***Although a lot of CAF training is standardized across the board (and we actually have a Standards Cell attached to each division to ensure this) there is a lot of background and administrative activity that is not. Especially in the Primary Reserves (the Militia, baby!) where we typically have to train locally, using whatever resources and facilities that might be available. In this post I am speaking for the Ottawa-area sub-unit of the 33 Brigade Battle School (recently re-named Rideau Company). I realize that this will not be common across the board in the CAF or even the Militia, but it’s what we’ve been doing and I’ve found it works. In my experience, small doses of responsibility makes better soldiers in the long run.***

So here’s a challenge: You and your section[1] of recruits are going to sleep from 2300 hrs to 0500 hrs, but there needs to be someone awake at all times in case of emergencies. Not such a big deal, except that human nature being what it is, you actually need two people awake at the same time to make sure that one guy doesn’t fall asleep. Okay, still not such a big deal. Two people on each hour makes twelve people that in some way or another will have their night interrupted. Kind of sucks, but still manageable. Right?

Except that your section has eleven recruits in it.

This is one of the first challenges we like to throw at recruits on a reserve BMQ,[2] and yes, we expect the recruits to sort this out themselves. They have to get together, and work out what’s called a fire picket list for their section commander (the Sgt or MCpl in charge of them). The section commander will double check the list to make sure they’re not doing anything stupid, but otherwise their decisions stand, and they spend the night according to the plan they make for themselves.

This might seem counter-intuitive at first, especially since BMQ is the course where we take recently sworn in civilians and literally teach them how to stand and walk. How to dress, how to wear their boots, how to speak, and how to stand while they are speaking (and the things that come out of their mouths…). Something as simple as a wrinkled collar will not only earn a recruit a blistering ‘verbal correction,[3]’ but will also bring similar wrath down on the recruit’s room-mate (after all, they could see that their partner looked like a bag of crap and did nothing). The whole idea is to break down the often self-centred civilian mindset and inculcate a new one that is exacting, precise, and team oriented.

So why do we let them decide for themselves when they’ll be awake overnight?

What creating a fire picket list does is teach the new recruits a couple of very valuable lessons about working and living in the communal army environment. First of all, there’s the reality that with most tasks, soeone’s usually going to get the short straw. The crap job, the worst shift, etc… But the job needs to be done, so someone needs to get screwed.

When it comes to fire picket it’s a matter of debate as to who has it worse, the people who get the middle of the night shift so that their sleep is broken up into two and three hour blocks, or the person/people who get the first and last shift (since someone will get stuck with a double shift). Personally, I’m in favour of the longest block of uninterrupted sleep I can get, but that’s just me. Different people will need/want different things. So that’s when the wheeling and dealing starts. Want a better shift? Why do you deserve it? What makes you better than that guy who’s stepping up to volunteer for the crap shift? If fact, why are we giving you a break? Why don’t we stick you with the crap shift since you seem so eager to get out from under doing your fair share?

This leads us to the second lesson that comes from making your own fire picket list: It teaches the recruit to feel a sense of obligation to the team whenever they get off lightly with any particular job.

Let’s change the scenario around a bit: What if there’s thirteen people in the section? (Oversized sections are actually not uncommon for BMQ.) This means that one person is going to score a full six hours of uninterrupted sleep. So who gets it?  More importantly, how to they justify themselves? Now the smart answer is for that individual to take on some other job on behalf of the section, so that no one begrudges them the lucky break they received with fire picket. Maybe this means scrubbing out the toilets in preparation for inspection, or taking on the double shift for the next night that the section’s up. But it has to be justified because just as there will always be someone who gets screwed, there will often be someone who gets lucky. But unlike in reality TV shows where an advantage is supposed to be lorded over the other players, in the army too much luck just puts you that much more in debt to the team.

Every job is going to affect us all unevenly, but greater comfort only means greater obligation to the team. These are vital lessons for a new recruit to learn. This is why, on any BMQ I’ve ever taught on, I make sure the candidates are making their own picket lists.

So what’s the point of all this? What does this have to do with Douglas Bland’s Uprising? Well, it’s a couple of things actually. Other than hoping I might be able to encourage the use of Game Theory in recruit training, it’s necessary to point out that just having a couple of people awake and watchful takes a lot of work.

