Defining Teams and Team Building

Several months ago, On Scene asked Beyond Hoses & Helmets instructors to provide their insights about teams and team building in the fire service

This piece originally ran in the Dec. 19, 2014 issue of IAFC's On Scene and is republished here with permission. 

Several months ago, On Scene asked Beyond Hoses & Helmets instructors to provide their insights about teams and team building in the fire service. Here's what they had to say.

Look It Up

Take a look at team in a dictionary. That's where a picture of a firefighter group should be.

No one person is a team and it takes a holistic approach by the fire chief to continually focus on a team environment. The culture of an emergency response agency must always be about teamwork and reinforced every single day. Agency decisions should always include mission-centric thinking and team decision-making.

—Chief Fred Windisch
Ponderosa Fire Department

Not shown…

Too often, the cover of some of our favorite fire service magazines show a single company making an attack on a fire. What they don't show are the 12 people needed to get 3 people to the fire!

They don't show our instructors and they don't show the folks who helped ensure the equipment was ready. They don't show the driver at the pump panel, the fire-prevention team that helped ensure the family was out before we even got there or the code enforcement officer who helped ensure the building will make the fire predictable.

Quite frankly, they don't show a lot of people, and we forget too easily. There are clearly folks I left off the list simply because there isn't enough space.

As leaders, we quite often get caught up in the folks on that cover and the role they play for our communities. Developing our teams requires recognizing everyone and ensuring everyone understands that. I truly believe that simply thanking everyone and reminding them of the role they played is the easiest way to achieve this, yet not done enough.

The next time you have an event where the frontline crews perform well, think about all the activities and people that allowed that crew to respond effectively. Then in a public format (like a monthly meeting or an email), thank all of them and remind them all of the roles they played. This full-spectrum recognition allows everyone to remember we're a team, clarifies the value everyone brings and instills pride in all.

—Division Chief Tom LaBelle 
Albemarle County Fire and Rescue

No Lone Rangers

Imagine a fire service driven by individuals. A firehouse with no cohesion, camaraderie or synergy just men and women meandering about in their own shift days or training nights.

What would be the outcome of an individual or several individuals performing advanced life support techniques at the scene of a patient in full arrest? How would fire control be achieved if five different firefighters attacked a fire from five different directions?

Teamwork is an indispensable and substantial component for achieving organizational success. Our culture thrives on each other and our attributes, experiences, perspectives, and values. One person's strengths fill the gap for another's weaknesses. Another person's ability to mentor educates one's inexperience.

Without cohesion, camaraderie and synergy, we would never have a counterpart to strengthen or teach us. Teamwork is the dynamic which propels our abilities and corroborates achievement in and out of the firehouse.

Teamwork is natural to our very being. We foster teamwork at home to bring positive influence and outcomes within our families, execute life-changing decisions or make sacrifices so the family can flourish as a whole.

The fire service rationalizes teamwork through our mission and what we do. We can't combat fire alone or provide emergency medical care as a sole provider. Our job is multitask-driven in a very dynamic environment. The environment constitutes many dangers and risks, none of which we can combat or overcome on our own.

To overcome such challenges and the environment they thrive in, we use a honed efficiency only achieved via teamwork fundamentals: trust, respect and communication.

Teamwork doesn't evolve by simply grouping individual people in a closed space or at the scene of a critical incident. Trust is the fundamental component in teamwork. To build trust, focus on leading by example, communicating openly, taking time to know each other, discourage subgrouping and accept responsibility as a whole.

Respect unifies team members. Fostering respect among the team is often achieved by showing appreciation for team efforts, being prepared to serve within the team's function, providing suggestions and feedback and treating others as you want to be treated.

Communication is the element that interconnects the team's intent and mission. Teamwork is only encouraged when team members maintain an open mind, engage in active listening and clearly understand the goals, tasks and outcomes the team is working to achieve.

—Chief John Petrakis
Channhon Fire Department

Learning and Contributing

Why do fire departments need teams? The simple answer is that the job can't be done by just one person. That's reason enough for teams.

But teams are important on other levels also.

They afford an opportunity for learning. As team members, we watch how a more experienced team member performs and strive to meet that performance. Experienced team members coach new members to bring them up to the standard.

Team members bring in ideas for the team to evaluate, broadening the knowledge base of the team. A learning team is the base for a learning organization, and learning organizations survive. Individuals on a team expect, even demand, other members of the team to learn more about the job to create a stronger team.

Committees are teams that come together for a purpose. For example, a team shares ideas and general knowledge to produce a superior product or service.

Beyond that is the buy-in members feel as part of a process. Committee members then become salespeople for the project. Committee members can reach much deeper into an organization than upper management, addressing individual questions about the product. By having committees solve problems or develop processes, organizational members feel they have a say in decisions.

