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Command Presence: Presentation is Everything

Command presence has been an essential component of organized firefighting in the United States for almost 300 years. Today, we face the same problems that our earlier counterparts faced before us: the need to control and coordinate the fire ground.

In the early 1700s, the City of Boston developed a plan to control the chaos that occurred during a fire by appointing individuals Firewards. They were described as “prudent persons of known fidelity,” and each was given a 5-foot red staff topped with a bright spike to “distinguish them in their office.”

The Firewards were “required upon notice of fire breaking forth, to take their badge with them, immediately repair to the place, and vigorously to exert their authority for the requiring of assistance, and using utmost endeavors to extinguish or prevent the spreading of the fire and secure the estate of the inhabitants; and due obedience is required to be yielded to them and each of them accordingly for that service.”1

While the idea of command presence has evolved over the years, it remains to be a philosophical approach to leadership with many rewards.

Command presence has been easily described in magazine articles, books and in training classes. But it is extremely difficult to achieve. Are some people born with it? They might be. But it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. It must be molded and developed through time and experience, knowledge and education.

Command presence is when you have the ability to step in front of a group of individuals and they instantly know that you are in charge. On the emergency scene, it’s your ability to exhibit self control while in the midst of total chaos. You could call it chaos control. In the non-emergency environment, such as at the fire station, it’s when you present yourself as someone in authority, who is trusted and respected.

Most of the time, we hear talk of the command presence of chief officers or incident commanders. But every company officer must learn and practice a command presence both in the emergency and non-emergency environment. This can be accomplished by how you present yourself — how you look, how you act or carry yourself, and how you communicate.

“You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there,” Bix Bender writes in his book, “Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On!” He’s describing a vital feature of leadership: command presence. Command presence is not about control, it’s about connecting. More important, it’s not about power, it’s about partnership.

Usually, we hear more descriptions of a lack of command presence: talking loud, shouting orders, coming across as demanding or controlling, and maybe the use of profanity to emphasize a point. Sometimes we see unusual behavior, such as running around in circles without accomplishing anything. When a company officer, who is in charge of the troops in the trenches where the action is, lacks a command presence, he will lose his ability to control his company. This could be the cause of an injury or possibly a death, and it will definitely lead to ineffectiveness at the emergency scene and in the fire station.

PRESENTATION IS EVERYTHING“Chieftains must be credible. Their words and actions must be believable to both friend and foe. They must be trusted to have the intelligence and integrity to provide correct information. Leaders lacking in credibility will not gain proper influence and are to be hastily removed from positions of responsibility, for they cannot be trusted.”

-- Wess Roberts, “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun,” Warner Books

How you look
Every time you step in front of a group of people, they are trying to figure out who you are. They are looking at your personal appearance. Are you dressed in the proper uniform at the fire station? Do you wear the appropriate safety gear on the emergency scene? Do you stand straight and look confident? Do you look organized and prepared? Do you look professional? Being aware of and taking pride in your appearance will help to project a command presence to a group.

How you act
Your physical presence is an attribute that can allow you to occupy space without creating tension. It can draw people to listen to you and follow you. That self-confidence is projected through your body language and how you carry yourself. You have to move with intent. In other words, you must impart a physical presence of a person with purpose — one who is in charge of the situation. You need to project an image of someone who knows where they are and what they are doing. So, knowledge, skills and abilities in the areas that you are supervising or commanding are essential to exhibiting a command presence.

How you communicate
One of the earliest forms of communication on the fireground was the use of the speaking-trumpet. The officers would call a cadence through the trumpets to keep the firefighters on the hand-pumps in time on the noisy fireground. Later, chief officers began using them to shout commands and orders on the fire scene.2

Communication, as we all know, is usually the vital link to any successful endeavor. Sometimes, depending on the people or the situation, it may require more than just simple directions. The real hope of a good supervisor or commander is to instill, over time, a philosophy or a social norm within his crew. This will provide a clear understanding of the supervisor’s expectations both on and off the fire ground.

Command presence does not come with the badge or any amount of trumpets; it must be developed through training and education, observed by watching others, and absorbed through hands-on experiences. It is a continuous learning process, and should be part of the professional development of every firefighter.

A lack of command presence can be hazardous to both civilians and firefighters, and will definitely lead to ineffectiveness. Command presence is just as essential to controlling the incident as having the right apparatus, equipment and people. So be part of the solution to controlling the emergency scene — not a link to the chaos. Controlling emergency scene chaos through command presence will provide confidence and credibility to your crew, your fire department, and your community.

1 See “Taking Charge: The Evolution of Fireground Command,” Paul Hashagen, Firehouse, September 1998
2 See “Taking Charge: The Evolution of Fireground Command,” Paul Hashagen, Firehouse, September 1998

Fire department company officers can influence every part of fire station life, from culture and motivation to LODD reduction. Learn to lead effectively with Billy Schmidt’s FireRescue1 exclusive column, ‘The Company Officer.’
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