponder:

1.     Early Childhood.  Happy, loving childhood vs. Orphanage

2.     Adolescence:  Suburban vs. urban environment

3.     Social Class. Working class vs. middle- or upper-class values

4.     Perceptions. How you receive life’s clues and symbols

5.     Attitudes.  Your mental state of readiness for need arousal. Your readiness to think, act, or do things

6.     Learning. Changes in behavioral practices.

The degree to which you can understand, explain, and use each of these attributes will determine your level of success in using small group development to strengthen your fire department.

The second aspect you must consider involves the personal attributes which you as a leader, member, or follower bring to the table in any organization. Each of these is important to the development of a full and complete understanding of what a small group is and how it functions. You must strive to know yourself. You must do all that you can to become technically proficient.

To stay ahead of things, you must seek self-improvement. Just as you must know yourself, it is equally important to know and care for your people. You must always look out for their welfare. Keep your folks informed. Secrets, lies, and the like can kill the small groups that make up your fire department.

If you are to provide the proper leadership for the small groups that come together to make your fire department work, you must provide a number of operational tasks. I have found the following o be important in the creation of a proper form of fire service leadership:

1.      Provide just enough supervision to your people.

2.      Do not smother your people.

3.      Do not let them run amok.

4.      Support and guide them.

5.      Let your actions set the example.

6.      Be sure to explain each task to your people in ways that they will understand.

7.      Be sure that people understand what you have said.

8.      Train as a team.

9.      Support the individual.

10.  Nurture the group.

11.  Come to know them as individuals.

12.  Make sound decisions.

13.  Make decisions at the proper time.

14.  Cultivate responsibility among your people.

15.  Know the capabilities of your individual team members.

16.  Operate within those levels of competency.

17.  Encourage your people to seek responsibility and take command.

18.  Have a high level of self-confidence.

19.  Have a passion for what you do.

20.  Be an effective writer and public speaker.

Finally, you need to understand the leadership factors that impact small-group operations. From the leadership point of view today, organizations that do not pay sufficient attention to people and the deep sentiments and relationships connecting them are consistently less successful than those that do. It is critical to develop an understanding of human relations. It is all about the people and the need to nurture them.                       

It must be your goal to create groups that are effective and efficient. Team effectiveness (also referred to as group effectiveness) is the capacity a team has to accomplish the goals or objectives administered by an authorized personnel or the organization.  Team efficiency is a measure of the manner in which a team accomplishes its tasks within the constraints of those resources available to them.


HARRY R. CARTER is chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township (NJ) Fire District #2. He had a 26-year career with the Newark (NJ) Fire Department. He also has had a 45-year career with the Adelphia Fire Company in Howell Township. He is company chaplain and an active life member. He has Ph. D. from Capella University in Minneapolis, Minnesota,

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