FDIC 2013 General Session: Bobby Halton on the Importance of Instructors

"To complete the fire service's mission amidst growing demands and shrinking budgets, now as never before, we need YOU, we need great instructors," Robert Halton, editor in chief of Fire Engineering and FDIC education director, told the audience at Thursday's General Session. "So we gather here at FDIC to try to find better ways to serve the troops, better ways to provide them with an advantage, better ways to hone their skills for survival. For these purposes--and these purposes alone--we gather this week."

Drawing on the examples of historical heroes and heroines, tradition, and the core values of the fire service, Halton complimented, guided, and encouraged the fire department instructors sitting before him.

He also presented some reminders, such as the following:

  • The primary goals of every fire service instructor are, first, to ensure that the troops are successful and survive the mission and, then, that the troops are more effective and more efficient at achieving the mission.
  • You have chosen to lead a group of individuals known as the ‘bravest,' a name earned through countless sacrifices over thousands of years by men and women who were willing to put everything on the line because it is what they swore to do, because they knew that there are some things in life more important than their own personal safety.
  • You are instructing at a time of dynamic change and tremendous innovation.
  • Even the smallest actions can have incredible results.
  • Expect the unexpected, and recognize that the greatest tradition in the fire service has been its ability to change--to adapt, to adjust, to modify its tactics to meet the problems of the day.
  • Fire service history is replete with innovation derived from blending tradition and values to defeat obstacles and challenges.
  • Before attempting to change anything, anyone, any policy, or any procedure, make sure that you are correct in your assumptions. Take great pains to respect the truth of our current tactics, recognizing the value of these hard-learned lessons.

Halton had a positive assessment for the future. "We are gathered here," he said, "because we believe we have an opportunity to make a difference, to make things better."

Halton noted that change is coming and that fire service members are "part of a meaningful change." He identified "a momentum among us all," "an unmistakable groundswell of interest in making changes and modifications that will significantly improve how we do our work." The changes, Halton explained, are based on science and experience, will be rooted in tradition, will be true to the values of the fire service, and "will always put the mission first and provide the greatest protection for the troops."

If committed to being extraordinary instructors, minor setbacks will not defeat you but will make you stronger, Halton said. He presented examples of people who suffered setbacks and were faced with what appeared to be insurmountable odds but who persevered and changed not only their own situation but also the world.

Among these people were the following:

Elizabeth Jennings, a black woman living in New York City, the daughter of a successful businessman, a school teacher, and an organist. One Sunday morning in July 1854, Jennings attempted to enter a trolley that was not marked as being available for people of color. She was immediately ordered to leave the vehicle. She was on her way to a church service, where she was to play the organ, and she was intent on getting to the church on time. According to an account in The New York Tribune, Elizabeth got on one of the company's cars; the conductor attempted to get her off. Ultimately, he forcibly grabbed her to "expel her." She resisted.  

Jennings told the conductor that she was a respectable person, born and reared in New York, and that he was a good-for-nothing fellow for insulting decent people who were only trying to get to church for Sunday services.  "The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress, and injured her person. A crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, a policeman helped the conductor to remove her from the trolley.

Jennings hired a young, struggling layer to take her case against the Third Avenue Railway Company. She sued it for its policy of segregated trolleys and the way she was treated by one of its conductors.

Brooklyn Circuit Judge William Rockwell heard the case and issued a ruling, which read in part: "Colored persons, if sober, well behaved, and free of disease," had the same rights as others and could "neither be excluded by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence."

Elizabeth was awarded $500 in damages, which was cut to a couple of hundred bucks. She realized a total of $22 after the return of her court costs and attorney fees.  

The next day New York's Third Avenue Railway Company desegregated all of its trolleys in the city of New York. Within five years, all the trolley lines in New York were integrated. This took place 101 years before America even heard the name Rosa Parks and 10 years before the American Civil War. Jennings passed away in 1901.

The 24-year-old attorney who tried her case was Chester A. Arthur, a future president of the United States of America.

Halton drew the parallel between Elizabeth Jennings and fire service instructors: Both were teachers, not politicians, heroes, or union bosses. She, as the audience members, was hoping to make things better, to change behaviors, to instruct. She, too, made her courageous stand at a time when the economy was in a tailspin and had to face the wealthy and powerful men who ran those railroads and trolley lines—people "who would just as soon eliminate a problem person as step on a cockroach." It took someone who understood that principles matter and that some things in life are worth fighting for and are more important than one's personal safety, Halton noted.

Union Army Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, leader of the 20th Maine Regiment. Chamberlain was 34-year-old professor of modern languages at Maine's exclusive Bowdoin College. He was given command of the Union's newly formed 20th Maine unit in the Civil War. The unit was comprised of extra men left over from other new regiments. As Chamberlain e arrived on Little Round Top, his commanding officer, Colonel Vincent, chose a line of defense that started on the west slope of the hill. Chamberlain took up his position last, curving his line back around to the east and forming the Union Army's extreme left flank. The last thing Col. Vincent told Col. Chamberlain was: ‘This is the left of the Union line. You are to hold this ground at all costs!'

Confederate Col. Hood's division, the 15th and 47th Alabama, all battle-hardened veterans, then began to smash into the 20th Maine troops. Hood ordered these regiments, led by Colonel William C. Oates, to find the Union left, turn it and capture Round Top. As the battle raged, 20th Maine's center began to break and give ground in the face of the Alabama regiments' onslaught. When their ammunition had almost run out, Chamberlain decided to fix bayonets and charge down into the two Alabama regiments. This unexpected charge, coupled with some fortunate fire support, startled the two Alabama regiments and began a rout that forever changed the course of history. The Confederate forces were defeated, and the Union held its line.

"It's important to remember that all leaders' actions have consequences--all instructors' actions have consequences--much like Elizabeth Jennings' small act led to a monumental change, as did Joshua Chamberlain's [decision]," said Halton.

The fire service saw its "turning points" with the first high-rises, the replacement of mass with geometry in commercial and residential construction, and in the proliferation of polymer-based products that has changed the thermal dynamic nature of the standard structure fire.

What was Halton's closing directives for the fire service's VIPs (Very Important Instructors)? 

  • Never imitate politicians. Continue as we have for more than 2,000 years: Take the high road.
  • Find ways to understand the old tactics as they were understood in their earlier context, and build on those hard-learned lessons.
  • Have the courage to oppose those behaviors which do not reflect our values-- recklessness, bullying, and thoughtlessness.
  • Understand why we are doing the things we are doing; respect tradition and practice.
  • Understand that not every tactic will work in every environment

or in every fire department; you may have to adapt the tactics for the organization in which you are instructing to match its resources, its level of expertise, and the jurisdiction in which it does its firefighting.

"So, my fellow instructors," Halton concluded, "be bold, be strong, be creative, teach by intention, and lead by example. Trust your instincts. Find strong partners. Let nothing and no one stand in the way of your making your community a better place in which to live or your creativeness and innovation or helping your troops to achieve the mission. Teach. Lead.  Make a difference. Be true to your fire service values. Learn new lessons, respect the past, and honor the fallen!"

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