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Leading the Team
by Linda Willing

The most important skill in firefighting

By Linda Willing

What is the most important attribute or skill set to be a successful firefighter? Physical strength? Technical skills? Knowledge of building construction or fire behavior?

All of these are important of course, but I would venture to say that the most important skill or attribute for a firefighter is the ability to work together with others as part of a coordinated team.

More than any other occupation, except perhaps the military, firefighting is something that you absolutely cannot do alone, regardless of your technical skill, physical strength, or personal commitment.

Everything firefighters do is a group effort, from advancement of hose lines to the extrication of a victim from a smashed car. Fire suppression involves both extinguishment and ventilation; investigation and prevention are two sides of the same coin. Without the ability to coordinate with others, the effectiveness of firefighting is lost.

Consider the problem of freelancing in the fire service. Many people who freelance have nothing but noble intentions. They think they see a need others don't see, and they feel empowered to personally meet it.

A freelancer can be the biggest, strongest, most technically skilled person on the department, but that person is also the most dangerous when their actions are not coordinated with the overall effort. Look closely at fire deaths and injuries over the years, and some form of freelancing often comes to the surface.

If the most important aspect of being a firefighter is being able to work as a member of a team, it is a logical progression to say that the most important skill as an officer is to develop that team.

The concept of team building might sound touchy-feely to some and they might prefer to focus their efforts on more technical skills.But the subtext to every activity that firefighters do is that they are doing it in coordination with others. If coordination is lost, or members of the team are seriously at odds with one another, the mission will fail.

Some people feel that every firefighter should have a skill set that is interchangeable with others. It shouldn’t matter who the leader is to get the job done.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does — not only on the fire scene, but especially during the majority of the time when firefighters are not responding to emergency incidents. Firefighters may go on autopilot to some degree during routine events, but what about when something changes — a wall collapses, a firefighter goes missing, a citizen runs up and says a child has been left behind? At that point it is necessary to shift gears and function seamlessly as a team to meet the new challenge presented.

And what about in the station when a joke goes too far or an argument escalates? At this point the value and mission of the team is the force that can pull people back from conflicting individual interests and behavior that can endanger everyone.

Technical skills are important. Firefighters want their officers to be competent. They want them to have the ability and confidence to evaluate situations and make good decisions.

But for those decisions to be truly effective, they must take into account not only individual interests, but the purpose and abilities of the team as a whole.

So how does one develop the ability to become a good team leader? Many resources can help: classes, books, informal discussions, observation of others, good mentors, analysis of case studies, just trying different things.

But the first, most critical aspect of this skill set is just the acceptance of it — that this is part of the job, this is part of who an officer is. Then every statement, action, and decision go back to the questions: Does this enhance who we are as a team? Are we better as a team that is inclusive of everyone as a result of what we are doing now? Will this action or decision make us better able to serve the public?

Team development and leadership are high level skills. They can take a career to master. Recognizing the importance of this task and accepting responsibility for team development as an officer are the first steps to a highly functional, committed crew, and your own success as a leader.

About the author

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. To contact Linda, e-mail Linda.Willing@FireRescue1.com.



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