Hallway Walls

bruno “unplugged” ❘ BY ALAN BRUNACINI

I have a recurring, very positive experience when I visit an elementary or a high school. This happens when I am the guest instructor of a fire department sponsoring a Saturday/Sunday seminar held in one of the classrooms of a local school. The kids are out of school for the weekend, so we generally are the only ones in the building.

One of the parts of the visit I really enjoy is wandering the halls and taking in all the educational wall art before class starts or during the breaks. The content of the posters is generally directed toward some dimension of positive student behavior and simple lessons of becoming a responsible young citizen.

As I digest (and generally take notes) on the message, I quickly identify that most of the direction is for the kids, but the message directly applies to the many ways we interact and communicate with others. It seems I may now be getting more benefit as a visitor wandering the hallways of a grade school than I received when I was in a classroom as a struggling student. I guess better late than never.

I recently spent the weekend in such a grade school doing a seminar. When I entered the school, I noticed a simple description of “Voice Volume Levels” on a big poster attached to the wall across from the front door. I walked up to the list and reflected on the positive effect of describing students’ voice levels in a range from very soft to very loud. It quickly occurred to me that a personal understanding of the volume stages could assist a person in effectively controlling and consciously connecting an appropriate level of voice to more closely match the needs of a variety of situations.

The list included the following voice levels:

  • 5- Emergency >”The wall is falling!” (= firefighting).
  • 4- Outside > never used inside.
  • 3- Presentation > everyone can hear.
  • 2- Conversation > only a small group can hear.
  • 1- Whisper > only one person can hear.
  • 0- Silent > no talk.

I had never seen the list before my recent school visit. My grandson is an elementary school teacher, and I asked him if he was aware of such a list. He said he was familiar with it and that it had been around for a long time; it is used to teach particularly younger kids how to use their voice level in an effective and well-mannered way. He told me that coaching the students to take custody (self-control) of how loud they speak creates a major element in maintaining classroom good order. Like most of my late-in-life lessons, my discovery caused an almost instant set of painful flashbacks of experiences I suffered through that would have been a lot easier if my second grade (the three best years of my life) teacher had explained how to better match my voice level to the outside world. My playing the ongoing game of life always seems to produce the test before the lesson.

As I reflected on my voice level road rash, I recalled a test/lesson experience that required my lovely wife to serve as my (in effect) mid-life second-grade teacher. During the very happy period of my career when I worked in a fire station, I was assigned to the downtown central fire station. The station had an engine, a ladder, a squad company, a hose wagon, and a battalion chief. The station was staffed by 22 men (no women yet). It was in an earlier time, and our prehistoric staffing level (five- and six-person companies) was established by the old-time grading standards of the National Board of Fire Underwriters—now, this is but a faint memory.

In those early days, among the many things of which we were not aware yet was any idea, concept, or program of hearing conservation. Based on that lack of awareness, the noise level in the fire station for 24 hours was a cross between a rock concert and a large-caliber 21-gun salute. A huge mechanical siren bolted to the roof of every rig along with a locomotive-caliber air horn (also bolted to the roof), a 14-inch telegraphic alarm house gong going nonstop, and a public-address system blaring throughout the entire station caused the occupants of the station to quickly become essentially deaf. The result of our hearing disability was that we spent an entire shift with everyone screaming at each other; this created a very robust and energetic level of communication that was normal to all of us.

After my regular shift, I would typically head home. When I arrived home, if my wife was not where I could see her, I would go through the house calling her name—still in my Station One voice. Although our house is very modest, it is somewhat spread out. I would generally come in the front door and if she was in the back of the house, I would call her name to announce the urgency of my primary search. When I would finally find her after four or five of my Station One name blasts, she would calmly in her soft voice say back to me: “Alan, I’m in the back.” I would continue searching and yelling until I found her; she would quietly say something like, “You are not at the fire station. You don’t need to yell.”

I hate to think about how long I did this. I finally received the lesson that we would have a lot happier initial reunion if I went about three levels down on the elementary school voice level scale as I announced my traveling quest for marital companionship. Now I amuse myself when I am doing mobile wife global positioning system, and I overreact by using a voice level just above the level of a whisper. When I announce my search using my deliberate, very under-control voice level and find her, we relate to each other in a very natural emotionally connected way for her and a highly educated (I almost said “unnatural”) level for me. I guess consciously lowering my voice to an exaggerated low level (again, for me) is making up for a long period of vocal stupidity.

