BY CHASE SARGENT
Team concepts and teamwork have always been part of the fire service. From the time we entered the fire service, we have been bombarded with the absolute necessity of teamwork. In training, we are taught that nothing on the fireground or rescue incident site is accomplished without a highly trained, equipped, and motivated team.
Certainly, individuals contribute to the team effort. In rare cases, individuals actually perform a spectacular feat that brings instant notoriety. However, if we were able to examine the “behind the scenes” issues of that individual feat or action, we would most likely discover that the efforts of the members of a given team made that event possible and that without team members’ contributions in much less glamorous areas, that individual feat probably would not have occurred. Whether it’s a crane rescue or the rescuing of individuals trapped in the windows of a fire building in a large city, we would find this to be true. This is not to take anything away from the bravery, integrity, and honor of the individuals who were assigned and carried out the “high-profile” task that day. Rarely does an individual in the fire and rescue services pull off an extraordinary rescue or operation without the assistance of a team or multiple teams.
In my 29-plus years in the fire service, and having split my career effectively between line and staff jobs, I have observed both sides of the fence. I have had the misfortune of seeing administrators and staff officers swear that the organization revolves around staff, not operations. Some fire service chiefs and staff officers have been out of touch with operational issues for so long that they believe that operations is a portion of the fire service that must be endured!
The most effective and efficient fire service organizations are those whose leaders understand that a staff system is in place to support operations. The importance of support operations should never be underestimated. No great army was ever successful without the support of a logistics, planning, and command staff. But no battle was ever won without putting troops in the field. The bottom line is that emergency services and those nonemergency services provided by operations personnel can make or break a department.
CONSTANTS APPLICABLE TO FIRE SERVICE TEAMS
The team concept as it relates to the fire service involves some “constants” applicable to teams. Among them are the following.
- All teams, regardless of function, are designed to deliver a given service to an internal or external customer. The teams should enhance the organization’s capabilities and function at the “high-performance” end of the scale. Teams responsible for emergency activities such as technical rescue, haz mat, engine companies, and truck companies are in place for one reason alone—to provide timely, effective, professional, and efficient emergency services in the specific area of function. Likewise, nonemergency teams, such as those that perform inspections, are designed to deliver a level of service that will help create a firesafe community. The level of service a team renders may differ according to where that team is in its life cycle.
- Ninety-five percent of everything accomplished in the fire service is accomplished by small teams. Administrators and senior staff officers hate to admit this: They always seem to believe that “administration and senior staff run the department.” The reality is that small teams make almost 90 percent of all the contacts in emergency and nonemergency settings. These teams may be engine companies, truck companies, rescue companies, a small group of inspectors, a small group of training instructors, a small group of those who teach the community children, or a mixed group of staff and line personnel put together for a specific reason. The reputation the fire service (usually reported as the most highly respected municipal service) enjoys is gained through contact with internal and external customers. The vast majority of the contacts “remembered or graded” by the customers, and the ones on which we are really rated, are those delivered during an emergency. In essence, a department gains its notoriety from a wide range of programs but is most likely graded by its citizens and visitors on how it responds to and handles emergency incidents.
- If small teams accomplish 95 percent of everything in the fire service, the first question a department should ask before taking action is, “Will this action enhance the capability of the small team?” This means that there will be times when you may have to put off what you would like to do and shift the resources to the team. It also means you may have to identify those teams making the most contacts and then shift resources to them when resources are scarce.
All teams, regardless of their purpose, have a predictable life cycle. Like the human life cycle, the team’s life cycle includes times of high morale and low morale, of high performance and marginal performance. Recognizing where the team life cycle is when you start up or inherit a team is important to understanding the actions that need to be taken to advance the team toward the high-performance end of the scale.
Teams need leadership and vision to reach peak performance: Any team expected to operate at the high-performance end of the scale must have creative and visionary leadership. In addition to leadership, some basic principles apply to effectively leading a team. Management consultant Kenneth Labich listed the following elements in an article published in Fortune Magazine:
- Trust your subordinates. You can’t expect them to go all out for you if they think you don’t believe in them.
