TEAMWORK: THE FOUNDATION OF THE FIRE SERVICE

BY STEVEN MILLS

The cornerstone of the fire service is teamwork, which is evident in every aspect of our profession from training exercises to the most involved incident of our time. The fire service is rich in tradition, which is the means by which fire service teams evolve. Our method of organizing and functioning is not vastly different from that of years gone by. Firefighters are typically divided into companies (engine, ladder, rescue, haz mat) working rotating shifts.

Work groups, however they are formed, generally contain people with a range of experience levels and abilities. Perhaps one of the greatest fire service challenges is organizing a group of firefighters with different backgrounds, beliefs, and experience levels to perform as a team, often under extreme conditions.

BENEFITS OF TEAMS

Effective teams offer an organization many benefits, among them increased efficiency, better use of diverse talents, a knowledge and experience pool to better address problems, and increased personnel commitment to the organization. Personnel are any organization’s greatest resource. Using this resource wisely is key to realizing these benefits.

When people are part of a team that takes advantage of their individual talents, a commitment to the team and, in turn, the organization is fostered. Allowing team members to function in areas in which they are especially good and empowering them to conquer challenges they encounter result in more zealous team members because they become intimate with the problem-solving aspect of the team.

The more respective attributes are promoted, the greater the feeling of purpose team members will experience. These feelings of purpose are outlined more clearly in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, specifically the social needs of all people, which include feelings of belonging and acceptance by others. Although the team provides an avenue in which to fulfill the “social needs” of its members, according to Maslow, the team will be successful if members are allowed to solve problems using their skills and knowledge.

NECESSARY FOUNDATION IN PLACE

In addition to using personnel efficiently, organizations must also provide a proper foundation for teams to become effective. To ensure an atmosphere in which teams can prosper, the organization should have the following in place: a supportive environment, the necessary skills, defined roles, and clear goals.

Supportive environment. This is crucial to the success of any team and should include clearly defined parameters for team operation, limitations or restrictions, sufficient time to accomplish goals and objectives, monetary support, and upper management interest in team progress. Parameters must be defined to ensure that the area of team operation receives ample attention and to limit duplication of services that may result as other teams work to accomplish their respective goals.

Necessary monetary support should be planned for to ensure the greatest chance of team success. However, in this day and age, budgetary constraints can negatively impact almost every aspect of support a team needs. Monetary restrictions may prevent teams from replacing necessary equipment; receiving additional training; and unfortunately, in some instances, even replacing absent team members when the need arises.

Necessary skills. Leaders should ensure necessary equipment and training are provided to allow teams to function effectively. Training may be in-service or may entail off-site opportunities for the entire team or selected members in specialty areas; tools and equipment may reflect new technology or replacement of existing items.

Defined roles. Clearly define and outline the roles of individual team members in a group setting to allow all members to become familiar with the various assignments within the team.

Clear goals. Brief the team on the goals and objectives it is expected to accomplish. Management should show a regular interest in the team’s ongoing progress.

ENSURING TEAM SUCCESS

Team success requires trust among its members as well as an opportunity to work with each other. Trust among team members is at the core of any functional team. Familiarity with one another is the first step in gaining that trust. Providing teams with the ability to interact with each other develops familiarity; the firefighting setting is perfect for this opportunity.

Firefighters train, eat, and function together, allowing interaction on various levels, both formal and informal. Training sessions provide an arena in which to discover talents within the group and also an environment that challenges members to function as a team. Nontraining periods such as mealtimes allow team members to learn about each other’s backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences in a casual setting. Whether by design or not, this tradition has successfully shaped how fire service teams evolve.

While “teamwork” is instilled from the earliest academy days and our teams must often function under less-than-ideal conditions, the fire service is not immune to ineffective teams. Teams cannot operate with complete efficiency one hundred percent of the time, but being aware of factors that contribute to an ineffective team and their signs and symptoms will limit their negative impact on the team. Factors influencing effectiveness include the amount and type of support received from the organization and team familiarity, both mentioned previously. Symptoms may include communication problems, freelancing, and lack of respect among team members (which equates to lack of trust). If you do not recognize these signs, the team’s abilities to meet goals and objectives will begin to erode and, more importantly, fireground injury or death may become a real potential.

A critical component to the success of any team is the team leader. Fire service tradition dictates in most cases that an officer of some rank fill the team leader role. The importance of this role cannot be overstated because of the vast responsibilities associated with it. The team leader monitors team success and watches for signs of inefficiency, provides direction, stimulates problem solving, and provides feedback to the team. The leader is responsible not only to upper management for ensuring that goals and objectives are met but also to team members for being a strong, knowledgeable, and supportive leader. This leader must be capable of clearly outlining objectives to the team and ensuring that effective communication between the organization’s leaders and the team is maintained.

Groups do not “automatically” evolve into effective teams. A team needs resources (people), organizational support, regular opportunity for interaction, and a strong leader. Empowering team members to solve problems assigned to them using their creativity will result in a more passionate team set on meeting its goals and objectives.

Corporate America has spent a great deal of time and money searching for ways to get employees to work better together so it, too, can enjoy the benefits of effective teams. Corporations send employee groups to “team building” excursions to develop group familiarity and to improve a group’s abilities to function as a team. A facilitator for these events stated the biggest challenge with these groups involved changing the individual mindset. People not accustomed to functioning in a group setting must be trained to look beyond the “self-preservation” instinct and focus on accomplishing goals as a team.

Although the fire service has taken lessons from the corporate world in such areas as budgeting and human resources, development of successful teams is a result of our tradition and structure.

STEVEN MILLS is a career lieutenant with the Ridge Road Fire District in Rochester, New York. He has an associate’s degree in fire protection and is a nationally certified fire instructor I.

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