Keep in mind that a fire picket is literally just two troops awake and with their boots on, walking around the lines and keeping an eye out for fires or other emergencies. This is not any kind of tactical sentry position designed to resist a threat. At most the fire picket will pull the alarm and then direct sleep-deprived recruits emerging from their rooms to stumble towards the assembly point.

This is a non-tactical task, but it requires a fair bit of thinking and cooperation to make it work. Moreover, as training goes on and the stress levels start to rise, the primacy of everyone doing their fair share becomes vital for the troops, and if the workload isn’t equal, nerves can wear thin and tempers can flare. As a section commander I’ve actually had to step in and separate recruits because the argument over picket lists was on the verge of turning into a fist fight.

Just making sure that someone is awake all night is a challenge.

Now that’s what happens when you’re non-tactical. Your basic administrative activities that need to take place from one night to another even when your potential enemy might be far away. When contact is immanent, things get a lot more complicated.

According to the manual (The Infantry Section & Platoon in Battle B-GL-309-003/FT-001) a platoon of soldiers (3 sections plus a weapons detachment, led by an officer) needs one sentry on duty at all times when contact is not immanent (two at night), but when it is, the bare minimum is one per section (two at night), plus a radio watch. The problem is, this scale is based upon a textbook defensive position in which the platoon is entrenched in the countryside, where the frontage of a platoon could be as much as two hundred meters and it might actually be possible to see everything from a single point.

What happens when you’re in a built up area, like a city or even a small town with more than a couple of solid, defensible  buildings? Well, the manpower requirements skyrocket pretty damned quickly. Even your most basic building has got four sides to it,[4] and unless you’ve got a huge swath of open ground on all sides, that means you’ll need at least one picket per side at a minimum.

What happens when you have to deal with an irregularly shaped building with blind corners, or if you’re in a city where the enemy could be literally across the street from you and could be inside your perimeter in the time it takes for a man to run across a road? In cases like this, sentry shifts begins at what’s called 25% manning (one quarter of the troops awake and manning their positions at all times, plus all heavy weapons crewed continuously and someone on radio watch) and moves up from there.

What I’ve saying is that things get manpower intensive pretty damned fast.

It’s one of the reason the most valuable skill a soldier can master is the ability to fall asleep anywhere at anytime. Because you never know when your next break will come.

Now, Douglas Bland joined as an officer and came up through RMC. I know the officers have their own sets of rituals and tasks designed to build up the qualities needed to be a good leader, but there’s a blind spot that can develop when you haven’t had to work your way up from the ranks. Armies win or lose based on the qualities of their lowest members. The lowly Privates sitting in their fighting position, peering out into the night to see if tonight’s when shit is going to happen. Nearby their comrades snore, and when their shift ends those sentries will be joining them. As much as we may talk speculatively about the high tech wars of the future, there is still no alternative for the need to have someone awake and watching for danger.

This is a lesson that needs to be taught to every soldier the first day they put on a uniform.

It is a lesson that Douglas Bland does not understand.

Keep this in mind as we continue through the novel.  It will be coming up again and again.


[1] For those not familiar, a ‘section’ is-for most Commonwealth armies-what a squad is for the rest of the world: The most basic unit of soldiers to still have a formal chain of command. Ranging anywhere between eight to twelve members (and often more on recruit courses) it is commanded by a Sgt or senior MCpl and will have a subordinate NCO as a 2IC.
[2] BMQ – Basic Military Qualification. Basic training in the Canadian Armed Forces.
[3] One of the things that’s happened over the last few decades has been a concerted attempt to soften the language used to describe training. Hence ‘verbal correction’ replaces ‘jacking up,’ ‘chewing out,’ and ‘beasting’ as a term for shouting as the recruit screwed up. Personally, I like to run with this and go in a full Orwellian ‘Ministry of Love’ direction.
[4] Well, technically six, since an attack could come from underground via the sewer system or from the roof via helicopter insertion, but let’s keep things simple for the sake of argument.

4 thoughts on “Fire Picket: One hour that means so much…

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