On a personal level, being a team member makes you part of something larger than yourself. We become emergency responders to help people in times of need. We soon learn that individually we can't accomplish much.

As part of the fire service team, we can make a difference. Individual and team pride grows. And at the end of the day, isn't that what makes this a great profession, the fact that we have pride in the service our profession provides, as a team?

The interpersonal process is probably the hardest part of the team concept. For a team to be successful, shared values, mutual trust, team vision, skills and a reward are needed. You can't build shared values, mutual trust or team vision if the interpersonal part fails.

—Director Melvin Byrne 
Ashburn Vol. Fire Rescue Department

Building Competence and Character

In a team, individuals come together for a common cause; in the fire service, perhaps this is true today more than ever. A team isn't a team of one, but several helping all of us accomplish our goals, professionally and as individuals.

While individuals may do something significant, fire service personnel are humble about receiving recognition. But they always thank those who helped them get to where they are—those individuals who have helped us on life's journey.

Training is our #1 source for building teams and reinforcing why they exist. This is where competence, character building and enhancements happen. With proper guidance, people find their strengths and weaknesses while giving the team the opportunity to create balance needed for tasks.

The next place for team building is at the kitchen table, where constructive discussions can take place to improve not only the cooking, but also what's cooking inside us and inside of the department.

We have a great opportunity to make a difference in how we operate, who we are, how we're perceived and how we improve as individuals. Self-improvement combined with team concepts leads to success throughout the department and for the person.

To paraphrase Chief Enright, retired CFD, what do the points of the Maltese Cross signify? Loyalty, empathy, duty, respect, honor, integrity, selfless service and personal courage. What an emblem for the team!

—Chief Jim Grady 
Frankfort Fire Protection District

Teamwork Why?

We often stress the importance of teamwork in the fire service, but we rarely answer the question of why teamwork is important and relevant. Building and fostering teams can help departments excel by improving four key attributes:

  • Motivation – When team members work together toward the same goal, motivation will increase especially when there's a balance of trust and a sense of healthy competition and when team members are willing to help one another and celebrate each other's successes.
  • Problem-solving – People working in teams are likely to learn more by their interactions, viewing issues and problems from difference perspectives. Brainstorming can offer up alternatives and teams can collaborate to generate the best option.
  • Efficiency – Teams tend be more efficient than individuals because they capitalize on member strengths to overcome obstacles and achieve project completion. Efficiency improves through good communication and well-defined roles and responsibilities.
  • Interpersonal skills – Working in a team builds confidence and improves learning. Interpersonal skills are developed because teams members learn to work with others by overcoming weaknesses and capitalizing on strengths.

—Chief Dan Eggleston 
Albemarle County Fire and Rescue

More than Stories and Jargon

We all know the teamwork stories and jargon! Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM)! We've seen the visual of popsicle sticks, where one breaks easily but five together are more difficult to crack. And sports-team analogies run on forever!

The difference in these stories, tales and events is that they all have a grain of truth and can serve to open up a conversation about teams and their importance to your department. However, they all remain just talk!

Teams are about how you act, not the lip service you pay. Teams are not about your notion of warm and fuzzy; they're about getting things done.

We all work in teams. We all know their importance. Don't give your teams platitudes and big stories or trophies for their desks! Give them the truth, keep them motivated and tell them why you need them to dig down and give more. They will if you're a leader who supports them, trusts them and leads them.

—Chief Ken Farmer
Education, Training, and Partnership Section
National Fire Academy

Towards a Common Goal

Teamwork is greater than a group of individuals; it's a group of individuals working cohesively toward a common goal. As leaders, we must understand how to bring people together for that common goal and vision through communication.

Communication is the foundation of interactions between individuals. Some leaders are lulled into the complacency that people do what they're asked because the leader is powerful or knowledgeable. While there's a seed of truth in that, the real reason people do what they're asked is because leaders are effective communicators who use influence.

Influencing others takes time, trust and commitment. Our followers look to us for direction and focus; however, trust from our followers comes after we have demonstrated necessary skills, experience and confidence.

Once leaders have the trust of their followers, influence becomes easier, as laying out the vision and goals is seen as trustworthy. Getting people to want to do something is better in the long run, because they want to perform for the vision and goals rather than being told what to do each step of the way.

Gaining trust through influence, support and experience provides a cohesive team able to accomplish any task presented, in any situation.

—Chief Norvin Collins
Sauvie Island Fire District

Team of Eagles

When I think of team building, I'm reminded of NFL great Mike Singletary. In his team-building presentation, A Team of Eagles, Singletary focuses on five fundamental lessons:

  • Agree on a common goal
  • Know the abilities of each team member
  • Communicate effectively
  • Sharpen individual skills
  • Execute consistently

The principle elements in the related sports metaphor are certainly applicable to the fire service.

—Chief Greg Render
Signal Hill Fire Department

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