How your agency can succeed on purpose, together

Don’t rely on trinkets in a pool of piranhas to build a successful fire department


How many times have we heard, “There’s no ‘I’ in team?” Developing a team takes more than slogans and history – there must be a well-articulated mission and vision, along with an atmosphere of encouragement and inclusiveness.

Let’s admit right here that not everyone is cut out for everything. Not everyone will be a good driver, a good officer or even a good firefighter or medical provider. Many a great firefighter or paramedic has made a horrible officer, and vice versa.

Here are my top three ways to encourage team building amongst our troops:

Let’s give our people the opportunity to succeed – they need room to roam, and they need a rope for rescue. (Photo/USAF)
Let’s give our people the opportunity to succeed – they need room to roam, and they need a rope for rescue. (Photo/USAF)
  1. Inclusiveness. Provide opportunities for everyone to participate. This can be as simple as an invitation to be a part of something, to provide specific input, just to have the chance to be heard. This doesn’t mean you’ll hear from everyone – trust me. It does mean that people know you’ll at least ask. Make sure the opportunity is more than superficial – are the participants really being heard?
  2. Follow-through, decision making and communication. One of the biggest turnoffs for people is a lack of follow-through, communication and a definitive decision-making processes. It’s fantastic that you’ve brought folks together, solicited their opinion and weighed the options; now you need to make a decision and communicate, communicate, communicate. There will still be folks who won’t get it or who will find an excuse to say they “didn’t know.” Make sure this is not the result of your lack of communication.
  3. Challenge and motivate. Most high performers want to be challenged; to them, that’s their single greatest motivation. If you only have high-performers, then you should have this down to a science. If you’re like most bosses, not all of your volunteers or employees are high-performers, and you’ll have to identify those aspects that motivate those people (e.g., e-learning, hands-on training, thanks and admiration or just wanting to be part of something larger). Your organizational vision should be the basis for providing motivation.

Building up a successful fire service organization

Having motivated staff (paid and/or volunteer) will help win most battles. Yet motivated staff alone cannot build an organization. We have taken great note of the decline in volunteerism and the outright collapse or combination of some services (think dual-trained police officers), so let’s look at my top three ways to use motivated staff to build up an organization.

  1. Establish benchmarks. Establish benchmarks and incentives for people to reach the benchmarks. My current department (Highlands County, Florida, Fire Rescue) has a very simple mission statement; service. Yet a simple mission statement must be followed up with benchmarks for success and forward progress. We have an in-house completed strategic plan for staffing, facility improvements and apparatus purchases. For the people and the organization to grow, people need to be given the opportunity to succeed (in our case, through voluntary participation in work groups designed to solicit ideas, opinions and plans).
  2. Tell the truth, be honest, be visible. One of the surest ways to drown yourself is to stick your head in the sand. If your organization is struggling to put fire trucks and/or ambulances on the street, then you are already drowning. There must be an awakening of your organizational soul to recognize and admit your weaknesses so you can focus and build upon your strengths.

    Good or bad, you need to be in front of it. Yes, it could be said that “Grandma Jones doesn’t know what Grandma Jones doesn’t see or know,” however, let me assure you, Grandma Jones will make it up if you don’t tell your own true story. Use social media, traditional media, public events and schools to communicate your efforts and .
  3. Always be forward thinking. It is important to remember the past so as to not be doomed to repeat your mistakes. It is more important to be able, capable and willing to look beyond the past and into the future with an open and positive mindset. Training and development, attending conferences, learning from each other, reaching across jurisdictional boundaries, considering consolidation and hiring, establishing positive political relationships, developing legislative initiatives that benefit your service – these are all things that are needed to help fix our current crisis of membership and survival. Reliance on $5 and $10 stipends, pay-per-call, partial tuition reimbursements and tokens of appreciation are essentially trinkets in a pool of piranhas. Those things may be part of a larger solution, however too many times, chiefs return to these tired initiatives only to repeat someone else’s mistake.

We must laud our folks when they do well and retrain/counsel them when they do not.

Let’s give our people the opportunity to succeed – they need room to roam, and they need a rope for rescue. It’s beyond time for us to take our people and our organizations where they need to be. It’s time to succeed on purpose, together.

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