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Tips for Team Leaders (Emergency Services)

by Alan Sheehan, Oberon State Emergency Service, New South Wales, Australia These notes are based on experience and observation of Team Leaders in operations, exercises and courses. Some tips have stemmed from particularly good examples of Leadership, others from poor methods. Many of the observations have been made during Vertical Rescue courses. Vertical Rescue is technical, time and manpower consuming, and requires a high degree of cooperation, coordination and teamwork.

These tips have been written in general terms, to be of most benefit to Team Leaders in any type of operation They do not in any way detract from or substitute for the Team Leader's responsibilities. Consult your the relevant operations manual for the Team Leader's responsibilities for the task at hand.

Team Leader's Role

The Team Leader's Role is to guide the team to the successful completion of the task. Each Manual for Rescue, Vertical Rescue, Land Search, Flood Boat Operations, etc has detail on the specific responsibilities and duties of Team Leaders for those specific operations. These notes do not substitute, but rather are intended to complement those responsibilities and duties.

Control the team

The team leaders role is to guide the team to the successful completion of the task, in an effective and efficient manner. This means the Team Leader must control the team, so they work together in a common direction, with a common goal. Success includes safety, welfare and even the morale of both subject (victim) and rescuer or emergency worker.

Know the Team's goal
The Team Leader must be absolutely clear on the team's goal: if not, the team certainly won't be! What is it that the team must achieve?

Know the Team

The team will be most efficient when the Team Leader knows who people are and what they can do. If the TL doesn't know them to start with, he/she must work quickly: find out names and ask questions to assess Team Members. The Team Leader needs to know: Names Abilities Limitations

Know your methods and systems

The Team Leader also needs to know: What is available? How to use it? If the Team Leader is vague about systems, methods or procedures, then so will the team be. Another possibility is that someone else in the team will take over, which is generally not good. Usually this is an important reason people

are made team leaders: they have previous experience and knowledge of the required systems, methods and procedures.

When you run out of ideas use your team!

If the Team Leader is unsure, he/she should consult your team, but then he/she should decide. The Team Leader should not abdicate. Debate should be avoided wherever possible - it doesn't get things done - and sort out differences of opinion at the debrief.

Briefing should follow the SMEAC mnemonic:
Advise the team of the Situation: What has happened? How many and what other services involved? Give them the Big Picture. Mission Give the team a simple one line statement about what the team is to achieve. eg."Our mission is M: Statement to...". This immediately places the team into the big picture. Explain how the Mission will be achieved. What methods will be used, who will do what roles, E: Execution etc. Administration Discuss equipment required (personal and team), rendezvous times, travel arrangements, meal A: and Logistics and water availability, etc Control and Discuss radio frequencies, schedule transmission times, action if lost/injured/missing person C: Communications found, procedures for transmission of sensitive information, etc. At the end of the briefing, all team members must have the same "mind's eye view". Ask questions of team members to check they have understood the briefing. Listen to team member suggestions, and kill bad ideas tactfully - the team member you offend is not likely to perform 100%. Make sure all members know what the team and its methods will look like, what their individual role in it is, and that all roles are covered. A simple Briefing Proforma layed out with areas for the SMEAC details, and keyword checklists of things to be covered in each section can greatly assist you as a Team Leader to deliver effective briefings to your team, and also to ask pertinent questions when you yourself are being briefed if certain points are inadequately covered. S: Situation

Communication within the team is vital to its success and efficiency.

Be clear and specific

For example, "Joe and Ted, search the silo" is better than "Could two of you have a look in that thingumebob over there" (with or without a wave of the hand!).

Delegate by name
Don't ask for volunteers - you will usually get a blank response (we're all volunteers!).

Ask, and expect, to be informed.

Delegate individual tasks, and where appropriate ask to be informed when it is complete. That way you know what is going on without having to chase each individual, and you can assign the next task and keep the job moving.

Agree and use prowords or signals

Standard or at least agreed prowords will greatly increase the effectiveness of the team. Basic commands for team control especially fall into this category. For example: "Stop"; not "Halt", "Whoa", "Hang on a minute", etc. Prowords should sound distinct from each other (this is why "Stop" is used instead of "Halt" which could be confused with "Haul"). Try to use the same prowords across the range of operations you do. For example if you use "Stop" during vertical rescue work, don't change to "Halt" for searches.

Maintain Morale
Morale is important to the smooth, efficient functioning of the team. It can also be important, to the membership of your unit/squad, and can certainly affect the morale of the subject/victim/casualty once contact is made. Morale will affect the teams ability to reassure the subject!

Allow some latitude in trying circumstances

Don't ride an individual hard if they are tired, or have a difficult, dangerous or stressful task. Cut them as much slack as you can allow without adversely affecting the job or safety - they will appreciate it when the task is complete.

Watch for fatigue, stress, etc

Don't over stretch the team, the quality of the job and their safety will deteriorate. The Team Leader must look after the team!

