BY BRYAN C. BOWLING
About four years ago, I accepted the position of fire education Coordinator at Butler Tech Public Safety Education Complex. When I walked into this position, I had no clue as to what I was going to do; but like all of us, I put my head down and started to learn the new role I stepped up to cover. Our school is a full-service public safety school that runs three civilian fire rescue academies a year, the bulk of my responsibility. I was faced with many changes that needed to be made, a few problems that needed fixing, and a chance to add some new things to our program. With this in mind, I sat down and started to prioritize or triage my growing list of concerns. In this article, we will spend some time on three items that ended up teaching me a lot about safety, health and welfare, and the education of my students.
Lesson 1: Personal Protective Equipment
When I moved into the position of coordinator at the school, I knew that I was going to have an uphill battle with the personal protective equipment (PPE) that I would have to maintain, repair, clean, and purchase. For starters, most of my stock at the time was from department donations; very little of the gear was purchased new from a manufacturer. At the time, I had approximately 120 sets of donated turnouts on hand in a good range of sizes and conditions from issuable to needing to be destroyed. Some of this gear had been used by the school for several years. The obvious thing for me was to destroy the gear I couldn’t get repaired and start from there.
Once that was accomplished, I started talking with fellow instructors who are in charge of turnout gear at their departments and began to formulate a plan. I started with removing gear that had more than 10 years of service life. This took me down to about 40 sets of issuable gear and limited sizing. This left me with questions of how was this gear taken care of: Was it washed according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting? Was it repaired according to the same standard? How many fires was the gear exposed to during its time before our programs? What were my options at this point to guarantee the safest training environment for the recruits and to lessen the liability on the Butler Tech?
Option one was to purchase and maintain new PPE for the recruits. This would be a nice option, but the wear and tear of just one fire academy is enough to decommission a set of turnouts. Option two would require all students to have a sponsorship from local departments, which would provide them with turnouts along with appropriate documentation that the turnout gear was being maintained to NFPA 1851.
Along came option three: Rent/Lease sets of gear from a commercial provider who can show documentation to satisfy our requirements for our students’ safety. Why did I look at this option? First, the cost of the rental/lease is built into the tuition and is less than having an NFPA 1851-certified repair specialist come to the school and repair damaged gear. Neither the school nor the student holds any financial responsibility for damage to the gear as a result of training; however, students can be held responsible if their actions caused undue wear and damage to the ensemble. Last year, we implemented the rental program. To be fair, I tried two companies, one local and one regional. After the implementation of this program, we have run six fire rescue academies and have had no issues stemming from unsafe gear. We noted a drastic change in course evaluations on the topic of equipment. Prior to the implementation of the rental program, we would take a beating on end-of-class evaluations referencing turnout gear. One unexpected benefit was uniformity of the students in colors and styles of gear. This created the team atmosphere that allowed them to meld together as one.
Lesson 2: Physical Fitness
When I moved into the program coordinator position, physical training in the academy program was on a voluntary basis. I was one of our physical training (PT) instructors when I started at the school; at best, about 90 percent of our full-time students participated in morning PT, and about 25 percent of our par- time students taking the Firefighter I and II portion of the academy participated. With the importance of fitness and wellness in today’s fire service, I began the process of making the PT portion of the academy mandatory for full-time and part-time students. To help make my case toward making PT mandatory, there was a noticeable difference in the students who participated in the current program on the drill field. For one thing, the student was able to sustain the pace of instruction and drill without reaching the point of being “wiped out” by the end of the day. Also, the incidence of injury was higher for the students who did not participate. As I ran this up the proverbial flag pole, I hit a few bumps in the road; but with the evidence in the form of student performance and lack of injury in the students who participated in the PT program, we were able to implement the mandatory PT program.
Our daily schedule allows for PT for the first hour to hour-and-a-half. We do a lot of circuit training, fire service-relevant exercises, cardio (running), and the Combat Challenge. We have also added PT geared toward the Candidate Physical Ability Test or CPAT to help prepare our students for pre-employment physical testing. Our PT program is always evolving; we are looking at adding nutrition, cardiovascular disease awareness, and back injury prevention to our curriculum.
