How to build a stronger team by writing stuff down

By Hannah Gallagher, Lake County Search and Rescue

In my professional life, I serve as a director of quality, risk and compliance for a federally funded community health center. I have also been a member of two very different SAR teams in Colorado over the last decade: one pulling resources and membership from the entire Metro-Denver area, and the other based in the small mountain community of Lake County. Both teams are full of passionate volunteers doing the best they can with the tools they have. All of these experiences have positioned me to observe the ways that groups can organize themselves or implement strategies to mitigate risk, do quality work and be effective. As much as I wish my strengths brought more exciting tools to my team, I know that some of the most important work a SAR team must complete happens behind the scenes and out of the field.

Completing the final piece of the Alpine Rescue Team Prospective Member Training Class,
 the overnight bivvy with fellow PM, Kharis Eppstein

I started my SAR career, sometime in 2014, by just showing up to the Alpine Rescue Team’s events offering to help do whatever was falling through the cracks. That meant for the first five years or so of my SAR career, instead of getting to do any exciting and daring rescues, I was setting up tables at PSAR events, cold-calling businesses in the area looking for partnerships, or vacuuming out the team headquarters every few weeks. After a while, I think I was formally brought onto the team mostly because every team needs someone willing to vacuum.

One mentor to me as I entered SAR was a person serving as president of the Alpine Rescue Team named Wes, an incredibly humble and charismatic person who drew me in by actually knowing my name when I showed up to set tables. I connected with him because I really appreciated his humility and self-effacing manner when talking about SAR. There’s a lot of ego potential in SAR, and I can’t help but gravitate toward those who aren’t tripping over theirs constantly. He shared with me his sentiment that, although I was always an ordinary member in the field, on the admin side, there was a lot I could do. In other words, there is a lot to be said about giving back in the way you are best suited. I have found it to be true that the more willing you are to do the menial tasks that keep the car rolling down the road, the more likely you will eventually be asked to take the wheel. 

Search and rescue organizations, like other nonprofit volunteer-run organizations, often face struggles around burnout, continuity in the midst of leadership changes, and equitably sharing work across the full membership to keep the organization running. At its heart, many of these struggles could be alleviated with formal organizational strategies, written protocols, and definitions around team expectations; in other words, having someone take the time to write down what needs done, by whom, and when. As a project manager, I can confirm that this can be a heavy time investment, but one that pays big dividends in the long term. Where to start?

Building out foundational team policies gives a framework for team expectations, builds guideposts for behavior, and provides a formula for response when things go wrong. They communicate the goals for cultural norms, and the plans for action in mission readiness and response. In Emergency Management, a guiding document for any organization is a written Emergency Management Plan (sometimes called an Emergency Operations Plan). These documents are meant to represent an “all-hazards approach” to emergencies, meaning that regardless of the actual emergency, certain steps and protocols will be followed. The documents define roles and responsibilities for the emergency response effort and usually a communication plan for that work. So, when we talk about policies, procedures and protocols for search and rescue organizations, I see value in borrowing that concept of developing a written framework to organize a team, regardless of the hazard. Although there may not be a need to actually write an EMP (a SAR team faces less necessity to clarify how they will continue to operate in the face of a wildfire than a brick-and-mortar business for instance), it is helpful to define how the team will organize themselves in the midst of any emergency scenario they face. Next, it is important to think through the types of documents that could be written and for what purpose:

  • A policy is a document that ought to tell us “what” an organization defines as imperative for operation. For example: There may be a policy in place clarifying that in the event of an avalanche, the first members into the field are only those defined as qualified hasty team members. It may also define that those team members are eligible to be on the hasty team after they have completed specific training and demonstrated defined competencies.
  • A procedure or protocol should tell us “who or how”: Within the avalanche response protocol, these steps shall be followed, these tools will be leveraged, and these safety procedures will be ensured prior to entering the field. Information about the ongoing mission will be shared in a clear, consistent manner that aligns with community partners and best practices (if known).
LCSAR Field TraLCSAR UTV/ATV Field Training ahead of busy race season

Investing the time in having these guidelines written down enables sharing of work, builds increased confidence in team members for each other, supports team continuity in the face of transition within team membership, and builds real risk mitigation by providing clarity around actions in high-stakes situations. Writing out procedures may not be as sexy as hanging out of a helicopter, but it is a role that has immense benefit for the culture, safety and effectiveness of that team. Some of these obstacles need not exist forever; investing in organizational documents that build clarity and understanding can have huge impacts on the health of our organizations and the work we do. 

Beyond the initial creation or review of policies around what it means to be a member of your organization and how the team will operate, it is useful to think through which struggles your team most earnestly faces, and how strategic support of shared written information could impact that issue. One of my strategic goals while serving as the vice president and training coordinator for LCSAR was to address a common struggle not unique to our team: that of lessening leadership burnout and building stronger engagement of its members as a whole. I see those as related struggles, because it is not uncommon for a few people to find themselves doing the lion’s share of the work, while others feel less connected or invested in the organization. Some of the suspected causes for these issues in our own team were:

  • Rapid team growth meant that leaders who used to recreate with and intimately know their teammates’ skills were less sure of the skillsets of their newer teammates. This meant that rather than ask others for help, leaders on the team often preferred to do the work themselves. This also caused information to be siloed and put the team at risk if an expert in one area of the team should leave the membership.
  • New team members felt less invested in the team, because the mission load was light enough that they didn’t see other members often or understand ways that they could get connected and be more “bought in” to the team as a whole. This led to disengagement and could be argued as one of the causes of team turnover.

