Stepping Up: So Why Are We Doing This?

By Ron Hiraki

A regular and essential activity for firefighters is training. That training goes by a number of other names: classes, drills, continuing education, competency modules, Recruit, Rookie, or Apprentice Check-Off. No matter what you call it, consider why you are doing it. If you are the company or chief officer, be sure to communicate why you and your colleagues are doing the training.

Every lesson plan or training outline has, or should have, learning objectives. If you have designed training, you have probably written learning objectives. If you have been an instructor, or used a textbook, you have read or used learning objectives. At the start of a class, lesson, or chapter, we frequently see a list of learning objectives that start like the following.


  • At the end of this chapter, the student should be able to...
  • Following this lesson, the student shall demonstrate...
  • Upon successful completion of this class, the student will be able to...
  • List the parts of a...
  • Describe the procedure for the daily check of a...
  • Demonstrate how to...

Many instructors skim over or downplay the learning objectives, perhaps thinking that talking about them with students is unnecessary or too time-consuming. In addition to providing an objective or end point, reviewing the learning objectives can provide a preview of the training and even alert the students as to what items should get particular attention. Learning objectives are necessary and important to the class, lesson, or chapter, and focus on the content of the training. Learning objectives drive the development and content of the training.

Company officers and chief officers need to operate at a higher level and provide an explanation as to why the training is being conducted. Before the training, or as the training begins, company officers and chief officers should prepare the firefighters by addressing questions such as:

  • Why us?
  • Why now?
  • Why again?

If these questions are answered, then the training is introduced, students are more likely to value it and participate with enthusiasm. Company officers and chief officers need to highlight "why we are doing this" as preparation and a way of selling training to firefighters. Company officers and chief officers who do not do this lose an opportunity to focus and motivate their firefighters.

Officers conduct training for reasons such as a fire department requirement, to maintain proficiency and safety techniques, or to train the new firefighter. These are valid reasons for training, and they can be personalized for the specific group of students or firefighters. Their experience, past performance, competitive nature, frequency of use of particular knowledge, skills and abilities; or specific nature of their service areas may be related to the training being presented.

Sometimes, what we specifically call the training defines the reason "why we train."

Drill: A non-fire service training consultant once asked me why firefighters refer to training as drills. She knew the dictionary definitions, such as training by repetition or a repeated exercise. I explained that while firefighters spend a great deal of time training, they don't necessarily do so to learn something new. Their focus is to develop and hone a routine, so that the procedure will be "automatic" during an emergency.

One company officer informed the crew that they would be going out to do a particular drill. A firefighter replied, "We already know how to do that!" The company officer said, "Yes, I know that. That's why it's called a drill, training by repetition."

Training: The term training implies that firefighters are learning something new. In learning a new skill, the firefighters are expected to build on the knowledge and skill they already possess. In training there is a starting point, and the training should meet the learning objectives so that the firefighters learn something new.

Apprentice Check-Off: In many fire departments, new firefighters--whether they are called recruits, rookies, or apprentices--are required to obtain a variety of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). Once they have been taught and given opportunities to apply the KSAs, they are then required to demonstrate their competency. Some people might say this is a test and not training. They are correct, but many company officers would log the activity as training. The name, "Check Off," implies why we are doing the training.

Next time you are leading or conducting training, in addition to stating learning objectives, emphasize its purpose. Try to answer the question: why are we doing this?


  • We're doing this drill on Mayday procedures so you can do them without thinking. In an emergency, you don't have time to think.
  • We have a new thermal imaging camera. Let's make sure we know how it works. It has different characteristics than the old one.
  • We're doing this to help the rookie. His evaluation is next shift.
  • We're doing this evolution to review the proper procedures or sequence. We made some errors last shift.
  • We'll be doing this standard evolution with some problems or obstacles. Let's work on our ability to solve the problems or overcome the obstacles.
  • Without compromising safety or correctness, let's try to reduce the amount of time we need to complete this evolution.
  • We're doing an evolution that we do all of the time, but today we are switching positions so that we can experience what the other people do. This will improve our teamwork.

You have probably conducted training for some of these reasons, and can think of a dozen more of your own reasons. Taking minute or less to communicate the purpose for the training will allow your firefighters to focus on that specific purpose such as safety, procedures, efficiency, the new information, or flexibility. Be mindful of keeping this statement short and sweet, otherwise your purpose will be lost in the extra verbiage and the firefighters may start thinking, "Geeze, let's just get on with the drill." Motivate with purpose. Overlooking the simple steps can make or break an operation. In training, you are stepping up by making sure you are setting up your crew or companies for the purpose of the training.

Ron HirakiRon Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as assistant chief of employee development. Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development, and is a consultant to a number of public safety agencies relative to their selection and performance evaluation programs.

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