Lesson 3: Continuity of Instruction
One challenge that any program coordinator faces is continuity of instruction from one instructor to the next. In our system, we have a full-time director over both fire and EMS programming, a part-time fire education coordinator, and adjunct fire instructors. I fall into the coordinator roll responsible for all the fire programming and seeing that the curriculums are followed and the knowledge is passed on to our students. The problem we experienced was that students’ daily evaluations at the end of the day showed that they were being taught four or five different ways. As with any organization that uses adjunct instructor cadres, the instructors were teaching the skills the way they do them at their home department. This isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing except that when dealing with a brand new recruit off the street, we have to provide the student with all the information in the text as well as cover all the skills established by the state and in NFPA 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. How do you find a way to keep everyone on target?
We were able to do this with our curriculum, which has an online component that contains all the teaching materials for lecture and skill drills. The service also allowed the students to see the same information so they could prepare for upcoming classes and skills. We implemented this program and obtained better results; old habits die hard and, as an instructor, I am just as guilty as the next. We still get some complaints, but they have drastically decreased. Feedback from the instructors has been positive and helped to take the guess work out of what we need to accomplish on the drill field. A benefit for the instructors is that they can prepare for the class anywhere that has Internet access. As far as the benefits for the students are concerned, since we started using this method, their grades have improved, skill ability has improved, and computer-based testing prepares students for the certification exams, which are now being given electronically.
Lesson 4: Student Retention
One of my concerns early on was keeping our students on track and making it through to graduation. All of our students are adults who may or may not have some college under their belts, or they are fresh out of high school. This can prove to be challenging to all involved depending on how long it has been since the student had to truly study and prepare for an intensive workload such as in our accelerated program. We started to look at our internal recourses to provide the students with the day devoted to working with our adult education specialist to help them get back in the groove of studying. The next item was getting the students access to the online tools that accompanied our curriculum for the fire and EMS class. This provided the students with the same materials that our instructor cadre uses and proved to be quite an asset. By adding the online component, the students could take daily prep quizzes, watch skill drill videos, and take chapter assessments online to prepare them for the computer-based certification exams they would see at the end of each term.
From there, we looked at what seemed to be the students’ largest hurdle, the EMT-basic class. Previously, we had run the EMT class like the fire class, Monday through Friday from 0800-1700 hours. This model had the EMS portion lasting approximately five weeks. We came up with introducing an Externship program. Basically, our students would go to some of our local partnering fire departments for fire/EMS ride time. This helped in two ways. First, being in a firehouse on a unit day rotation for four hours a shift kept the students engaged in the fire side of the academy. They would report to their assigned department from 0800-1200 hours for the Externship and then come to class from 1300-1700 hours. The students participated in daily checks; chores; training; and, most importantly, calls. The students were not permitted to perform interior firefighting duties; however, they gained valuable field experience prior to getting on the job. The second benefit was slowing the EMT class down and giving the students more time to prepare and comprehend the material for the upcoming class.
These were some of the lessons I learned since I accepted the position of fire education coordinator here at Butler Tech. I could write about a few other lessons learned over my time here, but the three above have to deal with the students’ health, safety, and learning environment–to me, the three most important things in the new recruits’ first experience in the fire service. I am sure there are many more lessons to come in my career here at the school and at the firehouse as well. Just as I tell all of my students who come through our programs, “Never stop learning.”
BRYAN C. BOWLING has been a firefighter for 20 years. He began his career as a volunteer and now serves as a career firefighter paramedic with the Fairfield (OH) Fire Department. He is the fire education coordinator at Butler Tech Public Safety Education Complex in Hamilton, Ohio, as well as a fire service instructor, an assistant EMS instructor, and an instructor trainer. He serves on Ohio Task Force 1 as a rescue squad officer and is a member of the Butler County Technical Rescue Team. He competes in the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge.