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Firefighter/EMT Safety, Health & Survival: Team Building for Excellence

You're leading a drill on strategy and tactics with a group of highly motivated firefighters. The scenario is the proverbial structure fire where the civilian life hazard is unknown. The structure is in a depressed part of town, boarded up, utilities disconnected, run down and more than 50% involved. Included in the drill are the new Rules of Engagement for safe firefighting.

Discussion is pretty clearly divided along going in versus not going in. Welcome to America: everybody has an opinion and nobody is budging.

Team building is arguably a leader's most challenging job. Pulling distinct people together and forging them into high-performing, cohesive teams requires a mix of art and science that can be broken down into four principles.

Whether you're building a company, solidifying a battalion, rebuilding a division or reorganizing a fire department, the effort expended in constructing teams takes time, energy, attitude and mentoring.

Leaders take note: building teams is hard work. But the rewards reaped from a well-assembled team are worth the exertion. In team building, leaders must not be afraid to do several things: set course, correct course, establish clear expectations and strive for constant improvement (Llopis 2012). All of these factors, applied to the divergent opinions that make up today's fire and emergency service, lead to employing the four principles lavishly to reach excellence.

Time will be required to establish and reinforce expectations. Leaders building teams should recognize that teams rarely fall together overnight and perform exceptionally well in the morning. Tuckman's four step model—Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing—provides a framework for team performance, but the timeline is as varied as the group forming the team.

Energy is an essential part of teambuilding. The energy necessary to keeping the drill in the opening paragraph from disintegrating into World War III is a good example.

The team leader must accept that boundless energy will be required as the team moves through its organizational evolution. In the early stages, every member of the new team is usually on their best behavior. The real work begins when the pleasantries wear off and varying work ethics, work styles, personal preferences and natural personalities emerge.

The leader of the team needs to be alert and engaged to ensure the team works through its differences so it can achieve cohesiveness and success. This attention and effort on the leader's part require an exceptional amount of intestinal fortitude to keep the team on track.

Attitude, for the purpose of this article, is not quite what you think. Attitude is about the team's orientation and trajectory, not the mental mindset of the individuals. As the team begins to pull together, or in unfortunate circumstances, pull apart, the leader must keep an eye on where the team is supposed to be going; that is, what the team's mission is.

This is where leaders prove their worth. Reminding members of the team's purpose promotes cohesiveness and can be effective in managing conflict.

Mentoring is the glue that solidifies a team. The guidance, encouragement and candid correction doled out by a leader can't be overstated. Working in a mentored environment is by far the single most significant field where raw talent is turned into dedicated, high performing team members and differences are resolved amicably.

Mentoring provides the right dose of work ethic, understanding of goal achievement, sense of attitude and platform for personal growth that team members on all sides of an issue need to excel.

Team building is critical to fulfilling public expectations and satisfying department needs. It's also essential to providing a healthy environment for growth, personal accomplishment and safety to ensure team members enjoy long and prosperous careers.

As for who is right in our not-so-fictional drill, the answer is in the logic tree that has the best chance for everyone's survival. Fighting that fire can't be considered a game of chance. The stakes are too high.

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