The Team Spirit of Emergency Management

The primary purpose of every emergency management system is to bring about change.  Fundamentally, the purpose of an emergency services organization is to change the outcome of a potential or actual emergency from that which might occur if there is no intervention. This includes a series of tasks that emergency services must continuously repeat:

  • Preventive measures intended to avert an incident;
  • Mitigation steps intended to reduce the consequences of an adverse situation;
  • Preparedness steps (including training) to develop a readiness to act quickly and appropriately when an incident begins to evolve;
  • Response actions once an incident occurs; and
  • Post-incident recovery activities.

Agents of Change – Teams & Organizations

In order to achieve desirable change, the emergency services community frequently employs various organizations often referred to as “teams,” including: hazardous materials response teams; technical rescue teams; incident management teams; spill response teams; special weapons and tactics teams; technical assistance teams; community emergency response teams; and highway incident response teams. Organizations and “teams” are an integral part of the emergency management system by providing a framework for conducting missions and performing tasks based on identified or perceived needs. Therefore, whether referred to as an organization or a team, all are “agents of change.”

In order to develop a “team,” it is important to first establish an organization. According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary (Second College Edition), an organization is “a body of persons organized for some specific purpose as a club, union, or society.” The Business Dictionary defines an organization as, “A social unit of people that is structured and managed to meet a need or to pursue collective goals.” This definition continues to note that, “Organizations are open systems – they affect and are affected by their environment.”  As such, all of the above-mentioned “teams” are certainly organizations because they are assemblies of people for a specific purpose. However, although organizations frequently exist or evolve for specific purposes, the degree to which those organizations function as teams can vary greatly and, therefore, produce greatly varied outcomes.

Webster’s New World Dictionary (Second College Edition) offers one definition of a team as, “a group of people working together in a coordinated effort.” Certainly, all of the above listed organizations are teams based on this definition. The Business Dictionary has a more descriptive definition of a team as follows: “A group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job or project.”  In addition, the definition states, “Team members (1) operate with a high degree of interdependence, (2) share authority and responsibility for self-management, (3) are accountable for the collective performance, and (4) work toward a common goal and shared reward(s). A team becomes more than just a collection of people when a strong sense of mutual commitment creates synergy, thus generating performance greater than the sum of the performance of its individual members.”

Team Traits – Trust & Anticipation

When assessing if there may be a difference between the capability, the capacity, or even the productivity of an organization versus that of a team, these definitions, particularly the statements drawn from the Business Dictionary, offer some insight. According to both sources, organizations largely support the emergency management system and provide the primary framework and personnel management system to perform the personnel’s assigned or assumed activities. Therefore, organizations are essential to emergency management. Beyond that, however, the evolution or development of teams from organizations provides a higher level of performance by the personnel involved. When members develop a “mutual commitment” and “operate with a high degree of interdependence,” as characterized in the Business Dictionary definition, the team can deliver results that are greater than the sum of its parts.

Teams are often identifiable by two key traits: trust and anticipation. Team members trust that their teammates are capable of and will perform at maximum output for the betterment of the team as a whole. Trust most often develops through familiarity – the greater the degree of familiarity, often the greater the degree of trust that occurs among members. As each member becomes familiar with the other members and learns their strengths and weaknesses, he or she can readily anticipate what the other team members will do.

The ability to accurately anticipate or forecast actions or reactions on the part of each other enables all members to be intimately involved in all team activities without hesitation or uncertainty. This significantly increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the team. Additionally, as an organization evolves into a team, all members develop the ability to foresee situational or incident-related actions more effectively. As such, the team can better position itself and be prepared for impediments or disruptions that may occur.

Two Team Examples – Football & NASCAR

A dedicated team typically reflects collective excellence rather than individual stardom. For example, when a sports team has a “superstar,” the individual may standout whereas the group’s performance may be mediocre. Conversely, a team composed of “average” performers who trust each other can achieve a much higher level of output by anticipating each other’s actions. Sports replays often reveal the teammates’ trust and ability to anticipate. For example, the so-called “timing pass” in football demonstrates a series of steps requiring trust and anticipation between the quarterback and his teammates:

  • The quarterback and wide receiver trust that the other players will execute their blocks and diversionary pass routes;
  • The quarterback trusts that the wide receiver will be at a certain point on the field at a certain moment;
  • The quarterback throws the pass while the receiver is still running, sight unseen, to that spot;
  • The receiver anticipates the arrival of the pass to that point at a specific moment in time; and
  • By trusting and anticipating each other’s actions as well as the collective team performance, the receiver has the opportunity to complete the pass.

In another example, the actions of a NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) pit-crew are interdependent yet performed with a choreography that visually demonstrates intense trust and anticipation on the part of every member of the crew. The ability of the team to change four tires, manually refill a tank of fuel, and return the car to the track in under 20 seconds with the deafening roar of many engines and other cars whizzing by is nothing short of remarkable. Both sports-team examples reflect a commitment and a common focus that require much time and repetition. Of course, in both instances, disruptions can and do occur; however, an experienced and seasoned team typically finds a way to overcome those disruptions with minimal adversity.

Key Factors – Time & Repetition

Two factors in the evolution of a team from a basic organization are time and repetition (practice). The most practiced (time together) teams generally perform at a higher level of productivity. If nothing else, the opportunity afforded by the time to practice and refine skills and team productivity enables all members, and the team as a unit, to elevate its output. Over time, the team members develop shared values, embrace the team mission, and reinforce team engagement and commitment from within.

One relatively frequent impediment to full “team” performance involves circumstances that require ad hoc team formation – sometimes referred to as “plug and play.” In this scenario, either an organizational framework is not in place or a member(s) of a team is unavailable, thus requiring alternate staffing. Individuals assembled may have minimal, if any, familiarity with each other and may not have a commitment to the mission or to specific tasks. A period of familiarization often is required before a team can begin functioning at the organizational level. When two or more people come together without previous interaction, it is necessary that they develop a degree of familiarity and a comfort zone with the others’ expectations and performances. This can delay effective interaction and productivity for hours, days, or perhaps even longer.

In essence, teamwork becomes both an objective and a process as an organization evolves toward true team capability. To achieve these objectives, organizations seeking to achieve full “team” capacity must dedicate themselves to a regular plan or schedule of activities that promote working together. Some organizations have or create regular opportunities to drill or practice annually, semiannually, or quarterly. This ensures that the team philosophy and performance capability does not atrophy, especially when there are no actual or impending emergencies. Frequent interaction also builds a stronger level of trust through greater familiarity. Often these organizations also direct efforts to self-analysis in order to identify areas for improvement and strengths to build upon for future trainings, practices, or drills.

In summary, whether an emergency management organization can be characterized as a team consistent with the definitions provided or not, it should continuously capitalize on the efforts and opportunities afforded to develop a dedicated team. The public as well as stakeholders within the organization or team deserve to have every member of the organization support the purpose and efforts of the team and assume responsibility for its performance. To ensure a high quality of service during any disaster, it is critical that each organization strives to perform as a team.

Stephen Grainer

Stephen Grainer is the chief of IMS programs for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs (VDFP). He has served in Virginia fire and emergency services and emergency management coordination programs since 1972 – in assignments ranging from firefighter to chief officer. He also has been a curriculum developer, content evaluator, and instructor, and currently is developing and managing the VDFP programs needed to enable emergency responders and others to meet the National Incident Management System compliance requirements established by the federal government. From 2010 to 2012, he served as president of the All-Hazards Incident Management Teams Association.



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