Building a Crew to Work

We can set an expectation and hope it is met, but our standard is what we allow to take place in our skills and training in the firehouse and on the fireground.
(photos courtesy of author.)

High performers are quickly identified and their shifts are usually the most desirable

By Ty Wheeler

It’s important to talk about the crew on the apparatus, whether it be an engine, tower, rescue, or any specialized apparatus. Building your apparatus so they are functional and enhance the capabilities, effectiveness, and efficiency is critical to getting the job done, but the crew makes it all work. You can have the best equipment, but if your personnel are not capable of operating at a high level, then it’s all for nothing. For all the baseball fans, as they say, “It’s like having a $500 bat and a $1 swing.” A good crew can make any apparatus work, but a well-designed apparatus cannot make a better crew. The apparatus must complement the crew and the crew the apparatus. When you develop highly trained firefighters, they will get the job done, but when you complement them with the best equipment, success is inevitable.

Podcast: In Their Own Words: Ty Wheeler

For the crew to be successful, you need to instill a team mentality. There are four areas that company officers need to focus on to build a crew ready to work: Standards and Expectations, Accountability, Environment, and Shared Values.

Standards and Expectations

To be successful, the crew needs to know the expectations of the company officer and vice versa. Company officers need to ensure all members of the crew know and understand the expectations not just on the fireground but also in the firehouse. Many times, attention is focused on fireground operations–and rightfully so–but we often neglect the firehouse expectations, standards, and culture. The firehouse is where the culture is bred and the team is formed. We need to ensure we are not just a great team on the fireground but in the firehouse. This is where ultimate trust and culture are developed. All company officers need to ensure they are fostering a positive environment; holding their crew to the expectations; and focusing on the mission, training, and the company.

“Whatever you allow becomes your standard.” We must have expectations but, more importantly, uphold the standards of the mission, the organization, and the company. We can set an expectation and hope it is met, but our standard is what we allow to take place in our skills and training in the firehouse and on the fireground. We need to set high expectations and high standards to be effective. After that, it’s up to the crew to uphold those standards. The company officer shouldn’t be the only person holding people accountable to the standard. This needs to be a shared value and vision for the company.


Ensure you are holding people accountable not just to the standards but also through their actions and behaviors. By holding people accountable, you are forming the norms of the crew. If you don’t hold your members accountable for their mistakes or failure, they will begin to think their actions are acceptable. In addition, holding people accountable is also for their own good. We are failing each other if we don’t hold one another to a high level of expectations and standards we have set.

When company officers do not hold their crew responsible and accountable to the standards and standard operating procedures (SOPs), it begins a long and dark road of disrupting the crew culture and destroying the team’s environment and ultimately results in a lack of performance by the company. SOPs, policies, and standards are meant to enhance the department’s performance while serving the citizens. When we fail to enforce those written and unwritten rules, we are placing ourselves and our crews in a position that is susceptible for discipline, injury, or death. Our lack of accountability leads to violations of these rules. If the company officer, shift commander, or chief level officer does not address these issues, they will quickly become normalized throughout the organization. When people are not held accountable, it is recognized by the line staff and we begin to lower our standards. This is even more pronounced when the company officers are violating policies and are not held accountable. I revert back, “Whatever you allow becomes your standard.”

The company officer is not the only person who should hold the standard and ensure those standards are being met. The crew needs to be able to hold each other accountable. It’s tough to call out your brothers and sisters for their lack of performance or violation of the company norms, but when a team is built on trust and safety, honest and tough conversations can take place without confrontation. The senior members have a tremendous responsibility in the firehouse; it is their duty to ensure the crews are proficient, the traditions and culture of the firehouse are being cultivated, and people are being held accountable. When a company has strong senior members, the officer should rarely need to address issues on the line. Our senior members hold a lot of responsibility and informal authority and leadership within the crews. The company officer should lean on these individuals to ensure the crew is maintaining a high standards and performance.


One of the most important aspects of building a crew to work is ensuring the environment is right for success. Dysfunction among a shift or crew causes friction and distracts the crews from the mission and team performance. When personal issues and personalities conflict, there will always be animosity, creating tension. This type of dysfunction hinders the crew’s ability to trust and, therefore, to succeed.

The team is the ultimate priority. When the team begins to suffer because of conflict or misalignment of values, it is important that the company’s values are espoused and they assimilate to the team, or the outlier needs to be reassigned. When a crew’s environment is disturbed by a single individual, it will not only cause issues on that particular shift but it will also spread throughout the organization. The company officer, shift commander, and chiefs need to focus on building teams for success. When people are not held accountable, violations occur without being addressed, and when individuals fail to meet the standards; action needs to be taken before the company and organization begins to experience the negative consequences of this toxic environment.

The senior members and company officer need to promote an environment of positivity and one focused on training and performance.

Shared Values

For any group to be successful, there needs to be a set of shared values on which to base the group norms and behaviors. High performer will usually seek other high performers, while low performers will naturally find their own kind. Shared values are the core principles or beliefs that are followed by the team that guides their actions and behaviors. The senior members and company officer are responsible for instilling these values in new members and reinforcing the values through their actions and behaviors. This can be accomplished through training and discussions with the crew.

The company officer needs to set the vision of the crew and start developing these values. As the company officer and senior members continue to take action that supports the values, buy-in to the vision increases the crew’s motivation. As more people join the crew, these values are then passed on to them and are the unwritten rules of the group. These unwritten rules are the foundation of the crew. If there is failure to assimilate, the individual will quickly be outcasted by the group.

Developing these shared values is critical to the success of the group and the culture of the crew. If we lose focus on our beliefs, then we can quickly lose our culture and our identity. When crews or organizations start to question who they are, they become lost in their actions and behaviors, questioning what is right and wrong. You are disrupting everything they once believed. When this happens, uncertainty in their action leads to frustration and a positive environment is replaced with toxicity and culture deteriorates.

Espouse the shared values, beliefs, and morale of the crew for team success.

Building the Crew

It’s easy to spot the crews who are building the crew to work. They are out on the training ground in the early morning and late at night. They commit to the mission by their preparation and their desire to seek training opportunities. They care not only about their individual performance but the performance of the crew mates. They are the mentors, role models, and teachers of the organization. They are the first ones to help those who want to learn more and perfect their skills. They hold themselves above the organizational standards and expectations. They care for their tools and equipment, looking for ways to increase effectiveness and modifying and changing the apparatus to make their crew more effective on the fireground. If you ask around the organization, those high performers are quickly identified, and their shifts are usually the most desirable because of the ability to perform and desired vision of the future.

A crew built to work is easily recognizable. They are well-trained, they hold each other accountable to standards, and they look for ways to enhance their impact on the fireground. To build your crew to work, focus on raising your standards despite the organizational standards, hold your members accountable in all aspects of the job, create a positive environment where people want to come to work, and develop a crew culture of performance through developing a vision of success and shared values that motivates the crew. Build your team for success by building them to WORK.

Ty Wheeler is a lieutenant with the Johnston-Grimes (IA) Metropolitan Fire Department and has been with the fire service for more than 10 years. He has an associate’s degree in paramedicine, a bachelor’s degree of science in fire science administration, and a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Waldorf University. He has received his Managing Officer certificate from the National Fire Academy and several fire service and EMS certifications at the state and national level. He is a member of the Iowa Society of Fire Service Instructors and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Wheeler is a certified strength and conditioning coach through the NCSA, the President of The D.A.M. F.O.O.L.S., and the co-owner of Rogue Training Consulting.

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