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Leadership Forum: Motivating teams during COVID-19

November 30, 2020
By Chris Harrow

Throughout this pandemic, many things have been put on hold or have been much harder to accomplish. Weddings, funerals and family get-togethers have adapted to maintain safety. The fire service has also had to adapt. Departments are all finding ways to do things differently to stay within the new guidelines. One of the most difficult tasks to achieve around the stations is preserving your firefighters’ motivation even when you can’t get the entire team together. It’s like playing an NHL hockey game, but not being able to practice together on the ice before the game.

As many great leaders in the fire service know, one thing that makes them successful is a strong team. The team that remains strong and motivated makes any task around the station or at an incident work extremely well. Leaders spend much of their time making sure the team is motivated and in tune with what’s occurring around the station or within the municipality. But, with the current situation, how do we motivate and communicate with a team that cannot get together?

In speaking with my peers in the fire service, many have tried different techniques with varying degrees of success. There are a lot more emails being sent in attempt to keep everyone in the loop. But how successful are the emails to the younger generation who opt for many options besides email? I know my own kids don’t even have their phones set up to alert them to a new email message. Are there any other digital techniques that others are using to communicate with their firefighters that doesn’t involve a plethora of emails?

There are a lot of fire departments who use social events to reward and motivate their firefighters. Awards nights are often held to recognize the long service of firefighters and to thank their partners for the support. Sadly, those have all been cancelled for this year. Christmas parties are another event where everyone can get together and socialize and also don’t look like they will be happening this year. Socialization is a huge part of keeping a team together and motivated.

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All these set backs are requiring leaders to be creative and find new ways of accomplishing the same ideas. Many of us thrive on being able to assemble our entire teams and communicate with everyone at once; it saves a ton of time not having to repeat the message multiple times or having someone else to deliver messages to your team for you. Similar to the telephone game played back in school where the first person would whisper a message to the person beside them and so on, it never fails but the same message never seems to be able to get through to everyone.

No matter how strong your management group is, there is nothing that can replace good, old-fashioned face-to-face meetings. As a leader, so much can be accomplished with this type of meeting and not being able to do it feels like you are steering the bus with only three wheels. There is a lot of reliance put on the other managers to assist in getting the proper messages out. It requires a very cohesive and high functioning management team to accomplish. If management was not all on the same page before, they had better be now because it will show immediately if not. Personally, I don’t think I have ever talked more to my co-workers than I do now to make sure we are all in tune with what’s happening and the messaging we send out.

We all need to collaborate more and share ideas on how we can motivate our teams with the same effectiveness as pre-CO
VID-19 times. Using social media allows chiefs to see what other departments are doing to deal with the changes caused by this coronavirus. It’s vital we keep our teams together, working towards the same goals. I have already noticed my team is drifting apart a bit due to the lack of opportunities to get together. Volunteer departments thrive on this ability. It is similar at times to a service club that acts as a hub for people to socialize. It is what draws people to serve on the department. If they enjoy being with the people around the department, they will keep coming back. If that is taken away from them, a huge motivation tactic we use is also gone.

It’s important to find new ways of motivating and increasing morale around your team. As leaders, we are being constantly challenged to find methods that work in new environments. Don’t dismiss the lack of socializing, thinking it will come back when this is over. You may not be able to wait that long, so start now finding new ways and share your successes with your peers. We are struggling and need to work together to get through this. Stay strong and keep pushing though. You and your team will appreciate it that much more when this is over.


Chris Harrow is the director of fire services for the Town of Minto and Township of Wellington North in Ontario. He is a graduate from fire programs at Lakeland College and Dalhousie University and holds a graduate certificate in Advanced Care Paramedics from Conestoga College. He can be reached at c.harrow@mintofiredept.on.ca.


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