Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Leadership and Morale in Wildland Firefighting

High morale is a visible expression of team cohesion, and channeling the team's energy to a common focal point builds strong cohesion. - Leading in the Wildland Fire Service, p. 54

Leadership and Morale in Wildland Firefighting
By Thomas Dockery

When you think of building a team in the wildland firefighting community what do you normally think about? If you have previous experience in leadership roles, you may have slides to go off of, some do’s and don’ts that you’ve experienced through trial and error. If you’ve been in a junior role (which we’re all in no matter the title), you’ve hopefully observed leaders in action and have created slides on what not to do and some goals on what you would like to do if you were given the opportunity. Building a team in the wildland fire community is extremely complex and there are a million different ways to do it. However, the tools we have access to are the same. How many of you reading this paper have read Leading in the Wildland Fire Service published by the NWCG or visited the Wildland Fire Leadership Development website?  If you haven’t read the book or visited the website, it’s definitely worth your time. In the book you’ll find information on framework for leadership, duty (accomplishing your mission), respect (taking care of people), and integrity (developing yourself). But I would like to add to it by writing about a nameless entity that can destroy a team or make others jealous and that is morale.

Morale isn’t something that we talk about much, if at all, in the wildland fire service; but it’s something we all experience in our teams. Coming into the Nevada 2017 fire season at the Battle Mountain station, we were no different than any other station with high spirits and large expectations. What happened though was slightly different and somewhere along the line our morale dropped. If you ended up in Northern Nevada between May and early August, you know it wasn’t from a lack of something to do. We got hammered early and hard with multiple fires with long hours and hard work, everything a wildland firefighter looks forward to and loves. But we still fell short with our morale. Through a daily leadership class that Mike Ellsworth, NIFC, helped implement, I was able to teach and share some of the key talking points of morale in wildland firefighting, which also led to the desire to share those points with you.

On the website Fire Rescue, you’ll find a short and firefighter-friendly article, although written for structure departments, applies to wildland firefighting. In “5 signs of low firefighter morale,” Jim Spell discusses identifying low firefighter morale through signs such as, station chores not getting done, tense and segregated shift (or in our case engine) changes, every rumor goes explosive, going above and beyond met with impatience, and small complaints becoming big issues. All of these subtopics will hit a spot with firefighters from all ranks. But what continues to come out of the class I taught are ways to fix low morale. In the Fire Engineering article “How to Build Department Morale,” Frank and Joseph Viscuso discuss the ways we can improve morale through eight steps: 
  1. Praise often and in public
  2. Set goals
  3. Lead by example
  4. Don’t be a micromanager
  5. Eliminate problems quickly
  6. Encourage promotion and help your members advance in their careers
  7. Instill team spirit
  8. Be consistent and fair
Through our leadership classes what was a negative in our station has turned into a positive in remarkable ways. Duty, Respect, and Integrity are all great and very necessary for us to function in our roles as leaders. But what do we do about morale and where do we find it within our leadership principles? It is our duty to create conversations with our people and out of respect we should be ensuring that their voices are heard but without integrity, how else will they know that we’re paying attention and prepared to talk about the topics that are closest to them. Morale is important. Recognize when it is low, and learn how to keep it high.

Wildland Fire Leadership Challenge - Digging a Little Deeper

Read the articles.
Both articles have great talking points. I challenge you to download them and use them just as I did to facilitate conversation about morale with all levels of your station.

Start your own leadership class.
I challenge you to begin a leadership class during the slowest part of the day. Have a different firefighter each day pick their own wildland fire leadership topic or activity to present and facilitate discussion using the tools I listed in the beginning. You will have a great opportunity to learn, teach, and even address station-specific issues through a positive and educational format. 

Write a blog.
Finding articles directed solely about wildland firefighters is difficult. I challenge you to take the time like I have done to write an article and submit it for consideration on this blog.  

Thomas Dockery is a Senior Firefighter for the BLM's Battle Mountain District. All expressions are those of the author. 

We thank Thomas for his courage to write for our blog and his challenge to all students of fire and leadership to step forward.

1 comment:

Johnny Jensen said...

Nice job with your post. This gives us all thoughts to consider and hopefully implement. I never know how successful our station and crews can be until we try. Thanks.