The Most Important Thing

Bobby Halton on the importance of training and drilling for the firefighter.
editor’s opinion
Bobby Halton

A great friend and an outstanding firefighter, Larry Dowling, once gave me a coffee mug I still treasure to this day. In his usual style of using humor to drive home a point, the mug had a saying on it that I paraphrase: “If you are a firefighter and you don’t think that training and drill are the most important things in this job, then you are the biggest ___ in the world.” You can fill in the blank yourself.

I thought of Larry and my coffee mug several times recently. First was when I passed a group of recruits going through Firefighter I on our drill field, watching them get high-quality instruction on hose stretches and layouts. Second was during a recent visit with a young captain, Jeremy from Edmond, who is incredibly motivated to get all the training he can, and although he is incredibly talented and experienced, he is relentlessly pushing himself to learn more. Both experiences reminded me of how much I agree with Larry, and I think the world is a much better place because one General George Washington also would have agreed with Larry.

As with all life’s lessons, it is all about history. In short, after Trenton, our continental army suffered a few setbacks. The defeats at Brandywine, Germantown, and Philadelphia were mostly the result of a mix of several different tactical approaches being misapplied because of inconsistencies and shortcomings in training and drill. The fledging army’s training and drill combined tactics from several different drill books—French, English, and Prussian. The result was no consistency and no established system to coordinate the training and drill. The losses were not because the Americans were not brave and outstanding fighters; they were. It was a matter of coordination and consistency missing in drill and disrupting tactics.

All that changed when divine providence intervened and four inspired foreigners, military veterans of the Seven Years’ War, who could not stand by while a devoted people struggled for freedom from intolerant oppressive masters, became inspired to join Washington. These foreigners, like the American troops and all of us today, were drawn to and inspired by George Washington, his character and courage. They were led by one Prussian gentleman, Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben. They landed in America with a letter of introduction to the good general from none other than Ben Franklin himself, whom von Steuben had met with in Paris. The timing was perfect.

Things were tough for Washington’s troops when Baron von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge. Von Steuben was generally thought to be a former general in the Prussian Army by most. However, Washington knew that in fact he had been a lieutenant. Despite his presumed stature, he was sincerely humble and wanted only to “volunteer.” His manner and style made a good impression not only on Washington but on the troops as well.

Washington quickly recognized his talent and gave him the responsibility of organizing a system of drill and training for the entire continental army to use. Von Steuben recognized immediately that these troops were intelligent, talented, and eager to learn. Von Steuben knew that the best way to teach folks was to explain the real-world reasons, the lessons, that created the drill.

Von Steuben selected a hundred of the best men from Washington’s guard. After a few days of intense training, he then selected another hundred, until the entire army had a firm grasp on one consistent set of drill. He did so by focusing on the basics, the fundamentals. He reduced all the orders to simple, understandable commands. He put extreme focus on the use of their rifles and bayonets, their primary tools—the care, loading, and firing. He made sure that the coordination of the lines in the order of fire was understood implicitly, tactics. Within a month, he had the entire army drilling to the new rules and methods and had established instructors within the ranks that he personally met with and mentored.

He also insisted on strict punctuality. He taught them to set their watches to that of the commanding officer, who would set his watch by the one at headquarters. He insisted that all noncommissioned officers adhere to strict grooming, cleanliness, and a strict code of conduct; those who did not were promptly demoted. He instilled pride, set standards, and enforced a code of behavior that was honorable. It wasn’t easy and he wasn’t always popular, but it was effective, and he was respected. He made a difference that, together with the other founding patriots of our nation, has resulted in making it possible for a people to live free in the greatest republic in history.

Basics Are Advanced

Yes, a drill master, a lieutenant, a guy from another place with solid training ideas and techniques turned the world around. What do we take away from von Steuben? That training and drill in the basics, the fundamentals; respect for the troops’ inherent qualities; and explaining why we do things are the most important things in a fire department for effectiveness, esprit de corps, discipline, and order. Reflecting that focus on training, in promptness, in punctuality, and in the small things is critical. The tones at 0600 to set your watches matter; clean, well-cared-for uniforms and tools matter; fitness matters.

We and our law enforcement brethren are the most important services in the community. We provide security to our fellow citizens that enables them and us to do greater things and improve the world every day. We do so freely, and we do so honorably. We need Washingtons, and they need folks like Larry, von Steuben, and Jeremy—drill masters who care, who understand, and who persevere. The coffee mug says it all: Training and drill are the most important aspects of our job.

Bobby Halton signature

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