- Develop a vision. People want to follow someone who knows where he is going.
- Keep your cool. The best leaders show their mettle under fire.
- Encourage risk. Nothing demoralizes the troops more than knowing that the slightest failure could jeopardize their career.
- Be an expert. From boardroom to mail room, everyone had better understand that you know what you are talking about.
- Invite dissent. Your people aren’t giving you their best … if they are afraid to speak up.
- Simplify. You need to see the big picture to set a course, communicate it, and maintain it.
The quality of the leadership can make or break a team. Even the most motivated, dedicated, and educated team members will tolerate only so much incompetence from leaders. When the problem with a team is clearly identified as a leadership problem, the sick portion of the team must be cut out for the team to survive. Poor leaders undermine team efficiency, effectiveness, and morale. Leading a high-performance team is a balancing act. Although ego is an important part of success, I will always remember what the trainer told me when I first walked into the gym: “Son, leave your ego at the door, or you’re likely to get hurt.” Additionally, failing to remove a team leader who fails to practice the ABCs of leadership will cause his proposed successor and the team to fail.
TEAMS ARE LIVING ENTITIES
Teams are made up of individuals and are, therefore, living entities. A trained observer can predict the characteristics of high- and low-performance teams. By relating these characteristics to a specific competency the team is displaying, the observer can calculate the level of performance at which the team is functioning. Notice that I said “a competency the team is displaying,” not that the individuals are displaying. This is very important.
Teams exhibit characteristics and have a common culture and a common vision when they reach the high-performance end of the scale. Since teams have a life cycle, what we say and do as company officers, managers, or organizational leaders can enhance or undermine team efficiency. Teams can combine experience and training and learn; they can learn from their successes and failures. Learning is one of the great adjuncts of a team, a legacy it can pass on to future generations and, thus, to the organization.
Since teams are the primary vehicles for delivering services, company officers and senior staff must understand how teams function and what they need to succeed. Not every officer gets the opportunity to build a team from the ground up. Often, a company officer, because of promotion or transfer, may inherit a team already in place; a senior staff chief may inherit many teams because of transfer or promotion. The processes for recognizing teams’ needs, how to motivate them, and how to assess and enhance team performance are universal. Of course, recognizing what is needed and taking the effective actions to fulfill these needs are two different things. The ability to effectively lead, manage, and assess where a team is in its development and what it needs to be successful is a matter of competence.
TYPES OF TEAMS
Two specific types of fire service teams are discussed here, the task team and the specialty team. Task teams are engine, truck, inspection, education, and other teams responsible for a specific set of emergency or nonemergency tasks. Although specialty teams may also be task teams, they provide a very specific specialty task. Specialty team members and leaders require more extensive training, equipment, and resources than task teams. Examples of specialty tasks are technical rescue, hazardous materials, marine operations, and weapons of mass destruction.
Each type of team has an important organizational role, and the fire service must have an adequate blend of both types to be successful. Organizations always have more task teams than specialty teams.
TEAM LIFE CYCLES
Every team, task or specialty, has an identifiable life cycle. For the team to survive over the long term, its officers and members must understand this cycle and be able to predict and anticipate changes in the cycle. Life cycles affect everything a team does and the manager or leader’s ability to develop and sustain high-performance characteristics over the team’s life. When an existing team is inherited, the leader must be able to identify where the team is in its life cycle and determine whether planning efforts should be directed at developing or redeveloping the team.
The team life cycle
Just as individuals track their careers and status, health and welfare, and financial and emotional health, so, too, can these aspects of a team be tracked. We know what the consequences of not tracking and acting on forces in our own lives can be; these same pressures affect teams in much the same way.
The time frames given in the team life cycle can be adjusted. In fact, most task team time frames are compressed, since the level of training and resources needed to effectively engage the team are much less. This illustration represents the time frames associated with a typical specialty team model, which, because of the nature of the organizational mission, requires extraordinary levels of support to reach the high-performance end of the scale.
