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The Firefighter Recruit Instructor

As fire academy instructors, whether you are training volunteers or career personnel and regardless of whether you represent a large regional training facility or the training academy of a municipal department, your primary goal is always the safety of your students. This emphasis on safety begins during basic training and it’s this foundation that will prove vital to our students for the rest of their fire service careers, whether paid or volunteer.

The key to this effective foundation is the instructors responsible for recruit training. Without them, the fire service is in serious trouble. But, to have an effective training program requires a unique character to deal with personnel just entering the fire service. Many of our recruits are not familiar with the paramilitary structure that is the fire service; many may be just out of high school, for example. Their level of discipline and regimentation may not be exactly in sync with the fire service, so it is through recruit training that this change takes place.

Effective recruit training requires an instructor cadre that can mold these civilians into firefighters, but this requires a strong command presence and an authoritative personality on the part of our training officers. Authoritative yes, but bullies, no!

This article will explore the process of turning recruits into firefighters from the perspective of what makes a good recruit-training instructor.


Order from chaos

Without order, there is chaos. When chaos reigns, we have an environment that isn’t conducive to learning. Without an environment conducive to learning, we are sending our students out into their careers ill prepared for what awaits them. As such, we must incorporate a foundation of knowledge, ethics and values, which can reward our firefighters in more ways than one.

Remember, it is the foundation that we create during basic training that our students will remember for the rest of their fire service careers. They will build on the knowledge, values and ethics that we create in their basic training. Thus, we have no choice but to develop and ingrain into them this culture from Day 1. If this foundation is strong and of quality, then these members will become company- and chief-level officers with a strong background from which to build on.

Fire service knowledge that builds on safe practices is obviously the core of what we are responsible for teaching, and we’ll cover that in a bit more depth later. But we can build on that with other attributes that will make the “job” a better place. Some of the ethics and values that we ingrain into our students can be taken with them and used every day for the rest of their lives, whether they are volunteer firefighters or career firefighters. Values that emphasize

  • Coming to work / school on time
  • Doing more than just the minimum; giving a hard charge!
  • Showing respect, decency and courtesy to their peers and others

These attributes can only set our students up for success no matter what they end up doing in their lives. The culture we create can be life changing in many cases.

Think about it, when not engaged in “combat” how many times have you had issues with members coming to work late? Or, do you have high maintenance employees who argue with you (as the company officer) because they only want to do what they choose? Or, do you have troops who don’t give 100% whether it’s in the station, on the training ground or on the fire scene? How many times do others have to pick up the slack for these people?

Yes, the fire academy can be a place that can set the stage for an entirely new generation of first-class fire departments. The finished product that we turn out will eventually become the next generation of company and chief officers, so our performance affects an organization for generations! We have a significant responsibility.


We are not bullies

As fire academy instructors, we have a lot of authority in our little corner of the world due to our position and title. Because of this authority that we wield, we nevertheless, are not there to subject others to our will simply because we can. For those who derive some thrill of subjecting others to their will and being a bully because they can, they are best off working somewhere else. There is no place for this behavior in the fire service.

With that being said, let’s start to discuss how we can show the proper degree of command presence; what that entails, and how to walk that line between creating order versus an environment that is inappropriate.

I want to gear this article specifically to the basic training portion of a firefighter’s career-long training regimen. As we become comfortable in our environments, training does take on a more relaxed atmosphere. This could include company-level training or more advanced classes or seminars. This level of comfort is normal. It comes from a bond that has developed among colleagues who routinely place their lives in one another’s hands in the most dangerous of environments.

Basic training is a far different setting. We are dealing with a microcosm of society, some of who are not cut out to be firefighters. Basic training is also a weeding out process. There is always an attrition rate among a class, which causes members to quit outright either due to the physical intensity or the fear of danger. After all, the thrill of fire combat does not appeal to everyone.


