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.