Firefighter Training

The Many Helmets of the Fire Service Instructor

By Michael D. Finney

Fire instructors play a critical role in the development of firefighters. When recruits begin training, their first exposure to the fire service is through the instructor, who often determines the firefighter’s attitude toward training and future classes. Looking back through our fire service career or life in general, it is easy to pinpoint teachers and instructors who made a great impact on us. What were some of the characteristics of these instructors? What was it about them that made them stand out? Instructors also are greatly influenced by those who teach them. Having an understanding of the characteristics of a good instructor will not only improve your teaching skills but will also benefit generations of your students. There are five major “helmets” for the fire instructor:

  • Leadership
  • Mentoring
  • Coaching
  • Innovator
  • Change-agent

Leadership is defined as the ability to set the direction for an organization or program that others become motivated to follow. These individuals are visionaries who have the capability to draw followers. Although this definition sounds simple, it takes years of experience to achieve this level. Anyone who wants to be a good leader can develop leadership skills over time.  


Many times, we tend to associate a mystical quality with leadership and believe that leadership skills are bestowed only on the chosen few. This, of course, is not true. It is among the top five myths concerning leadership: 

1.  Leaders are born, not made. There is a little truth in this statement, in that some people are born with a greater inclination to leadership roles. However, everyone can lead and develop leadership skills. Instructors must search for those teaching styles that will lead others to follow them.
2. Only those with the best looks and greatest stature can be effective leaders. There is no correlation between one’s ability to lead and having good looks. Although physical attraction may draw people to you, this attraction lasts only for a short time—usually until the leader starts leading. Instructors should not focus primarily on beauty. Look beyond it to the inner person, or you may find that you overlooked someone who could be a great leader.
3. The person “in charge” must the leader. The ability to lead does not come from title or rank. Many chiefs and training officers become frustrated when they are placed in positions for which they have not been prepared. Instructors should “search with an obsession” to find ways to improve their leadership skills and develop those leaders around you.

4. Once the leader of a group, always the leader. History has proven this myth wrong. Look back over time, and you will find that great leaders rise and fall.

5. Leadership is a component of management. Some view leadership and management as being equal and intertwined and that leadership automatically develops from management. This is far from the truth.


As the training officer or instructor, you have the unique opportunity to lead your department or organization. Few other positions in the department provide this opportunity. Do new policies and procedures need to be implemented? Are major changes needed in the department? The best way to integrate them into the department is through training. The new face of training has the ability to become the center point of the department. In a sense, the instructor is the “change agent” within the department or organization. Instructors or training officers can influence the department directly by influencing the areas regarding firefighters’ immediate job description and the firefighters who serve immediately serve under them. They can also influence the department indirectly by impacting those who make the decisions. This may take a little work, and you may not always see the effects immediately.
Influential Leadership. This type of leadership is critical. The key to leadership is not in the ability to move people or get people to follow. It comes in the ability to influence people to move in a particular direction. The typical story describes how a new instructor comes in with an incredible and aggressive training plan and program. Everyone “buys in” at the beginning, hoping to see great things happen in the department. However, everyone knows that change requires work and toil–mentally, physically, and emotionally. Often, this is where things begin to decline. Without a strong influential leader, many well-laid plans will never come to fruition. Instructors must be able to influence people at all levels. 


Mentors aid those in need. They ensure the success of those they are teaching. Make their success your success, and soon a student’s improvement becomes everyone’s success. This way, the team is built to last well beyond the classroom. Building other mentors into the training program will help it flourish beyond the monthly training and classroom time. 


Coaching through Modeling. Being able to coach firefighters in training brings a new dimension to the classroom. Training and education involve more than delivering materials and testing people. You must push people beyond their comfort zone, get them out there on the edge and challenge them to go even further. The instructor’s role as a coach is to motivate the people in the department to go to the limits. Helping them grow can be one of the greatest challenges of an instructor’s career and result in some of the most rewarding times. Reflect on your time as a recruit. Many of the skills you had to practice and the information you had to learn were new. Over time, you developed the skills and integrated the information. However, at first this meant moving beyond your comfort zone.

Modeling refers to the fact that the students and staff will look to see if what is taught in the classroom is what takes place in the department and on the scene. Take every opportunity to show that you live by what you say on the fireground, in the station, and on the drill field. These opportunities not only add credibility to the class; they also add to your personal integrity. 

Coaching in the Classroom. The classroom also offers great opportunities to coach. Coaching builds teamwork, unity, and motivation.  


The innovator is always looking for new ways to do tasks. They always think outside the box and look for ways to improve procedures, processes, equipment, and resources. In the classroom, the innovators look for new ways to teach material. They are never satisfied with tradition; they are on the cutting edge in course delivery and presentation. 


The change agent is similar to the innovator; they are intertwined in many ways. The key difference is that the innovator puts the new approach into action, whereas the change agent helps implement change throughout the organization. Look within your department or organization for the person who drives change within the ranks. The issue of rank does not apply. 

How Many Helmets Do You Have Hanging on the Wall?

Each helmet is important to the fire training officer or instructor’s success. Each represents a learnable skill that can be mastered. For some it may take work, but the rewards will pay off.

Michael D. Finney is a 25-year veteran of the fire service, having served at all ranks from firefighter to chief. He has served as the Principal Partner of the Joshua Tree Group ( and the Executive Director of the Open Fire Academy ( He previously served as the Director of Public Safety Services for Great Oaks Institute of Technology and Career Development and the fire chief for the Village of Glendale, Ohio. He is also an adjunct instructor with the National Fire Academy for the “Fire Service Course Design” program. He holds a bachelors degree in Economics from the University of South Carolina, a masters of Divinity from Columbia International University, and is currently completing a doctorate in education from Oklahoma State University.