Debriefing is extremely important, and often not done well for a variety of reasons!

The Three Phases of a Successful Debrief

What went right or worked 1: Start the Debrief on a positive note. well? What went wrong or not so This is the risky bit. It is important that what is said is not personal or attacking, but 2: well? factual. What can be done better 3: Finish the Debrief off in a positive or constructive way. next time? When Debriefing it is important for all team members, but especially the Team Leader, to follow some simple guides to keep the Debrief constructive, and avoid deterioration into a "witch hunt" or slanging match: Be constructive. Make comments that are useful, relevant and factual. Praise where praise is due. (Of course, this is best done on the spot during the job too). Accept criticism but don't take personally. Use the feedback to learn and improve next time. If you must get critical, don't get personal. Talk about the problem, not the person. Getting personal is the most common mistake made in debriefs. Look for improvements. This is the main purpose for the Debrief: to improve! Plan for next time. Record the Debrief notes, revise SOP's if necessary, etc. A simple Debriefing Proforma layed out in the three phases may be useful to help control and record the debrief through the three phases.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefing

Some situations may warrant formal Critical Incident Stress Debriefing for all involved. Many situations can be handled successfully informally. In these situations, don't forget to spend some time just talking about it amongst your crew in privacy. It helps to get it out of your system. These sessions should be informal, and handled separately to the Operational Debrief. Often in these sessions, some things that may be said could offend some people (especially if they were not directly involved, not used to emergency work, or close to the victim). Often "sick" or "black" humour comes to the surface, as a way of dealing with the situation. In these sessions, be especially aware of people who are unusually quiet, or leave early: they may not be handling it as well as they want to believe. Formal Critical Incident Stress counselling should be available to anyone who needs it.

Decision Making
The Team Leader will likely have to make several or many decisions during the course of an operation or task.

Be Decisive
Base decisions on task success. Which option is likely to work best? If unsure, or unable to decide, consult with members of the team: seek their opinions but the Team Leader must decide. A committee is less effective than a team, so the Team Leader must not abdicate or shirk his/her responsibility to make decisions. Remember, several less than ideal, but timely, decisions are still likely to get the job done better than protracted debate!

Team Control
Keep the team on the task
Don't drive them into the ground without a break - just keep them from getting distracted.

Keep them all heading in the same direction

When you see someone heading off on a tangent, catch it early. They probably have misunderstood part of the briefing.

Appear professional and efficient

Control horseplay, humour, talk, behaviour, etc. Horseplay can quickly become dangerous, and in any case is not professional behaviour. Humour and talk need to be appropriate. They may be quite acceptable in some circumstances. Humour particularly can be useful in reassuring a casualty after establishing a suitable rapport, but must be done tactfully. It is inappropriate in public for many situations. Talk also can make communication within the team difficult.

Watch and maintain morale

While you can allow some latitude in remote locations on some jobs, remember that an effective operation will still be highly criticized if it appears to be tactless, offensive, frivolous or otherwise unprofessional.

The Team Leader Doesn't "Do" Anything

Of course, like all good rules, there are sometimes exceptions. If you find yourself placed in a situation when you (as Team Leader) must get involved in detail, try to pick or take over simple tasks that will allow you to still perform as much of your Team Leadership role as possible.

Take in the Big Picture

The Team Leader needs to be able to stand back to take in the big picture. To see how the whole team is going, and to be able to focus his attention where it is needed now. A team leader that is involved in detail cannot do this. Consequently, the Team Leader needs to keep his/her "hands off" and let the team do the work.

The Team Leader Steers the Team

The Team Leader will see things which the team as a whole must respond to, so he will guide the team in a slightly different direction. Often these factors are not apparent to all members of the team, and would not be apparent to the team leader if he/she was involved in detail.

Delegate and/or appoint Assistant Team Leaders

If a team member needs help, assign another team member or assistant team leader to it. The Team Leader should only get involved if the assistance required is trivial or very quick to do, or the rest of the team is so hard pressed that the Team Leader believes there really is no one else to help! Assistant Team Leaders may be used to delegate large or complex tasks to. Don't appoint an Assistant Team Leader unless you have a need for him/her. Each ATL is essentially one less worker.

Ensure your ATL's know their roles, and what specifically they are responsible for. If they think they have the same responsibilities as you or another ATL, confusion will reign. Once you have assigned an ATL with a certain responsibility, don't "get in their kitchen".

Do Nothing
Don't get involved in the detail of the task.

See Everything
While you don't have to see everything, you need to be as confident of everything as if you had seen it yourself. That is, you must be confident that your team has done the right thing. A good team can make a hell of a difference! The start of a good team is a good team leader.

Focus on the Goal

A distracted Team Leader is not effective.

Guide the team

The Team Leader is in the best position to do this.

The need to troubleshoot will arise, it is normal. The Team Leader needs to be ready and available to do it.

Success, of course, may depend on a great many things, but with effective Team Leadership the team has a big head start!