How should we train firefighters?

Training in the fire service to me is a funny thing.  Not in the true meaning of the work but more so because when you ask someone “What is the goal of training to you” you get a wide range of answers.  

Some will say to advance my knowledge.  Others will say for “professional development” or so I will be eligible for promotion.  So does it really matter that so many people have so many opinions about what training means?  I think it matters as much as anything you do in the fire service.

When someone attends a training class or session, the instructor usually begins by identifying the course, the learning objectives, and what is going to be covered.  Then the students go through classroom and hands on training according to the content of the course.  When the objectives are covered, the course ends with written or hands on final evaluation, maybe both types of evaluation, or maybe the course is over and the students go home.  

But as instructors, what is the goal of training?  How far do we push the students and at what point has the students met the performance objectives of the curriculum or of the instructors?  As instructors, I think this is where we fall short for our students.

Unlike other jobs or careers, the fire service is a dangerous occupation.  Some in the fire service refer to what we do as a “club” or a “hobby”.  Is this the mindset that we want?  Where students pick up something at their leisure and kind of get “the hang of it” and then they are off to save the world?  Probably not. In fact, as instructors we are the ones responsible for preparing the students to perform that tasks and objectives in the topics that we teach.  We should not stop until the students can perform the tasks and skills to the level where the skill is second nature.  We are reminded often that when people get into trouble, “Training Takes Over” and many say TRAINING is what pulled them through their life threatening experience.  

When you look at pilots in the airline industry, During their initial pilot training for a particular aircraft, they are required to spend many hours in simulators training for the various emergency situations that have been identified as critical to the aircraft it’s occupants during an emergency.  Even after the skills are learned initially, on a regular basis the pilots are back in the simulator re-learning their skills and making sure that they are prepared for any emergency. If a pilot changes the type of airplane they fly, the process starts over and again they continue their training until they master the skills needed to operate the aircraft.

The military takes a similar approach.  Training is what keeps fighting men and women alive and pulls them through when the are in the heat of battle.  Training takes over for sure.  That is where I think we are failing our students in training within the fire service.  

As I look at my own organization and as I visit other organizations, we all recognize that there is cultural change and there is also change within our fire service.  There is data out there which talks about the traits of various generations and what makes them tick.  There is statistics out that tell us what we already know about our calls.  We are busier than ever but there are fewer fires to fight and extinguish.  

Many organizations across the country are spending equal or more amounts of time training for the medical emergencies which is 60-80 percent of our business today. The number of hours of training dedicated to structure fires and the various other types of fire suppression tasks is getting less and less.  I understand the rational and it may seem to make sense.  However, how many firefighters are killed responding to the difficulty breathing call at the same residence for the 5th time in 72 hours?  We are performing those skills regularly.  That is not the problem.  Less fires to keep our skills sharp and less training for these calls.  That IS the problem.

Because of what we are seeing in today’s fire service, the importance of training on fire service topics to the level of mastery should be the goal of every training evolution.  There are many people out there who argue that especially in the volunteer fire services that firefighter certification and hours of training needs to be reduced in order to help with recruitment and retention.  I have to disagree.  We may have to alter the method we deliver these training but not what we teach.  Ensuring firefighters are trained to operate in the hazardous operations we are called to and are able to come home at the end of the call is our goal.  Training along with experience is how we get there.  

So what am I saying by all of this?  Simple.  TRAIN YOUR PEOPLE.  When an instructor leads training, know what the NFPA standards say are the performance expectations for what students.  Make sure they  are being trained to that level.  When students perform skills, if they perform it correctly once, it doesn’t mean they are be proficient at the skill.  When they can perform the skill correctly, that means they are truly proficient and can perform the tasks under duress and under pressure.  Anything short of that should not be acceptable.

Make sure that the students are aware of what the instructors expectations are.  If they don’t know what’s expected, how can they meet our expectations?  Explain to them why you are asking them to do the task and make sure they understand to what level they are to perform.  When you do, they will rise to the occasion and meet the objective.  

But as important as anything I have discussed here, remember that this only happens when YOU the instructor ensures that it happens.  As the instructor, you are empowered to make sure that training is valid, of high quality, and meets the needs of the student and the organization.  You are responsible for being prepared, structuring training to be informative and yes, even keeping training fun.  

At the end of the training session, make sure that each student knows what was covered thoroughly.  Practical skills should be performed accurately, efficiently, and confidently with few if any mistakes.  For a long time written test scores were set to allow a passing grade of 70%.  What if the most important part of the training was missed in the 30% the student missed?  Maybe it’s time to adjust what the minimum expectation is.

As instructors, we have to make sure training get’s done right.  Many people say that effective training is done in a manner that is consistent and repeatable.  I agree.  It also has to meet the needs of the organization and it must prepare the students for what lies ahead.  

However, I do not live in a glass house.  Like any training program and any instructor, we all have work to do to improve.  While I am constantly trying to improve on my part, I challenge all instructors out there to take an objective look at your training programs.  Have you as the instructor prepared your students for what lies ahead?  Are they going to be ready when things go wrong and the need that training you gave them to get them out?  

We all have a lot of work to do!  

Good Luck!