How to Lead a Strong Firefighting Team

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It takes courage and strength to fulfill any role on a wildland firefighting team, but it takes a very special skill set to successfully lead an entire crew of wildland firefighters.

A Single Resource Boss is responsible for the safety and effectiveness of the team, ensuring team morale stays high and providing motivation through emergencies, as well as important day-to-day tasks. This is a tremendous, at times stressful, and ultimately rewarding responsibility — one that requires a leader to learn and embrace a combination of traits that work for the betterment of the fire squad.

Here are four of the most important skills an SRB needs to build a strong, tight-knit wildland firefighting team.

Effective Communication

Good leaders are open, honest and authentic. An SRB must communicate effectively with his or her team, to set clear expectations and objectives for everyone — that means communicating goals for each individual team member and for the team as a whole. If a crew member isn’t meeting expectations or reaching goals, it’s the boss’ job to give both positive and constructive feedback. The ability to express criticism, praise and advice in an authoritative yet considerate manner is essential.

Communication is a two-way street; an equally important trait in a leader is the ability to listen. In addition to giving consistent, timely and productive feedback to your crew, you should ask for open and honest feedback in return. When your team does give feedback, take it seriously and genuinely consider whether you can make changes to address their comments or concerns.

Be available and open to one-on-one meetings with individual team members. It’s important to make the time for crew members who need input, feedback or just a listening ear. Showing a willingness to listen goes a long way towards building a team that cares about improving their skills, enjoys showing up to work each day, and feels loyal to their leadership.

Ability to Motivate

A large part of your job as SRB is to motivate your team members to work tenaciously and keep a positive attitude. A great way to do this is to help instill a sense of purpose and pride in their work. While the team’s purpose during emergencies is crystal clear — putting out fires and saving lives — it’s a bit harder to keep this motivation during non-emergency times. Motivate your crew during downtime by implementing ongoing training. Create situations and simulations to keep the firefighters active, both physically and mentally.

Another great way to keep morale and motivation high is to build community relationships; especially if you live in a state that’s prone to wildfire. Connecting with the people who could potentially benefit from your emergency crew’s skill someday is a smart way to help your team feel a strong sense of purpose and dedication to their jobs. Building lasting relationships with community members will help them realize that they are constantly making a difference, even when they aren’t out fighting a wildfire.

Vigilant Observation

Firefighting comes with many stresses and it’s not uncommon for stress levels to get out of hand — as a leader, it’s crucial that you stay observant of each team member’s mental and behavioral health. Take notice of any behavior changes you see among your crew.

If you do notice something worrisome, check in with that individual to find out more information and offer support. This is important, not just for the wellbeing of the individual, but for the safety of your entire crew. When one team member isn’t functioning at full force, the whole team can suffer in an emergency situation. If one crew member seems withdrawn and doesn’t want to participate in activities with the rest of the crew, let him or her know you noticed and ask what brought about the change. The firefighter may not feel like talking right away, but you have shown that you care and have opened the door for future communication.

On the other hand, you may get an answer right away and be able to ease the situation for that firefighter — diminishing his or hers (and most likely your whole crew’s) stress level. Sometimes, people are afraid to ask directly for what they need. By taking notice and reaching out to check in or ask about your crew’s needs, you can take an active role in the health and care of your team.

Leading by Example

One of the best ways to lead a strong firefighting team is to exemplify what it means to be a strong firefighter yourself. Actions really do speak louder than words, so model what you want your team to show. In order to instill a commitment to safety across team members, be sure that you always use proper equipment, follow best practices, and implement safety training on a regular basis.

If you ask your team to complete physical training regimens, commit to a training regimen yourself. When a leader shows commitment, dedication and perseverance, the team will be inspired to live up to those values and follow the example that’s been set. Leading by example also allows your subordinates to relate to you, as they see that you go to the same efforts and expect the same work ethic out of yourself that you expect out of your team.

A Leader Never Stops Learning

Being a team boss is about more than being a skilled firefighter yourself; it’s about being able to inspire, motivate and support others to be skilled firefighters. While on the surface you are building your team’s skills in fighting fires and keeping people safe, at a deeper level you are building character in each of your crew members. To do this well, you must not only build up the leadership skills above, but continue to work on honing and improving those skills. A truly great leader is one who is constantly learning and working to become an even better leader.

The above skills will help you earn the respect and trust of your team and will foster a sense of camaraderie and cooperation among your crew members — this may be most important of all, as the ability to work together is what will get your team through the toughest and most demanding wildland fire situations.

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