Jake Rhoades: Overcoming the Obstacles to Implementing a Successful Training Program

By Jake Rhoades

Every fire department wants a successful training program and has probably dedicated a lot of resources toward the specific training needs of the members.  There is a significant difference between simply training and implementing a successful training program within your organization.  Simply training on the flavor of the day or only training on the “comfortable” training is not sufficient to meet the needs of any department.  The communities that we serve expect mastery when we are called, regardless of the emergency or situation.

Today’s fire service is evolving and, considering all of the unknowns in the fire service, training is the one thing that we can control.  However, as we realize, the need for an established training program cannot be emphasized enough. Actually being able to control it is another factor altogether and causes many issues in departments across the country based on the obstacles that we are presented with.  These obstacles present themselves in many shapes and forms, short term and long term, and it is evident that there is not just one solution to any one obstacle. Regardless, we must identify and address these hurdles to be able to overcome them and to implement a successful training program.

Obstacles such as identifying training to meet the mission of the organization, time management and planning, accountability, resources and budget constraints, and complacency are but a few that we must consider all the while maintaining buy in and morale.  These are critical elements that must be addressed but the one that we must all deal with is the “culture” of the department, especially when it comes to training.  “The way we have always done it” or “the way we do it” mentality is a danger in today’s fire service, as research from Underwriters Laboratories and the National Institute of Standards and Technology shows that our strategies and tactics on the fireground must evolve for firefighter safety.  Following these changes, training programs must also evolve and change the culture of the fire service to ensure that firefighters are competent, capable, and confident to perform regardless of the emergency and ready for tomorrow’s fire service.

This article will address two of the main components of a successful training program–mission and planning–while identifying the obstacles that stand in the way when it comes to these critical elements. In addition, morale and buy in, which are critical elements in any successful training program, will be discussed in relation to these two elements.  There are a multitude of established elements to a successful training program and obstacles that must be addressed during the development, implementation, and delivery.  There are entire books dedicated to certain elements.  However, this article will provide real life, time tested solutions that work to overcome obstacles within your department with regard to mission and planning.  These methods will enable every member from fire chief to firefighter to ensure a successful training program while maintaining a positive training culture and the morale that we are all striving for. 


The first component of a successful training program is ensuring that it meets the mission of the organization.  In many departments, the mission, or established level of service, is established by city leaders, chiefs, and chief officers.  The level of service established by a department should answer the following questions:

§  Who are we?

§  Why do we exist?

§  What do we do?

§  Why do we do it?

§  For whom?

How many departments have changed their names and even their mission statements to reflect the responsibilities of today’s fire service?  For example, “Our Mission Goes Beyond Our Name” has been established by the Austin (TX) Fire Department to reflect the scope of its mission.  Why the change in mission?  It is all too important to remember that there has been a decline of 53% in the amount of fires in the past 25 years, according to the National Fire Protection Association,  while during the same time we have seen an increase in the amount of other calls that include EMS, hazardous materials, and other hazardous conditions.  In fact, since 1986 there has been an increase of 20 million total calls while fires have decreased in the same time period.  Leadership in today’s fire service realizes that we are simply not “fire” departments any longer, and establishing the department mission is imperative in service delivery within the community.

The fire service has become the catch all for a variety of services outside of simple fire suppression and now includes a multitude of services including EMS, technical rescue, hazardous materials, ARFF, and water rescue.  These are just a few of the services and do not include other duties such as prevention, pre-planning, inspections, hydrant inspections, public education, and plan review.  The questions necessary to establish the mission must be answered differently in every department to ensure that the appropriate levels of service in each discipline are established.  For example, is the delivery of advanced support necessary within the community and does the department have the ability in personnel and resources to deliver this level of care?  Does the department need to deliver hazardous materials operations level response because it has mutual or automatic aid agreements with neighboring jurisdictions?  Does the department have specific risks within the community with regard to technical rescue that it must be able to operate at the technician level?

These are just a few of the considerations in the establishment of the department’s mission as department leaders must identify the hazards and risks within the community through risk analysis, run history, and self-analysis.  Department leaders can use a variety of other resources to assist in the evaluation and establishment of their mission.  These include a variety of risk assessment models, the Insurance Services Office (ISO), the accreditation process through the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI), as well as both external and internal stakeholders.  Using these processes will allow for the establishment of core programs that a department is expected to deliver to its community. Once the hazards and risks are established, department capabilities and availability of resources, to include mutual and automatic aid, must also be evaluated.  As you can see, this can be a tremendous process but must be accomplished to provide a comprehensive mission for the delivery of service to the community. 