One positive takeaway from this was that everyone involved was operating with a spirit of service: the leaders were trying to support the team in as many ways as possible, even to the detriment of their own experiences or capacities, and new team members were willing to help more, if only they knew how. 

To clarify the types of tasks that needed to be done, LCSAR leadership created a Team Task List that allowed the general membership to take ownership of small chunks of work necessary to keep ourselves functioning smoothly. Members could sign up for things like completing a quarterly gear safety check, or organizing community events, and that meant some tasks were redistributed across the team more equitably. This type of work only functions if it is clear to all involved what is necessary for a certain task to be completed — in other words, if someone has taken the time to write down what is required so anyone could pitch in. Yet again, written protocols support a well-functioning team effort and continuity despite changes in ownership of a task. This has big impacts on the team culture and, hopefully, helps lessen burnout of its members over time.

Lift Ticket Skills Check-off Training with helicopter partners ahead of summer season
LCSAR Avalanche Transceiver Skills Check-off 

When distributing tasks, it is also imperative for success that the skills a person must have for critical roles in a team are clearly defined. For example, it isn’t wise to put someone with no financial skills in the role of treasurer. While it may not be feasible with limited personnel resources to have a volunteer with actual certifications in this area completing those necessary tax documents, it may be worth exploring if there are any community members or resources who could share that skill with the team. If that resource cannot be located, it is worth exploring who may be best able to complete those tasks within the team membership with the support of a written guide and defined timeline. If a task is less critical, it may be possible to build out a written protocol that can be used and shared with anyone who is currently owning that task. It can be incredibly overwhelming to inherit a huge fundraising event with no written guidelines for the necessary timeline and goalposts for the work (I speak from experience here). Taking the time to write out the deliverables or outputs that must occur for something to be successful is a great starting point. 

Another side effect of rapid team growth was that our team knew each other less well and thereby knew less about each other’s skills and strengths. Prior to that growth, knowledge of this kind was often earned while recreating or serving on missions.  As the team grew and this knowledge became more diluted, however, it was even more necessary to formalize both a training plan with defined skills and learning objectives. We also needed written policies, procedures and protocols for mission response from which everyone could better know the guidelines and expectations for mission activities. I have seen the effects of defined P&Ps from two sides of the spectrum on the two teams I have served: on the one hand, a very thorough and formal written team handbook covering a huge range of topics and scenarios, and on the other hand, almost no written protocols but a strong desire to remain flexible and responsive in the face of rapidly changing mission environments. I can attest to the benefit of writing flexible but precise policies and procedures. If I know what you know, I have greater confidence serving alongside you; if I know how we will organize ourselves on a mission before we even begin, I can be more efficient and effective.

When building out a training plan, it is helpful to begin with clarifying what learning objectives are seen as foundational and required to operate and then creating a teaching schedule around those objectives. This accomplishes a few things. Training leads can begin to reuse or rely on content that has been developed over time so they need not re-create the wheel each year. Attendance of training can be positively impacted by having a more consistent, predictable training schedule. Next, the team can build confidence over time in their own skills and those of their fellow members, by having unified and consistent protocols for various disciplines that may be applied in the field. Furthermore, these consistent protocols mean that everyone can safety-check each other’s work, because everyone knows what the plan is for specific situations. Empowering a team with knowledge and mutually agreed-upon best practices eliminates errors from miscommunication or misunderstanding in the field. Having defined expectations for a particular skill also empowers the team membership to take ownership of their own knowledge gaps; if I know I need to demonstrate a particular technical rope system and build it in a defined way, then I am better able to seek out that knowledge to meet that expectation. Clarified learning objectives and training plans positively impact team knowledge, and are an invaluable risk mitigation strategy.

Building out these documents is a time investment, but one that stands to benefit a team long-term. Policies define foundational principles around which a team will organize themselves. Procedures and protocols provide detailed descriptions of how a team will support those policies: who and what will be done to comply with the team’s objectives. Written training plans empower team membership and build confidence in skills across time, making us more efficient and effective in our work. We all hold

a piece of critical information in our teams, and my goal is to encourage others to think about how that can be shared and written down for posterity. I hope to encourage SAR volunteers to take the time to reflect on what skills they have to offer their team; whether it’s leading technical rope rescue training or filing tax documents, it’s all necessary to keep us functioning. I also encourage you to think about what information you hold that your team could benefit from knowing — what task you have owned that may need passing on to someone else in the future.

And I hope that, just maybe, you write it down. 

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1 Comments

  1. Russel Martin on April 9, 2024 at 1:57 pm

    Thanks for writing this. It matches my experience across more than 30 years in volunteer emergency response in at least nine organizations.

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