What we discover when looking at team life cycles is that the performance capabilities depend on a range of factors, including personnel, training, equipment, resources, leadership, succession planning, morale, and organizational support. These factors constitute the “Success Octagon.” Each of these factors plays a role in determining a team’s efficiency and capabilities at any point in its life cycle. Undermining any of the sides of the octagon will undermine the team and its ability to deliver service.
- Personnel—the team’s human resources (members and leaders/managers). The ability of a team’s human resources to effectively function in an emergency and a nonemergency environment is directly proportional to the remaining seven aspects of the octagon.
- Training—the capability to deliver knowledge, skills, and abilities to the team’s human resources component. Training is second in importance only to emergency response. However, failure to effectively train renders the team useless at an emergency incident; therefore, they are inseparable.
- Equipment—a resource necessary for the team’s effectiveness. Equipment is an expensive investment, but failure to provide adequate and appropriate equipment creates an unsafe condition for team members and results in a compromised emergency or nonemergency service capability.
- Resources—all of the logistical requirements a team needs to function, including equipment, support items, administrative items, and the development of training sites and training opportunities, to name a few.
- Leadership—the people selected or appointed to lead and manage the team. Leaders must be experts, plan effectively, and understand the most effective methods for obtaining the most and best from their human resources. Team leadership is formal, but there can also be informal leadership based on specific expertise and knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) of team members. Above all, to be effective, leaders must have credibility. Credibility = Trust + Respect.
- Succession planning—the ability to effectively plan for and implement a method for continuing the team life cycle; preempt anticipated life-cycle changes and, therefore, shorten the time frames; and develop new leadership and members. Although the team can last forever, human resources will not. Transfer, promotion, retirement, individual career change decisions, and departmental leadership all affect team succession planning.
- Morale—how the team sees its value in relation to the organization and its perception of the value the organization places on the team. Managers often discount morale as unimportant (notice I did not say “leaders”; leaders never discount morale). In many instances, that is because the manager lacks the necessary KSAs to understand what the team does, or the manager is simply incompetent. Incompetent people discard what they do not understand to make themselves more comfortable in their environment.
- Organizational support—the organization’s ability and willingness to understand and provide the aspects of the Success Octagon to fuel and drive a team. This means that an organization must recognize when something is lacking and be capable of correcting the inadequacy to improve the team’s efficiency. Communicating these needs through the chain of command is the team leader’s responsibility.
Organizational leaders who fail to understand the basic concepts described here or who ignore them will never be able to get the best out of their teams. Effectively managing and evaluating these factors will enable team leaders and members to identify strengths and weaknesses and then to apply the necessary “fix” in a given area.
UNDERSTANDING TEAM LIFE CYCLES—MANAGING THE BIG PICTURE
Teams should be managed from the perspective of long-term growth. The team’s very nature means that it will not always be as efficient or as effective as the leaders would like it to be. The nature of a team is that it grows, changes, shifts, and develops over long periods. The job of the company officers, team leaders, or organizational leaders is to get the most from their teams.
Phase I—Team Development
Not everyone will be involved in the team development phase. This represents the “birth” of the initial team concept and its mission. This phase is benchmarked by someone’s vision to develop a team to provide a specific type of service. In some instances, the type of service may already have been decided—engine companies, ladder companies, or rescue companies, for example. In other instances, the organization expresses a new idea, identifies a task level, or indicates a specialty service. In some instances, a new twist on an old service level is identified, such as the squad concept developed by late Fire Department of New York Deputy Chief Ray Downey, in which engine companies were modified to render an enhanced level of service.
The development phase has the following components:
- Mission statement. The first step is to develop a mission statement, which may be formal or informal. Having the mission in written form will facilitate the department’s evaluating it from time to time. Standard operating procedures (SOPs) and charters should also be in written form.
- Personnel selection. Human resources should choose personnel on the basis of the anticipated mission and necessary KSAs.
- Identification of the Success Octagon requirements. Remember the eight key characteristics of a team. At this stage, identify shortfalls and needs, and develop a method for correcting the deficiencies.