The obstacle the Training Division must overcome is ensuring that it is training its personnel to meet the established mission.  This can be a problem in two ways: the training does not meet the mission established by the department or the mission of the department does not meet its training.  The solution to this obstacle begins with communication within the organization to ensure that all personnel are aware of the established level of service and the establishment of expectations for the delivery of service within the community.  Communication ensures those individuals developing and assigning training understand the level of performance or service delivery that is established for the organization so they can develop a training program to meet this identified level of service. 

The training program must ensure that its members are trained to deliver the appropriate level of service at all levels of the department.  For instance, if the department ensures technician level hazardous materials response, members must be trained to the technician level as well as appropriate personnel trained at the operations level to support or serve as “force multipliers” in the event of an incident.  The same principal applies to technical rescue, as specialized training must be delivered to the appropriate personnel and remaining department personnel must be trained to support these personnel’s abilities.  This approach should occur across all disciplines within the organization, to ensure all personnel receive the appropriate level of training for emergency response.

Training programs must be developed within the mission established by the department as problems can arise when training is delivered outside of the scope of personnel and the organization.  This often occurs when training occurs using techniques or level of service not within the scope of the organization and it does not translate to emergency response.  Too often techniques are taught without adequate equipment to support the service delivery or an organizational understanding of the techniques taught in training. There are numerous “new” techniques or best practices available, but they must be taught correctly and communicated to ensure that everyone knows and understands their applications within the mission of the department.  Even established disciplines, such as hazardous materials and technical rescue, should require personnel to be trained at different levels, but all should be coordinated so that each level knows the training and capabilities as well as the responsibilities of the others.

Communication and constant evaluation are critical to ensuring training meets the mission established for the department.  Communication between department leaders and those individuals developing training is necessary to ensure the department training needs are being delivered at the appropriate level and for the appropriate personnel. Constant evaluation can occur in a variety of manners, but the utilization of a training committee, post incident evaluations, and impromptu scenarios provide ongoing methods of assessment for any training program.  Training Divisions should employ each of these in the development and revision of their training programs, as each is invaluable in the evaluation process.  Post Incident Evaluations demonstrate how personnel are performing on scenes and what shortcomings arise while impromptu scenarios allow for real-life scenarios to be created to view members’ decision making, tactical ability, and teamwork in a controlled and realistic setting.

Annual Training Planning

The next element of a successful training program is planning.  To ensure the department and its training meet the established mission, it is necessary for the establishment of an Annual Training Plan (ATP).  This is the most important element of any successful training program and serves as a comprehensive planning tool that also provides a solution to many of the obstacles that many departments have difficulty overcoming.  Establishing an ATP is more than simply scheduling training but rather communicates the responsibilities and activities of the department and provides a document to direct the activities of the Training Division. 

To develop an annual training program, or other timeframe you feel works for your agency, the mission of the department must be considered as well as call volumes, budget, operating procedures, facilities and props, and other resources necessary to accomplish the desired training.  In addition, Training Divisions must consider basic vs. advanced training, mandatory or required training, certifications, and the prioritization of need to know, nice to know, and want to know.  As stated previously, the fire service has become a catch all for a wide variety of disciplines and the communities that we serve expect us to be masters of all when we arrive.  This means that we are well trained in these disciplines and the ATP allows us to plan and balance these disciplines to ensure that a methodical approach accounts is used for planning.  In addition, the ATP must consider all of the ancillary duties required by the department that account for our time and that we must accomplish such as hydrant inspections, preplanning, and occupancy inspections.  So it is imperative to put it all on the table when developing any training plan to ensure that we are accounting for everything and eliminate obstacles that may appear at a later time because of poor planning.

The ATP begins with the established mission of the department and also incorporates all the other considerations mentioned that are necessary within a year such as officer development and any other additional training identified by the department.  The ATP must also account for times of year that we know occur and take our time such as Fire Prevention Week as the number of school programs and apparatus demonstrations make scheduled training difficult to say the least.

For example, through the planning process, the Training Division and preferably members of the Training Committee select training topics that are within the scope of the organization, meet its mission, and are considered necessary for the department and its members.  These topics include all of the considerations mentioned previously as well as the established goals and expectations of the department within the given planning period. 

§  Fire Topics may include truck company operations, forcible entry, engine company operations, building construction, fire behavior, and RIT/safety and survival training.

§  Hazardous Materials Topics may include Emergency Response to Domestic Biological Incidents, recognition and identification, hazardous materials refresher, and large-scale HM emergencies.

§  Technical rescue topics may include core competencies, large area search and rescue, structural collapse rescue, and wilderness search and rescue.