Correlating Voice Level with Command Characteristic

As I reflected on my newly discovered grade school voice-level list, I recalled our discussion in the past couple of columns on the effect of an incident commander (IC) screaming over the tactical channel. We described how disruptive and contagious this voice dysfunction is and how it raises the level of stress throughout the response team. I have recently developed a project that attempts to describe the characteristics that produce a cool level of command. Let’s look at how an effective Cool Command voice level connects to the characteristics on the grade school voice-level scale.

Calm. The IC appears calm on the outside. Calmness is the result of the IC’s maintaining control of his personal capabilities (body parts) under difficult conditions. A major way ICs perform their command responsibility is by effectively communicating over the tactical radio channel. The troops know there is an IC in place and doing the strategic command job by listening to the radio. They have (or don’t have) a level of confidence in the IC based on how he sounds. The not-too-loud/not-too-soft level of the IC’s voice is a huge calmness signal.

Composure. A person’s composure is the foundation for effective IC performance. Composure is the direct result of the IC’s internal composition (personal “ingredients”), which is the result of the education and experience that has been loaded into that person. Difficult incidents produce chaos, and chaos creates command stress that reduces the IC’s readiness. A major component of an IC’s education is the ability to identify the signs and symptoms of incident stress and then develop a personal behavior response to that stress. A regular effect of command stress is it can quickly assault the voice dynamics of the IC; a reflection of this stress can show up in the level of the IC’s voice. When the IC loses control of his voice level, it reduces the confidence in command of everyone on the listening end of communications. Up until now, there has not been much discussion about how an IC can manage the connection between incident chaos and command stress: This dynamic connection must become a voice control focus for a serious IC student.

Grit. The standard command functions create a basic job description for the IC. The place where this occurs is a hazard zone that is about as challenging a management setting as could be imagined. To do those functions effectively, the IC must be both resilient to deal with challenging tactical conditions and emotionally literate enough to positively relate to the humans involved in the event. Grit involves tough determination combined with personal grace. My wife displayed 20 years of grit by never raising her voice instead of giving me a voice lesson with a baseball bat. A Cool Commander can lead the team through controlling a gut-wrenching, zip code-size fire never raising his voice, and the team will emerge positively intact.

Organized. An IC must connect to and sort out an ongoing series of simultaneous, sequential, and decentralized tactical conditions. Creating a strategic management plan requires evaluating and triaging all those factors in the order of importance and then creating and effectively communicating a response plan that outlines the action required to reduce the severity of those conditions. This requires the IC to be very well organized. It is very challenging to have much confidence in your boss’s organization skill when he is whispering or yelling.

Patient. An ongoing Cool Command challenge for the IC is to balance command expectation with operational execution. Expectation is the time frame the IC has for how long he thinks it will take to do the work. Execution is the time it takes for the worker to do the work. The urgency of a rapidly expanding incident and the need for immediate action can distort and frustrate the time orientation of an IC sitting in the command post because watching is a lot quicker than doing the work in the street. Increased impatience can create increased voice volume that instantly sends a disruptive message. Cool Command is directly connected to strong voice control.

Personally aligned. The IC must personally “attach” to commanding the incident in a variety of ways. Those ways revolve around physical/mental/emotional/social human development. Doing this necessitates being able to physically perform strategic command until the hazard zone goes away; having the mental ability to evaluate, decide, and direct operations; having the resilience to endure difficult emotional challenges; and establishing positive social connections with customers, the troops, and the community. Physical/mental/emotional/social each requires the IC to apply and align a very special voice level. This vocal versatility is a major Cool Command capability.

Decisive. A Cool Commander must make decisions quickly and effectively. The standard command functions (deploy/assume/evaluate/communicate/strategy/organization/revise/continue-demob) become the framework of that process. Every function requires the IC to produce an ongoing series of connected decisions that initially trigger and then manage reaching the overall objective of that function. The execution of those functional targets depends on the IC’s articulating the incident action plan to the workers. How the plan sounds (over the radio) coming from the strategic level boss must determine how the plan will be executed by the tactical and task level bosses and workers. If the boss always uses an effective voice level, raising that normal level just a tiny bit can communicate a powerful signal of an increased level of urgency, awareness, and reaction. There is virtually no functional message a boss who is always screaming can send by screaming louder.

I can’t wait for the lessons waiting for me on my hallway tour of the next grade school I get to visit.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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