The basic-training environment

Recruit training has many responsibilities to fulfill. Among these are firefighters who can carry out basic tasks under the supervision of a leader and do so in a safe manner. These members must also be able to follow orders and be able to react instantly to commands, especially in the heat of battle. In addition, our new members have certain other responsibilities that we mentioned earlier such as those associated with values and ethics, i.e., arriving to work on time, giving a hard charge and being able to assimilate as part of the group.

The basic training instructor has some responsibility to fulfill! The best way I have found to provide a disciplined setting, yet one of decency and humanity, is from the 2,000-year-old text by Sun Tzu, The Art of War (see the translated edition by Samuel B. Griffith, by Oxford University Press, 1963).


In Chapter I, Estimates, # 7, Sun Tzu talks of the virtues of the general: “By command I mean the general’s qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness.” (Griffith, 1963)


For our purposes, I would like to gear this translation of Sun Tzu’s work to our role as the instructors in our own fire-training world. While our significance is far from that of any general, and our ability to dominate world events is irrelevant, we do have certain obligations and responsibilities.

In The Art of War, the description of the five virtues goes into a bit greater depth following the above quoted statement.


“If wise, a commander is able to recognize changing circumstances and to act expediently. If sincere, his men will have no doubt of the certainty of rewards and punishments. If humane, he loves mankind, sympathizes with others, and appreciates their industry and toil. If courageous, he gains victory by seizing opportunity without hesitation. If strict, his troops are disciplined because they are in awe of him and are afraid of punishment.” (Griffith, 1963)


Take a look at the virtues described and see how they are applicable to each of as basic-training instructors. With an understanding of each virtue come the parameters for what makes us either really good basic-training instructors or not. The descriptions of wisdom, sincerity, humanity and strictness are all directly applicable to our effort to provide an environment conducive to a structured learning environment.


Command presence and the basic-training instructor

Our responsibility, through training and education, is to protect our firefighters through effective training. We must do everything in our power to make sure a firefighter’s mother and father are not awoken in the middle of the night by a Chief Officer and a Chaplain standing at their front door to tell them their son or daughter is presently missing and presumed dead at a building collapse somewhere in town.

With this in mind, we can begin to see how and why we must act the way we do while conducting training.

Basic training is a potentially very valuable tool that can keep our students alive once they are assigned to their companies. After training, they will be in a world that has no built-in safeties and no “reset” button for mistakes. Therefore, a certain degree of seriousness must form our basic-training program.

The balances of wisdom, sincerity, humanity and strictness are the core attributes for our instructors.

From the very first moment, create an environment of strictness and humanity. You are not a thug, you are not a bully; you are someone responsible for helping these students stay alive.

Injuries can occur in training, especially if chaos rules the day. Therefore, strictness has to be ingrained into you culture.

The first meeting with your students should always be stern but humane. Set the stage of a command presence from the very first meeting. Commands to the group that demand instant action, such as “out of your chairs and on your feet!” create an interesting dynamic. By seeing who can react instantly and who does not says a lot about how they will react on the fireground.

If a simple order such as “get up” is problematic, how will this student perform in a live fire setting when you say “Get down!” Or how will the student react once he or she goes to a line company and the officer issues a directive to be carried out instantly? The purpose is not to subject someone to your will because you’re on an ego trip; rather there is reasoning behind these actions.

I think a student’s ability to follow directions in a relatively safe setting leads to a student who can then perform admirably under stress. But, by the same token, those who cannot perform as directed in a secure setting will be a threat to not only themselves, but also to their classmates.

Our basic training can still be a still a potentially dangerous environment. There is always a threat of falls when operating from ladders or upper floors, potential burn injuries that could be incurred if students are careless or ignore safety protocols, or even the chance of traumatic injuries due to improper hoseline use or failing to raise a ladder properly and dropping it on a nearby inattentive student. Discipline and order create for a much safer environment.

Therefore, sincerity and strictness are two critical attributes of the instructor. The students should not be in fear of you but rather should be made aware that there is consequences for their actions…just like on the fireground!

