Apparatus & Equipment, Firefighter Training, Leadership

Self-directed training teams

Article and photos by Kristofer DeMauro

Any officer responsible for developing and conducting training knows the difficulty of presenting training that is relevant to firefighters with a wide variety of experience and education. The new recruit coming on the job today has a far better academic education that we ever had, but most lack experience with the hands-on aspects of our jobs, often referred to as the grunt work. On the other hand, most tenured firefighters have seen every training video in the station at least twice and read every book on the shelf. What a lot of officers interpret as a poor attitude toward training on behalf of a firefighter may be simply a case of educational boredom.

What we have found to be the best way of involving both of these groups of firefighters is a process we call a self-directed training team. We recently used this process during an auto extrication class involving a school bus, which we developed from a management style called the self-directed work team.

How we adapted this process is simple and effective. The instructor still delivers classroom material in a standard form: lecture, video, or other media. There must be time allowed in the classroom portion of the course for open discussion involving relevant experiences with the skills being taught.

Safety is always of primary importance in all training evolutions. In our class, everybody is a safety officer. Every student has the right to stop any drill or evolution for any reason at any time. The call of “stop-stop-stop” shuts everything down. Another aspect of safety was to reinforce that we would be training around “live loads,” meaning that even though we made the evolutions as safe of possible, they still involved an upside-down bus.


The career experiences of the students in our class ranged from one year to over twenty-two years. We scheduled the class over a two-day period, with ¾ of the course focused on actual skills. This would allow the students to really spend a lot of time problem-solving in real working situations.

Classroom lectures consisted of general safety lecture and student orientation to tools use and techniques. We allowed a firefighter that was involved in the process of specifying and purchasing our rescue tools to teach the hydraulic tool portion. His experience and intimate knowledge of the tools was a key part of the class success.

An owner of one of our local wrecker services was invited in to speak to the students about what a tow truck could offer, lift capacities, and most important, winch safety. He was a natural due to his experience in towing and recovery of vehicles using cables, chains, and winches.


We have found that an organization can not depend on any one person to provide relevant training to the members of the organization. Our department has adopted several mottos, including “I (we) can do anything, but we can’t do everything.” Find other resources for training instructors. Look in the private sector, retired members, or other city/municipal departments.

The second half of the first day was used to focus on individual skills and also allowed us to introduce new skills. We currently do not carry an oxyacetylene torch on our apparatus. Instead we use gasoline-powered rotary saws. We introduced the oxyacetylene torch as a new skill. Using pieces of scrap iron and steel beams we were able to instruct the students on the use, applications, and maintenance of the torch. From the input we received from the students after using the torch, we have considered adding it as a new tool in our apparatus inventory. Other skill stations included using high-pressure air bags, hydraulic rescue tools, cribbing, heavy rigging, and using shoring. We rotated one of our frontline apparatus out of service to use for training, a natural choice seeing that after the course the students would be using the apparatus on the job.

Prior to the end of the first day, the students cleaned all tools and returned the apparatus to service. A post-training review was conducted and each student was allowed to provide input and comments on the day’s evolutions. The second day was discussed at this session, including what the scenarios would be. It would be very brash for me as an instructor to assume I know the best may to set up a scenario that involved a bus accident, so we opened it up for discussion with the students. The students came up with two scenarios that were based upon real incidents they had worked on. Scenario one would involve a car that had struck a bus along the driver’s side while going through an intersection. The bus would be tilted, resting on the car. The second scenario would be a school bus that had rolled several times; finally resting on its top. A car was placed under the front of the bus.


Setting the scenarios was completed using a backhoe on loan from the public works department. With a little work we were able to move the vehicles around and place them as needed. The backhoe was also used as a boom-proof anchor for safety, parked to keep the bus from sliding, moving, or falling.

The second day began with a safety briefing and review in the classroom. Then the students went to the drill grounds. Once on the grounds every student was allowed to conduct a 360-degree walk around of the scene, ask questions, and formulate plans. The fire apparatus was placed in a good location, as it would have been on an actual incident. The students were divided into two teams: Team one would stabilize and perform rescue operations on the bus, while team two would work on the car. Each team had a leader. The team leader, using input from his team, had to develop an incident action plan. An instructor was assigned to each team, and a third instructor functioned as a safety officer. The team leader was instructed to convey his incident action plan to the instructors and the other team leader.

The exercises began after the incident action plans were reviewed. Using skills that they learned or refreshed on the day before, the students busied themselves with the work at hand. Several problems arose due to equipment failure. A combination cutter/spreader hydraulic tool developed a leak and had to be removed from service. A gasoline rotary saw had the wrong blade on it and was difficult to use. Teams using electric reciprocating saws found that blades failed rather quickly due to heat. The teams overcame these issues with a little work and evaluation. The leaking combination tool was taken out of use and sent in for repair. The concrete cutting blade was removed from the rotary saw and replaced with a metal cutting blade. The tool was placed back into service and proved very valuable. The simple addition of using soap and water to lubricate and cool the blades of the reciprocating saw made them last longer and cut faster.

At the end of the first evolution, which lasted about two hours, all tools were accounted for, cleaned, refuel, and placed back onto the apparatus. A post-incident review was done. During this review. the leader from team one would take team two to review his team’s work, and team one would go with the leader of team two to do the same. Not only did this allow the teams to learn more, it also offered input that was not clouded by “ownership” of the techniques used.

After this, students were dismissed for lunch. Extra time was allowed so that the students could adequately rehydrate and remove PPE.

During the lunch break the second scenario was set up, using the same equipment as earlier. We would like to note that a school bus that is designed to travel down the road on all six wheels takes a little work to be put on its top, but it can be done.

The afternoon scenario was more challenging and would test the team’s ability to solve problems. The students were asked if they wanted to change team members around or keep the same make-up. Students decided to stay in their same teams, but chose new team leaders. The second evolution was managed in the same way. Action plans were devised and reviewed. This evolution, even though more challenging, was completed in about 30 minutes less than the earlier evolution. Post-incident review revealed that the students had become more comfortable and sure of the new skills and tool experience.

Lessons Learned
After the class was completed, a review was done by the instructors and students. The following lessons were learned:


  • A complex rescue involving a bus has as much in common with structural collapse rescue and aircraft rescue as it does with auto extrication.

  • Incident action plans have to be flexible in order to adapt to the changing scenarios.

  • Communications between teams working on a large incident has to be effective and easily achieved.

  • Students that are allowed to have input in the direction of the training have ownership of the course and therefore gain more from the experience

  • With planning, most training evolutions can be made relevant to firefighters with a wide range of knowledge, skills, and experiences.

Though self-directed training teams may not fit every training need of an organization, it is a management and organizational style that has merit and has proven itself as a successful means for meeting a wide variety of training issues.

Kristofer M. DeMauro is a captain with the City of Owasso (OK) Fire Department, serving the fastest growing city in Oklahoma. He has been with the Owasso Fire Department for 14 years, with 20 years of combined paid, volunteer and EMS experience. He is a rescue specialist with Oklahoma Task Force One, USAR Team. A nationally registered paramedic, he has taught fire and emergency classes for Oklahoma State University, Kansas University, and the Tulsa Technology Center. He is a contributing editor to IFSTA and a published author. He can be reached at [email protected].