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The Journey: Team Building

This article continues our discussion on the path to fire service leadership. As we have said in past articles, no great leader does it alone. At some point you will have to assemble a group of people to get a job done. You will be fortunate if you can hand pick your team. Previously, I have said, "that a mark of a good leader is how well they surround themselves with good people." Strong advisors may be a key to their success. But a leader needs more than just strong advisers. He or she needs good workers. The queen bee brings the hive to life, but it is the drones that do the work of maintaining it, protecting it and making it grow.

Most of us will not have the luxury of selecting our team. We need to work with those assigned to us. If we were able to choose, how do you select them? The first thing is that you must have people you can trust. If you are going to assign them a task you must have a reasonable expectation they will be able to complete it, and complete it properly. They must trust you to provide them with the clear objectives and the guidance to deliver the product they are looking for. We touched on this in the article on "The Journey: Loyalty and Honesty." When we discussed a leaders loyalty and honesty to their people and the organization.

Building A Winning Team

A well-known leader was once asked, that if you needed to hire someone for your team and if all things were equal, how would you select that person? He replied, "the person who wanted it the most." Selecting the person "that wants it the most" may work, but I disagree. This maybe a loaded question; I did say all things were equal. The person you select may have the energy and enthusiasm, but when I need to build a team I would look at what other qualities will that person bring to the team. Not everyone came down the same road to get here. Are their experiences differ from the other members of the team? Will they not only get the job done but bring a fresh look? Will they compliment the existing organization? When building a team you can't have all offense and no defense. If you expect your team to play "both sides of the ball" you will wear them out and lose in the long run. A leader who can find the hidden value in his or her people will be able to build a winning team.

A winning team is built by discovering individuals' differences, not similarities. Find what sets them apart and how their skills will meet the needs of the mission. Team building is a key to fire service operations. Every member has an assignment that must be executed. The members of the team will know if an assignment is carried out or not.

If a firefighter assigned to ventilate, fails in their assignment, the firefighters inside the structure will be exposed to the intense heat and smoke. Conditions that could prevent them from making the rescue or extinguishing the fire. Completing assignments is critical. If a firefighter can't complete tasks on a regular basis, the company will suffer. This makes it difficult for new members to become part of the team. They are under pressure to prove themselves and may take unusual risks to gain acceptance. As a leader you need to control the new members zeal. Give assignments based on their individual ability and only when they can handle them. To do anything less is setting them up for failure. New members should use their strengths to increase the value of the team. As their contribution is realized, they will become valued members.

For firefighters and fire officers familiarity does not breed contempt. It is essential to building the winning team. The leader needs to know who is uncomfortable with heights, which ones are skilled with tools or have experience in the trades of plumbing, electrical and so on. This information will guide him or her in giving assignments.

After you send a firefighter to the roof and he is half way up the aerial ladder is no time to have one of the other firefighters say, "you know, boss, Reilly hates heights. The last time he had the roof he had to wait until the fire was out to come down the interior stairs, 'cause he was afraid to come back down the ladder." What do you do with that information? Well how is Reilly when he gets to the roof? Does he do well once he gets there? Maybe his problem is in the climb? If that's the case maybe by making him do it a few times he will overcome his fears. Thus increasing his value to the team. If he is no good when he gets there you have a training issue that must be overcome. You must correct this problem. What will you do when three Reilly's show up to work? Who gets the roof? How effective will the team be?

Do You Know Your Team's Weaknesses?

Firefighters may be quick to demonstrate the areas in which they are skilled, but may be reluctant to expose their weaknesses. As a leader you need to be able to recognize when someone is trying to cover up or conceal a weakness. Pair up members with strong skills with those who are weak in the same specific areas. If it is a tool or piece of equipment you need to work on, set up small groups to work on it, clean it or test it. By pairing members with their peers you give them the ability to refresh their skills in a non-threatening environment. This will also help build the team.

Not only does the leader need to know the abilities and limitations of the team, so do the individual members. Will a search team go the second floor if they don't have confidence in the company operating the hoseline on the first floor? Many factors go into making that decision. How many individual skills will be tested? Will the pump operator get water and supply the correct pressure? Will the hose team stretch the line properly with enough hose to reach the fire and to the point that will protect the members going above? Will the officer of the hoseline inform the crew, above of conditions that may threaten their position, in time for them to back out safely? What seemed like a simple question can be a very complex decision process. That answer all boils down to one word, trust. If the search crew trusts the hoseline crew the mission will most likely be successful. If you build the team that understands the consequences of their individual actions they will all execute their assignment because they understand how it affects the overall operation.

Pitfalls In Team Building

Up to now we have spoke of winning teams. What are some of the pitfalls of team building? The first, and I think the biggest pitfall, is to put all your eggs in one basket. Expecting one person to come in and pick up the entire team is unrealistic. If the person is a good motivator they may be able to get the full potential from the team, but they can never do it themselves. This is based on the expression "there is no I in team."

If you are looking for examples, look to professional sports. Big money paid to star athletes who don't produce because of all the pressure. Resentment in the locker room brings down moral. The best example from sports on team building has got to be the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team. There Gold Metal winning performance has been called the "Miracle on Ice." A group of fine athletes in their own right were brought together and made into a team because of a leader who treated everyone fairly and equally. He encouraged and expected the best performance from all the players. No stars, no agenda's, just guys executing the game plan.

Whatever your position on the team whether it be the leader or the newest member, know your role. Only with a clear understanding of your assignment and how it completes the mission will you and your team be a success.

Anyone with team building stories, successes or failures, please e-mail them to: I will share them so we can learn from each other.

Until next time stay safe.

Look for the next article, "The Journey: Problem Solving."

CHRISTOPHER FLATLEY, a Contributing Editor, is a 20-year veteran of the FDNY and a lieutenant currently assigned to Ladder Company 21 in Manhattan. Chris has twice served as chief of the Blauvelt, NY, Volunteer Fire Company and is currently the assistant chief and training coordinator. He is a nationally certified Fire Instructor 1 and is an instructor at the Rockland County, NY, Fire Training Center and holds a degree in fire protection technology. He is a Master Exercise Practitioner on the Exercise Design Team through the Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness. You can reach Chris by e-mail at: