Photo by Tony Greco.
By Thomas N. Warren
The old saying, “I can’t explain what it is, but I know it when I see it” applies when we speak of a command presence at any fire or emergency scene. Anyone who has seen a John Wayne movie knows what a command presence looks like; it appeared that John Wayne was always cool, calm, confident, and collected regardless of the character he played. He always knew what to do in any circumstance. And, not surprisingly, every character he portrayed was always successful and respected. Wouldn’t every person in a fire service leadership position like to be that confident, knowledgeable, and respected. I think so.
During my career in volunteer and career fire departments, I have served under leaders who were very knowledgeable; calm in the face of enormous challenges; inspirational to their subordinates; respectful to the firefighters in their command; and, most importantly, trusted by all those who served under them. Leaders like these have been tested over time and have continually proven themselves worthy of the responsibilities they hold. When they arrive at the scene of a fire or other emergency, everyone knows that they will bring order to the chaos of the emergency scene, and everyone will be safe. In short, they have a kind of authority that is easily recognized and respected by everyone on scene—civilians and firefighters alike. This is the vision of a command presence in today’s fire service.
What is Command Presence?
Many people will argue that command presence is something that a person is born with; you either have it or you don’t. Some may compare it to a quarterback on a football team who can throw a football with precision accuracy. This is a unique skill that not every football player is capable of developing. However, this skill is an athletic ability that will fade with age. The same cannot be said of command presence; in fact, a command presence will mature over time, unlike athletic ability. Like any other human endeavor, it will develop with varying degrees of ease. Developing a command presence is something all firefighters are capable of with some training, mentoring, and time.
The core components of developing a command presence are skills that any fire officer can master; it is best to start thinking about it early in your career. With a few years’ experience, you will be able to identify the leadership skills, traits, and styles of leaders you will want to emulate. With your first promotion to lieutenant, you will become responsible for a fire company and be in command of that company’s daily activities. Although it’s not as complex as commanding a major fire or emergency, this is where honing your skills will start. You probably have watched many of your own supervisors over the years and established in your mind what kind of leader you want to be.
Most of us strive to develop a command presence like John Wayne: always respected, always knowledgeable, and calm in the most stressful of times. This type of leadership requires many years of experience. The years that were spent as a firefighter exhibiting skill and dedication to your craft will form the foundation of your future success. Your coworkers will have already recognized you as someone who is capable of greater things. At this point, you will have developed two essential attributes of a successful leader: the trust and the confidence of your fellow firefighters. Gaining their trust and confidence takes many years of shared experience to develop. So, share your knowledge with other firefighters, always be part of the team when work needs to be completed, and treat your fellow firefighters respectfully (even the ones that drive you crazy). As a new fire officer, you can build on these attributes in the broader context of your fire company.
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Always Be a Student
The next important thing you must do is to continually be a student of your craft. Being a knowledgeable professional is a persistent endeavor. Seek out professional development opportunities as they become available. Technology has not just crept into our firefighting world but it has invaded it.
Our work still involves a great deal of physical stamina, but the technological level of how we operate on a daily basis has changed our profession and will continue to do so in the future. People in the fire service who do not embrace professional development will soon be left behind. This means that you must work on earning a degree in fire science and consider an advanced degree following that. Don’t be hesitant to attend conferences and trade shows on your time off. Take time to discuss what you have learned at your classes and conferences with the firefighters in your command. Use fire service magazine articles as a source of discussion during fire company drills. Always be the one who mentors your firefighters and let them see your passion for our profession.
Never embarrass your firefighters or discipline them in the presence of other firefighters. There is no quicker way to lose the respect of your firefighters than to humiliate them in front of their peers.
Correcting a wrong behavior or pointing out a tactical error is the responsibility of an effective leader. However, you must exercise care and demonstrate respect for those involved. A leader who shows compassion in these circumstances will be remembered more for how the message was delivered and less about the message itself. It is possible to change the behavior of your firefighters and still maintain their respect for your leadership. These situations may not appear on the surface as a command presence, but it is clearly a contributing aspect in developing that command presence at fires or other emergencies. How you handle these events effects the respect you have from those around you. A leader must be respected before firefighters will follow and trust them.
Confidence is a two-dimensional attribute. The first is having confidence in yourself and the second is others having confidence in you; both are important for a leader to gain a command presence. Self-confidence will take a little time when any new fire office assumes a new position. Fire officers who have prepared themselves for a leadership position well in advance will have an easier and shorter time to adjust and become comfortable with their new challenges. This is where education and experience come together to create that sense of self-confidence you will feel as you assume command positions and face new challenges.
In the fire service, we know that no two incidents are alike, but we always start with life safety (civilian and firefighters) and move on to incident mitigation, property conservation, and so on. Thinking in a sequential manner will help to stay focused and in control of the actions of your firefighters and, ultimately, the emergency event.
The second dimension to confidence is the confidence that the firefighters in your command have in you. This will continue as they see your self-confidence, knowledge, motivation, experience, and respect for them on display. Once they have confidence in you, they will follow you without hesitation.
Some of the on-scene actions a leader can take to develop a command presence include behaviors such as assuming command in a strong authoritative way, keeping your radio transmissions direct and focused, not yelling while directing the emergency operations (over the radio or face to face), embracing suggestions, seeking out those who can provide specialized knowledge/skills, establishing your command post and staying there, anticipating the future needs of the emergency operation, providing for the well-being of your firefighters, wearing all of your personal protective equipment, having a “Plan B,” and demonstrating sound judgment.
General Douglas McArthur is quoted as saying, “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”
The last line of this quote is a concept all present and future leaders should ponder. This idea of a leader enjoying success based on the equality of actions and the integrity of intent is also the basis for developing a command presence, and it is never early to begin developing these traits in yourself.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
More Thomas N. Warren
- Standard Operating Procedures: The First Step to a Safer Fireground
- How Do You Prepare Yourself for Duty?
- The Dangers of Fire Escapes
- Fire and EMS Responses to Violent Incidents: Tactical Considerations
It Wasn’t Always This Way: Remembering Chief Bennett
Improving by Evaluating
- Understanding “Nothing Showing”