The Professional Volunteer Fire Department: Drills & Training

By Thomas A. Merrill

A professional volunteer fire department takes the time to drill on a regular basis. We simply cannot walk into our volunteer firehouse and pretend we are ready--we need to actually be ready. One of the keys to being ready is regular and pertinent training. Even though we are volunteers, the citizens in our hometown expect us to be skilled and proficient and prepared to handle their emergency. Remember, the fire doesn't treat volunteer firefighters any different than paid firefighters.

Sometimes it can be difficult to motivate and encourage volunteers to attend drills. There certainly are other things vying for our member's precious time. They may feel like the drills are not well-prepared or well-thought-out, or are too boring or repetitive. In such cases, they may walk away feeling as if they failed to learn anything new. What can we do in the professional volunteer fire department to develop good drills and hopefully increase attendance?

First and foremost, the department leaders must adopt an attitude that training drills will play an important part in their operation. Leaders must agree to offer regular and pertinent training. They must not only embrace training but display passion and enthusiasm for it. They need to participate, too. How can we expect our firefighters to attend and participate in training if our department leaders aren't doing it?

Leaders should discuss drill topics well ahead of time and prepare a drill schedule that works for their department. Some departments like to training on the same day every week no matter what. Others decide to be flexible and do some drills during the week, some on a weekend day. Still others may find it necessary to not drill during particular times of the year because of job demands and other factors affecting their volunteer force. The key is to try and have a schedule that is clearly communicated to the membership well ahead of time so members can plan appropriately.

Stick to the schedule. It can prove extremely disappointing and can be demoralizing when a member plans to attend drill and perhaps leaves work early or arranges for child care only to arrive and have drill canceled or, worse yet, poorly planned and coordinated. Our members are owed well-prepared drills. If they are taking the time to attend, our leaders need to take the time to prepare. The last thing our members want to see when they arrive at the firehouse on drill night is a bunch of officers running around trying to organize a drill. It sends the wrong message.

Drills need to be developed that are pertinent to the department's operation and equipment. There is nothing wrong with practicing advanced or seldom-encountered scenarios, but shouldn't we nail down our basic fire attack procedures and prepare to handle the emergencies we are most likely to encounter first? Most fire departments I know are expected to be able to stretch hoselines and quickly get water on the fire. I am amazed to speak with members of some departments and learn how seldom they pull lines off the rigs. They have had their weapons-of-mass-destruction training and they have taken the latest incident command system class, but they can't remember when they last practiced getting that first line properly stretched and in operation.

Look over your rigs. What are you carrying? Are you and your members confident and competent with that wide variety of tools and equipment? Do you even remember what is in each compartment? Nothing looks more amateurish than when a tool is called for and the member sent to retrieve it runs around the rig opening and closing compartment doors trying to find it. I call that the dog chasing tail, and it can be very embarrassing for the department.

Have you actually picked up that tool, handled it, and checked it over to become familiar and reacquaint yourself with it? Or have you just opened the compartment, glanced at the equipment, and closed the door without giving it much more thought? We can go years without using some of our equipment, but when we need it, our members ought to at least be familiar with it because they worked with it at a recent drill. One night at my firehouse, we spent the entire three-hour drill simply walking around our heavy rescue truck, opening up every door and reviewing the operation of everything inside. If there was a kit inside the compartment, the kit was opened; if there was a kit within the kit, that kit was opened. This drill proved so successful and the members found it so helpful that we did the same thing with all our other rigs. From these drills, more in-depth drills were developed using some of the equipment we realized we hadn't used in a while and needed to brush up on.

Repetition can be a great way to reinforce lessons learned and ensure our members are getting the message. But if it's not done carefully and creatively, repetitive training can also bore your members and possibly prevent them from coming back for drills. You certainly do not want that to happen, but you can still get the same message across and still teach the same operating procedures by tweaking the drill slightly. Drill evolutions can be repeated the same night, or, if necessary, they can be repeated several weeks in a row. In fact, that may be better, because in volunteer departments it is not always possible to get the same attendance every week. Thus by repeating the drill you are getting the information to new attendees and reinforcing it with those who made the previous drill. It's good to have a plan in place so that if your attendance is made up mostly with the same people you can throw some curves their way. It will still deliver the same message, but it will be done in such a way that it challenges the members and hopefully creates excitement.

I used to try to plan on activities that benefited all members, veterans as well as the newer ones. This will help keep the senior firefighters interested and hopefully encourage them to continue attending drills. Too many times the veterans stay away from a drill because they have done the same thing over and over again. Challenge them. Even if the drill topic is routine--such as reviewing your standard operating procedures for vehicle placement at fires--throw some curves at the vets. Otherwise, let them go off with another officer and do some advanced scenarios. Let them actually teach an evolution or work with the new members. Not only is it fun, but at the end of the drill, everybody has benefited. An important thing to remember if using a senior member to teach or lead a group is to discuss it with them ahead of time and get their buy-in and ensure they are not only willing to do it, but prepared to do it as well. Let senior members have an input on drill topics and maybe let them help prepare and lead a drill.

Don't let the newer members get overwhelmed and confused with everything going on. Assign an officer or senior member (another great way to get your senior members involved) to work with the new recruits and show them your department's ways. At the same time, learn to be weary of the 6/22s, i.e., those members with six months experience who act is if they have 22 years on the job. These members are usually very dedicated but may feel as if they do not need to do a certain drill just because they have done it a few times already. Nothing could be father from the truth. Get them involved. Keep them drilling and training. Just like with the senior members, challenge them with slightly different aspects of material previously covered while still delivering the same general lesson.

Another thing I learned is to have a plan in place for good attendance with many members present or be prepared to modify it to accommodate fewer members. In volunteer fire departments, we never know exactly how many members will show up for drill, but we must maximize the learning experience for everybody involved. If you had a drill prepared for 30 firefighters and for some reason only 10 showed up, what could we do? One idea would be to discuss how you would handle the call if in fact only 10 members did show up. What plans are in place for additional personnel? What are the priorities and how are they handled with minimal staffing? If the drill is inside, table-top discussions could take place, soliciting everybody's input. If an outside drill was planned, it could still take place, simulating the actual staffing concerns. The drill must remain flexible to accommodate the attendance.

We cannot simply walk into our volunteer firehouse and pretend we are ready -- we need to be ready. One of the keys to being ready is regular and pertinent training. Good solid training encompassing the entire membership will equate to good performance on the fireground--a trademark of the professional volunteer fire department.

Tom MerrillTom Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at tamerrill63@aol.com

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