During your first session with the new recruits, let them know the game plan, let them know their responsibilities and what is expected of them. Rules and regulations that will govern their actions should be read, reviewed and distributed to each of them and then they should sign for them to indicate they did receive the rules and that they are aware of them. I have also found that distribution of Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration (OSHA) regulations that govern facial hair as it relates to respiratory protection is another valuable tool in the tool box for those who may not tend to proper grooming standards the way they should. Again, the responsibility is placed on the student to carry out the expectation.

In other words, the burden of responsibility has shifted. The students are now held accountable for their actions. This is something we don’t see a lot of today and it is a great way to introduce our students to the fire service culture. After all, we are a paramilitary setting and we operate in an environment that is unforgiving.

Another powerful tool in the toolbox is a guideline detailing disciplinary action. A tiered system for infractions might include a four-tiered system of disciplinary action. It could look like this:

  • First offense might include written documentation indicating the offense and requiring the student’s signature as well as a counseling session indicating corrective measures required.
  • Second offense might include written documentation indicating the offense and requiring the student’s signature as well as a counseling session indicating corrective measures required plus a written letter to the Chief of the Department being represented (applicable to regional type training facilities).
  • Third offense might include written documentation indicating the offense and requiring the student’s signature as well as a counseling session indicating corrective measures required plus a written letter to the Chief of the Department being represented and indicating that one more infraction will result in termination from the program.
  • Fourth offense might include written documentation indicating the offense and a written letter to the Chief of the Department being represented indicating that the student was dismissed from the program and why.

Obviously the most egregious actions may result in automatic termination, but for lesser crimes, the tiered system of punishments might be sufficiently adequate.

In an era of litigation, documentation is everything, so make sure you cross your T’s and dot your I’s because you may need to fallback on your paperwork to protect you!

As it relates to dealing with students, you must go out of your way to help them at every chance. No matter how stern you are with them, remember your primary mission; to help them learn. You don’t have to be their friend because that can lead to potential problems, but you do have to help them learn so they can survive.

If you can prevent one student from being crippled or blinded or killed because of what you teach them, then we all win! Think about how much less stress their families alone would be subjected to if you taught their son or daughter the importance of always wearing eye protection during an extrication call, or to always carry a working flashlight every time they are at a call. How many injuries can be prevented by such a proactive approach?

To do this all requires structure! Strong personalities among our instructor cadre can create the right atmosphere for learning. You can communicate to your students in an authoritative tone of voice, but do not scream at them. Again, there is a difference between bullying and being authoritative.

As a basic-training instructor, you can be authoritative, you can be stern, and you can be strict, but you must show humanity and you better know the job (remember, you cannot come back from some place you’ve never been)! These attributes are the hallmark of a good instructor.



The way a basic-training program is structured when its core values are based on effectiveness and discipline ultimately sets the stage for a culture that will be ingrained into the entire organization. A basic-training program that is well organized (with discipline and regimentation creating an environment of order) will create an environment conducive to effective learning. This translates into a much safer and more effective organization. There are many fire academies that already provide such a structured setting and are, rightfully, very proud of it. Command presence among its staff does offer many advantages.

Instructors who have command presence, know the job and can create a strict yet humane environment, will create generations of safer and more effective firefighters, company officers and chief officers. Such an atmosphere will eventually permeate the organizational structure; so make sure to make the most of it.

Preventing that knock on the door at 2 am and the emotional disaster that a family is in for can be prevented in most cases by culture, values and wisdom of the department and its people. This organizational structure and these attributes begin in basic training. It is an educational setting that has been used with success among our law enforcement counterparts during police recruit training for generations. Should the fire service settle for anything less?

There are far too many disasters of firefighters being killed and permanently injured because the department lacked the wisdom, an effective structure, and where order seemed to evaporate under the stress of combat. Remember, when your brain turns to jelly, the only thing you can fall back on is your training. Tough, realistic training where members are able to react instantly offers the difference between life and death. To ingrain into our members this attribute of reacting instantly begins with the “command presence” of a competent and knowledgeable instructor cadre.