§  Driver/Operator topics may include pump operations, emergency vehicle operations, water supply, and apparatus positioning.

§  EMS Topics may include priority one and two specific training, blood borne and infection control, rapid sequence intubation, cardiac arrest / CPR, and other continuing education topics.

§  Officer development training may include personnel evaluations, management of human resources, leadership in the fire service, and a wide variety of topics for today’s officer in the fire service.

As you can see, establishing topics for the ATP is not that difficult but needs to take into consideration a wide variety of factors for the entire organization and a multitude of responsibilities and levels of competency.  These topics are examples taken from an ATP developed for a specific agency and are combined with other aspects of training that make a successful training program, which include minimum company standards, annual examinations and skills evaluations, recruit training, officer development, and special operations training, to name a few.

Once the training topics are established, it is simply a matter of scheduling for the upcoming year.  This can be daunting, but the experience of your specific agency combined with what has been established as expectation makes this scheduling practical and achievable.  Start by laying out the time period you are planning for and start penciling in the topics and other information.  This starts very generically but soon becomes specific enough to the day, hour, shift, and company for each training session while considering all of the other factors that were identified as ancillary responsibilities.  This will take several attempts to master, but with time and especially commitment to the plan, obstacles are gone in an instant, and training occurs as planned.  That is why this is the most critical element to a successful training program.

As with any planning tool, the development of an annual training plan provides consistency throughout the organization and provides planning and notifications for personnel.  This planning allows members to look ahead and plan for other duties and assignments while allowing them to manage their time on the company level.  This method also better enables members who are responsible for training to prepare for established dates for better education of department members and better use of the department and members’ time.  As with any schedule, preparing a year in advance requires commitment but flexibility.  However, this flexibility can be easily achieved through communication and constant evaluation of the established plan for effectiveness. 

The more preparation that is provided for the ATP, the better off the department and its members will be.  They will know what training and other opportunities are available well in advance and can plan better and more effectively on a daily basis. Establishing the annual training plan is the first step in becoming a “training centric” department; and in today’s fire service, training centric is imperative for successful outcomes on the fireground. 

As you can see, planning and the development of the annual training plan provide a means to overcome a variety of obstacles starting with time management.  Through advanced planning and notification, all members of the organization are provided with training delivery and expectations.  The scheduling of the ATP needs to occur on a common platform that all members of the department have access to so that a “master” training calendar can be maintained and prepared. 

In addition, other communication of the training plan needs to occur such as weekly reminders, hard copy calendars placed on station bulletin boards, as well as notices in department newsletters.  If a person is not aware of the training, it should not be from a lack of vision or availability but rather from the individual being actively disengaged.  Time management is an issue that all department members and leadership are challenged with and can be minimized with attention to the development of the ATP and the commitment to the process, to include ongoing evaluations, throughout the course of the year.

The ATP also ensures the coordination with other department activities and responsibilities so that members have adequate time to complete everything within their scope.  As many of you know, this can be a source of frustration for department members but can easily be prevented, for the most part, through planning, preparation, and communication.  By identifying the mission of the organization, the roles that individuals play within that role, and ensuring the training is taking place for them to achieve the appropriate level of training, members’ confidence and trust will rise.  This process also allows for coordinated responses as individuals know their role within each emergency response and trust that the other individuals will perform to the necessary level as they have been trained appropriately with the training program.

As you can see, the obstacles of morale and buy in are secondary effects to the establishment of mission and planning but are necessary for success and something we all strive for within our departments.  These efforts and transparent communications among an established training committee will ensure that all personnel know what is expected of them and that their specific training needs are met.  This is often a challenge within itself but can be achieved if properly planned and managed.  There are many more elements to a successful training program and even more obstacles that we are faced with every day.  One thing we must maintain awareness of is the Paradox of Training, which states:  “As the fire service does a better job in preventing fires and other emergencies, the less proficient firefighters become; basic skills must be practiced and refreshed.  This paradox accelerates the need for training in order to provide superior services in the community.”  Keeping this in mind along with the elements of a successful training program as well as some of the concepts for overcoming obstacles that stand in your way will ensure that you training program is a success for not only the members of your department but for the members of your community as well.


JAKE RHOADES, EFO, CFO, CMO, is a 21-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Edmond (OK) Fire Department. He previously was the deputy chief of special operations and training for the Rogers (AR) Fire Department, where he has served since 2009. He also served in the Stillwater (OK) Fire Department and Jenks (OK) Fire Rescue. He is an elected member of the board of directors for the International Association of Fire Chiefs Safety, Health, and Survival Section. He received his Professional Instructor designation from the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He also serves as a principal member of the National Fire Protection Association technical committee for risk management.