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How Can a Fire Marshal Maximize Their Team's Performance?

During a recent discussion of how to best maximize our fire prevention team during these tough economic times where many of us are faced with doing more with much less, it occurred to us that it may be a good time to refresh some of these tried but true thoughts on team work.

In most fire prevention bureaus, it is not uncommon to face challenges we did not plan for or start the day with, yet somehow we need to resolve them by the end of the week. Often, these projects or solutions demand several or many participants which may include department personnel, local government personnel, citizens, business leaders or a combination of all of these. Most of us now have to do this with less staff. Frequently, other entities we have relied on in the past may also have a reduced staff. How can a quick reaction team be formed in time to provide productive solutions and be supportive of the solutions?

There is rhetoric we hear frequently regarding the use of teams and team performance. These include:

  • Team creation takes a long time
  • A team has to struggle through conflicts before they can be productive
  • Team work is always better than the work of individuals
  • Having a team made up of high-performing individuals always makes a very strong team
  • Consensus is the goal of all team work
  • Everyone is equal and everyone should contribute the same

Team creation takes a long time: If that was the case, how is it we ever put out large fires that involve different fire departments; how do we deal with large disasters involving all sorts of agencies? If teams took a long time to form, these events would never be over, let alone successfully. Granted it does take time to continually improve teams.

The fact is the formation of a team is directly proportional to the leadership. If the leadership is strong, visible and communicates clearly, teams will naturally gravitate to the objective and provide the task results necessary to do what needs to be done. While strong leadership is essential, strong followership is equally important. Failure to listen, participate and engage will leave every good leader hanging. We have all seen great leaders as incident commanders use personnel from other fire departments at large incidents successfully.

A team has to struggle before they are productive: Again, looking at any large fire scene, we can think of nothing farther from the truth. Now, we are not saying that teams don't struggle, because they do. What we are saying is that not all teams "need" to struggle before they become productive. Again, strong leadership is critical. Teams need to be able to air differences, air problems, and listen to differing ideas or observations.

Leaders need to give clear direction as to what is required, and what will be tolerated. Leaders need to establish clear objectives as well as timelines. With good clear direction, teams will generally maintain focus and work through their objectives, thereby minimizing fighting and arguing and will be productive with minimal to no struggles.

Teamwork is always better than the work of individuals: This is almost funny. If individuals didn't maintain their strengths and talent and apply them through the process, how could the results of the team ever be accomplished? It is the individual participation and input that enables the team to be successful. Teamwork is only the end result of collective individual participation and production. Therefore, teamwork is not better than the individual; it is the culmination of hard work and input because of individuals. However, don't confuse this with teamwork accomplishing more than individuals.

Teams made up of high-performing individuals will always result in high performing teams: Frequently, high-performing individuals are high-performing because they are self-starters, assertive, maybe aggressive and smart. Sometimes, putting lots of people like this in a room can end up in chaos. Chaos can occur because these folks typically want to lead, they want their ideas used (because theirs are the best) and they want to direct the others. Consequently, without strong leadership, high performers may not help in providing high performance teams but instead, result in fractured and disjointed teams.

Again leadership becomes the key. Leadership is important because roles and responsibilities need to be clear. Some high performing individuals who may normally be department heads in an organization may need to fill subordinate roles in the team. As long as they clearly understand their role and task, their responsibility and their reason for being placed where they are, they will generally do a great job. Communication of expectations and process cannot be overstated. If everyone knows their parts on the team, they will usually work to achieve that objective.

Consensus is the goal of teamwork: Well, sometimes this can be a death sentence. It may be nice if a team is able to achieve consensus, however, sometimes it is far more beneficial to have individual team members make decisions with the team's input and let someone else make the final decision.

Sometimes, group-think can be hazardous. Individual decisions can easily be listened to, respected and objectively used in a final decision making process which again, requires leadership. Sometimes it's not reasonable to expect a team or group to make a final decision. During these times it is very important that a strong, well-spoken leader take the helm and relieve the team of the difficulty of that decision. Getting bogged down in waiting for a jury's decision only to have them come in with a hung-jury verdict doesn't help anybody. Give direction; be clear in your communication and set reasonable expectations for your team. Let them know where and when you will step in to assist.

Everyone is equal and contributed the same: The fact is, not everyone is equal. The fact is, likely not everyone will contribute the same. None of this is bad. We should view and treat everyone respectfully and presume they are doing their best and most to contribute.

For example: Let's form a team with the best tennis player in the world, the best football player in the world, the best golfer in the world and the best swimmer in the world. Now, let's tell the team that their job is to design and build the best house in the world. Well, we love football and we likely will end up with a cool place to watch games, yeah...life size games. We likely would have a remarkable yard to maintain our physical condition with lots of outdoor activities, such as tennis courts, etc. We could likely assume our location would be beautiful, likely along a beautiful golf course of some sort. Likely we will have a remarkable swimming pool or hot tub to compliment the whole property.

While nobody in the team was an "equal" - yes they were the best in their respective sports, none were "equal." Looking at size and scale, not everyone provided the same expense in product, the same look, the same feel, but all did a really great job of contributing to the mission, which was to build the best house as they saw it. Why should we view individuals as equals? They aren't and we shouldn't want that. Individuals bring different perspectives, different experiences and different skills. Embrace them all and use them where they are strongest.

Provide strong leadership, clear direction, clear goals and objectives, and be ready to make decisions to provide direction when necessary. Don't over accommodate. Don't over-rely on your team to do things they shouldn't or that you haven't clearly defined. Be careful not to turn away from a decision that has been provided. As a leader, you must be prepared to hear an answer that you don't like or don't think is appropriate. The reason for getting the team together was to get the best result or input possible. Working with your staff in a way that respects each of them as individuals but collects their overall contributions is a remarkable and powerful accomplishment.

Honor that commitment. They did.


BRETT LACEY, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department and a professional engineer. He has over 27 years in the fire service and has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA committee for Inspection practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. PAUL VALENTINE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department and formerly served as their fire protection engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science Degree in Management and Organizational Behavior from Benedictine University and is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Brett and Paul co-authored Fire Prevention Applications, published by Fire Protection Publications. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: paulvalentine@wowway.com.

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