- High morale. Assign team members to tasks that will help with the new project’s development. Failing to meet the requirements of the Success Octagon could undermine morale.
- Low efficiency/performance. Because all of the items outlined in the octagon are not in place, the team is not as proficient or effective as it will be. Team members bring a number of highly efficient and effective KSAs to the team, but the team will not be able to effectively use and harness them toward team efficiency until the remaining factors outlined in the octagon fall into place.
During this phase, the team rapidly absorbs the vision and mission. It is a time for building those team factors needed to meet the mission statement. It is typified by the following:
- Implementation of mission. In most instances, the team begins to put into operation what was once only on paper. This is done with the understanding that you must crawl before you can walk; it is a period of learning, evaluation, and adjustment for team members and the organization.
- Organizational cultural change. Teams typically affect the way an organization does business. Those outside of the team may view this “change” as good or bad, depending on their affinity for change. This is a time when leaders and team members must maintain open and constructive dialog with those outside the team’s sphere of influence.
- Development of a team culture. Teams begin to develop a culture of their own during buildup. This might be called “esprit de corps,” self-vision, determination, cockiness, or some other term. Team logos, patches, mottos, and other team identifiers are typically used during this growth phase.
- Intense training tempo. Documented, verifiable, and ongoing training are benchmarks during the buildup cycle. While factors of the octagon are being developed and received, the team is training for its mission, using this as a time of great learning. Training regimens are identified along with the essential KSAs and a method for constantly improving techniques and technology in future years.
- Specialty identification (weakness and strengths identified). Team members are identified for their specialties, and those specialties are groomed and supported. Depending on the type of team and its mission, these specialties might range from carpenter to medic to computer expert and beyond. The bottom line is the team is beginning to identify members’ strengths and weaknesses and learning to blend its human resources to compensate effectively.
- Leadership established. During this phase, the leadership is developing its operational KSAs as well as its ability to effectively communicate and implement the team’s mission. Effective leadership will be able to use the identified strengths and weaknesses to the benefit of the team and its members and the organization. The key to success is that the team leadership is developing “expert knowledge” as well team members’ trust and respect.
- Morale high/performance margin. This is a time of almost beehive-level activity within the team. Ongoing training and increasing levels of octagon support keep members busy, prosperous, and motivated. Since it is a time of great learning, team members are sponges. Expectation of team members’ capabilities may well exceed the team’s capability to deliver a service (perceived reality vs. actual reality). Although the team is capable of providing a given level of service, it is not yet high performance because members lack some training, experience, and octagon support.
- Little failures/big wins. As with any new team, there will be failures. Because leadership must encourage risk taking, there are bound to be some failures from time to time. What’s important is to anticipate this and ignore the “zero defect mentality.” Little failures create big wins, because each failure becomes a learning experience for future situations. It’s not a failure until you do the same thing twice; up to that point, it is a lesson. Remember: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!
- Deposits in the experience bank. As the team builds, so does its experience level. This experience level increases in the operations and the administrative/support arenas. There is no substitute for experience, and experience can only be supplemented with training when there is little experience. This begins to build the team’s “institutional knowledge,” enhancing its ability to anticipate and react to a given environment or mission. The team’s experience bank begins to grow. BEWARE: The inability to pass on experience to new team members during the drawdown is critical!
Phase III—Fine Tuning
Every racecar needs fine-tuning. The pit crew and driver know what the car can do, they have a level of experience and training that enables them to compete, resources are in place, and the car is covered with sponsors, but they are always looking for the edge. Additionally, they want to continue to compete and effectively accomplish “their mission.”
During this phase of the team life cycle, the team is functioning as intended. An increase in the factors associated with the success octagon will marginally enhance the team, whereas withdrawals or lack of support can undermine the team. At this point in its history, the team is established and functioning and displaying characteristics of a high-performance team, allowing it to make decisions as a team entity. Characteristics such as strong team identity, vigilant self-monitoring, and a high conceptual level of understanding render the team effective and efficient.
