By Tom Johnson

The fire service is unique in many ways. We parallel to other industries but one thing that differentiates us is the fact that no matter who you are and what you have done, until your abilities are witnessed by those you wish to lead, buy-in will remain marginal at best.

Prior to the beginning of an academy a few years back, the cadre had a meeting and I remember casually conversing with another instructor about having to prove myself all over again to a new class of recruits. “You don’t have anything to prove to them, they are the ones trying to get the job,” he said.

I have to say that although this firefighter told me that, he believes in “lead by example” as much as I do, and he lives it as well, but I still think about that one line regularly. I always have and always will believe that I have everything to prove to a new recruit or firefighter. We are part of a ‘show me’ culture, so how can I expect him to trust me on my word if I don’t trust him on his. That’s the point right there – trust is built on actions, not words. And no one is going to follow you if there is no trust.

What’s interesting about training new recruits (and maybe I am out on an island here) is that it’s 3 months of trust building, and it’s a two way street. Trust is mutual, so if you think a newly hired firefighter will follow you anywhere simply because you were his/her instructor, you are wrong. Think about it – how can you really look a recruit in the eye and demand more effort out of them if you are not with them in the trenches. Spare me the crap of “I already went through my own academy” or “I need to define clear boundaries between instructor and recruit.” You can’t tell the class to run three miles but then ride a bike next to them. You can’t ask them to run 20 tower laps in gear, but stand there watching. You can only take them to a level that you are willing and able to take yourself.

If you are going to hammer recruits day in and day out, you better be participating in all aspects of training with them, the whole day, ALL OF IT! Show them you can perform your basic skills at an exceptional level. Show them you have a high level of fitness and you are not afraid to punish yourself in a workout. Show them you are not afraid to fail in front of them or come in 2nd. And the only way to show them this is by coming into the academy ready as an instructor. We can’t complain about how unprepared a candidate is on the first day when we show up unprepared ourselves.

It’s no secret that the instructors that receive the best feedback and evaluations from the recruits at the end of an academy are those that participated in every part of every day of the academy. The recruits may be new firefighters, but they already know how to size-up character and discipline. So who would I want instructing me? “Show me” and you have your answer.