Command Post: Riding the Right-Front Seat: Discipline As a Training Tool

W hen you are the person riding in the right-front seat, it is your job to ensure that the tasks your company is expected to perform are done correctly and in a timely manner. You must be able to control the actions of the people onboard your unit. That’s why there is a need for discipline. In the absence of discipline there can be no control.

Control is an important function within every organization, but this is especially true in fire departments, given the critical nature of our work. Some form of similarity must exist between our personal goals and the goals of our organization. In most cases, reasonable people can be found operating within the constraints of reasonably constituted organizations. These, however, are not the problems to be considered in this column. I will show you that discipline is a training tool, one which is used for lining up the views of unwilling members of the department with its official needs.

Positive approach

Let me share a citation from the textbook Management in the Fire Service (fifth edition): “Many officers and their staffs are uncomfortable when they hear the word discipline.” For many people, “the word is almost interchangeable with the word punishment.” But discipline is not about punishment; it is about education and perspective.

For you in the right-front seat, a definition of just what discipline is seems appropriate at this point. It is my hope that this definition will aid in a shift in your emphasis from the widely misunderstood negative connotation of discipline to a more modern, positive style of education and training.

According to Webster, there are three basic ways in which we can examine discipline. Discipline is:

a. Subject to authority

b. A form of instruction

c. A form of self-control

Rather than dwell on the authority aspects, the goal should be the creation of a fire department environment wherein discipline is an accepted tool of organizational demarcation and delineation. I think a great deal of the positive morale seen in effective organizations comes from the self-discipline that evolves as the norm of performance established by the members themselves.

If you are in the right-front seat, you have to develop an organizational orientation that favors compliance with departmental regulations. You must set the example. If you want your crew members to arrive at work on time, set the standard and be there early enough to greet them when they arrive. If you want everyone to be in the proper uniform, be sure you are.

How do we all come to the conclusion that it is better to follow the rules? A flash of consciousness can come from a combination of dedicated co-workers and selfless leaders. I have written columns about people who so thoroughly support you that they would rather suffer physical pain than be found guilty of disappointing you. This provides a combination of an enlightened, learning environment and excellent role models.

One of my former supervisors was a deputy chief, a true gentleman from the old school. In his 40-plus years of service, the man never took a sick day. Each order he received from headquarters was carried out in a straightforward, concerned manner. Never one to raise his voice, this man was always in complete control. Perhaps it was the confidence he exuded that formed the environment wherein we labored. Never once did he publicly speak against the department, nor did he ever conduct himself in any way other than as a complete gentleman. His example frequently stimulated my instincts to be an obedient, willing member of the fire department team, rather than lose my temper. These were the stories we shared at his wake.

Whatever type of discipline exists in any organization is a direct outgrowth of the leadership style of the head of the fire department. It is the leader’s vision of discipline that determines how discipline is delivered through the organization. Discipline must be evenly applied at all levels. And as with all things, teaching by example leaves the strongest impression.

The best way to work with people is to coach them in the desired direction. As has often been emphasized, mentors take risks with people and those people grow as a result of the challenges they receive.

So it should be in the area of discipline. You must first spell out reasonable guidelines for your people, then work hard to create an understanding of your organization’s boundaries within which they will be functioning. Having done that, we must give them the freedom to try being a viable part of the team. When they succeed, be supportive; when they fail, be even more supportive. The results will be well worth the effort. n