This phase is characterized by the following benchmarks:
- High level of training and experience. Team members have by this time acquired all the necessary KSAs to function in the given area of the team’s mission. Since the team has been in existence for some time, the average team members have three to five years of experience with mission-specific learning. This is a time when the team continues to grow; acquires advanced training; and develops new ideas, techniques, and procedures. Adjustments are made in team response, training, and protocols based on the operational environment and changing response needs.
- Strong team identity. Team members have learned to view themselves as part of a team instead of as individuals doing a job with other people.
- Strong team conceptual level. The team considers a range of sophisticated ideas and factors when making decisions.
- Strong team self-monitoring. Team members analyze their own thinking and monitor the team in action to determine where adjustments have to be made.
- Planning for team succession. Intelligent teams, and especially their leaders, begin to examine a process for identifying and indoctrinating the next generation of team members and team leaders. For a variety of reasons, the team will change over the next five to eight years. Promotions, transfers, career changes, retirements, injuries, and leadership changes all mean that nothing is constant except change. The impact is much greater for specialty than task teams, but it is still an important consideration.
Because personnel drawn to specialty teams (special operations) are highly motivated and educated, a disproportionate number of people will be promoted or seek new opportunities within the organization to expand their knowledge, skills, and abilities and to challenge themselves. For this reason, it is critical to plan for succession for specialty teams. It is important to develop a process that can be used to recruit, train, and place new personnel in operation as vested personnel leave. This includes groom-ing new leadership at the company officer and battalion levels to ensure that leaders with expert skills and KSAs will continue in leadership and management. The fastest way to kill a team is to have that team led by an individual who has no KSAs and does not intend to acquire them.
- High performance/high morale. This time represents the self-actualization of the team, which, in most instances, is working at peak efficiency with substantial training and an acceptable level of experience. A number of factors can disrupt this state, most notably time and the transition to the drawdown cycle. Changes in organizational support or any of the Success Octagon factors can also affect this benchmark.
As indicated earlier, the drawdown cycle occurs for a variety of reasons. Retirement, career changes, transfers, promotions, and other factors contribute to this portion of the life cycle. Drawdown on task teams affects the team’s ability to deliver service. We have all had senior members transfer, retire, or get promoted and found ourselves having to train the rookies in the jump seat and reorganizing our team operations. In the specialty team arena, the drawdown has an even greater impact, since the level of training needed to reach a minimal level of performance is extensive. In both instances, what happens is that training and experience leave the team, efficiency and effectiveness drop, morale may drop, and the “old timers” become concerned about the ability to function at a previously established and accepted level.
The drawdown cycle is a naturally occurring event in the team life cycle. It is unavoidable and should be expected. Its impact can be reduced or minimized by effectively planning for succession during the fine-tuning cycle.
The drawdown cycle has the following benchmarks:
- Personnel/leadership turnover. Turnover may involve few or many members at one time. The objective is to avoid having large levels of training and experience walk out the door all at once; you can do this only through proper planning and vision. New faces will always appear on the team. These people require training, equipment, team indoctrination, team building, specialty identification, and mentoring. People are not sparkplugs; removing and replacing them all at once does not make the car run better!
- Marginal morale/moderate performance. Morale may fall because vested team personnel see the change and may be uncomfortable with it. Losing respected, dependable team members increases the team’s level of operational anxiety. Until the older team members actually work with the “new guys” in emergency and training conditions, there will be a certain level of anxiety. Certainly, as knowledgeable and experienced members leave the team, the team’s effectiveness decreases. Additionally, there may be a slight culture change as personalities and the karma of the team change at the company level.
- Necessary increases in the Success Octagon factors. Because new personnel require train-ing, equipment, and all of the other factors associated with this cycle, actions must be taken to increase the flow of the eight octagon support factors.
- Learning new leadership. If the change-over is in the leadership arena, team members will have to learn the new leader’s style. Additionally, expectations for team members and leaders will have to be established, one to the other.
The buildup phase is an exciting time. As new members become indoctrinated into the mission, begin to receive their training, and actually participate in the mission, their confidence grows, as does the confidence of the vested team members. Additionally, an entire new life cycle begins to emerge. There is a spark in the eyes of the new team members as they begin to participate in an area of their career they never had the opportunity to know.
Remember how it was the first time the department sent you out of town for training—how excited you were and how psyched you were when you got back? Look at the gleam in the new guys’ eyes when they get back, and remember what it was like for you 10 years ago. The team will actually begin to reenergize as the energy and motivation of the new personnel are harnessed into the team, its concepts, and its mission. Long stagnant programs may find new energy, as someone new is willing to take them on; new ideas about operational methods and new specialties are added to the team capabilities.
This phase has the following benchmarks.
- New ideas and methods. As new personnel come onboard, so do new methods of accomplishing old tasks. Each team member brings a new set of ideas as well as the ability to learn the team culture and accepted methods of accomplishing emergency and nonemergency tasks.
- Increased training tempo. As the new personnel are assigned, the necessity for training them becomes intense. Getting new guys the basic KSAs to do their job is second only to emergency response. Because the need for training becomes so critical, the tempo for the vested team members increases as well. Since vested team members must mentor new personnel, the need for team drills increases, as does the ability for the vested personnel to pass on their knowledge and experience to the younger members. Older team members get to “teach,” which is in fact learning twice!
- Increased competition. This phenomenon occurs when new personnel join a team. My experience has been that new members exhibit the following attitude, especially when assigned to a specialty team: “Okay old guy, I want to know everything you know; I am going to be a sponge; I am going to listen, learn, and practice; and then I am going to be better than you ever were.”
- Moderate to high morale/moderate performance. Morale tends to be high as personnel participate in training and begin to accept the new team members. New team members’ morale is high because of their participation in new and exciting skills and exposure to new challenges. Of course, until the new guys get the necessary training and experience and it is incorporated into the team, the team will not be operating at peak efficiency.
- Managing the octagon. As the team rebuilds, it is imperative to reevaluate the Success Octagon’s flow and function. It is possible that some areas may need to be strengthened because others may have been missed or taken for granted.
Team life cycles are like the tide, inevitable and predictable. Of course, these cycles can be compressed or extended by proper or poor planning, failing to become educated in team dynamics, or simply failing to take actions at the appropriate time and place. To be successful organizations, leadership and team members must understand these principles and practices.
Fire service company officers, team members, and organizational leaders must effectively use teams to accomplish organizational goals, provide emergency services, and get the very best from their organizations. Regardless of your position in the organization, you must be able to recognize those factors that will create an environment where you, the team, and the organization can be successful.
It is possible for a fire service organization to survive without the effective use of teams. Those organizations that choose to walk that path will be neither innovative nor successful and will simply muddle through customer service, exhibiting management skills instead of leadership. Officers who fail to effectively manage and lead a team will find themselves with poor reputations and in an untenable position with their personnel.
The ability to define, recognize, and apply the fundamentals of team power to an organization is critical to the success of that organization and its members. Subsequently, the organization’s ability to effectively train and deploy teams will have a direct effect on the level and efficiency of customer service that can be provided to citizens and visitors.
CHASE SARGENT, a 24-year decorated fire and rescue service veteran, is a division chief of the 2nd Division and homeland security coordinator for the Virginia Beach (VA) Department; a task force leader with Virginia Task Force II, FEMA US&R Task Force; the IST White Team operations chief for the FEMA US&R program; an instructor for the FEMA US&R Structural Collapse Technician program; and the East Coast task force leaders representative. He is also president of Spec. Rescue International, a training and consulting firm. He has developed courses for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Fire Programs, Heavy and Tactical Rescue Team since 1981. He has a bachelor’s degree in forestry and wildlife from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, has a master’s degree in public administration from Golden Gate University, and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. A National Registered Para-medic, he is chief tactical paramedic for the FBI Norfolk Division SWAT team and a paramedic for the City of Virginia Beach, a certified hazardous materials technician, a bio-chemical haz mat technician, and a WMD EMS technician. He is the author of Confined Space Rescue (Fire Engineering, 2000).