By Jon McIvor
When you think of your own fire academy, do you look back at good memories and strong camaraderie, or was it a rite of passage or opportunity to volunteer with your respective departments?
Does your department’s fire academy match the culture of your department and make the most efficient use of the time allowed? Do you have motivated instructors who pass along tested techniques, or are the instructors mandated to serve in a position they dread and are longing to leave?
I hope that you are leaning toward the positive responses and are proud of the new firefighters you are turning out. What follows are lessons learned from numerous academies in services and classes taught at the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Training Center that might help you to develop or enhance your department’s training program.
Solid preparation is the key to almost any endeavor, including a fire academy. Considerations include the type of school, paid or volunteer, standard 40-hour workweek, and so on. Are you starting with brand new untrained recruits or people with a fire background? How much time will your department allot for the academy, and how many staff members will you have vs. the number of recruits? What are your state minimum requirements for the level of firefighter you plan to certify? What textbook will you be using? What training facilities and equipment are dedicated to you? Your preparation list would be longer and more detailed, but as you can see, there are many factors to plan for, and the more answers you have in advance, the more productive and beneficial for the academy.
The instructors are the most significant component in determining the success of your fire academy. Having the greatest facilities and best equipment does not translate into success when your staff is unmotivated and cares little for their work. These instructors should want to be there; they should not be placed there against their will and then left to take their frustrations out on the students. A culture of making the training academy a coveted position will lead to greater success and better recruits.
A technique the Virginia Beach Fire Department has used is to mirror our department’s special operations positions in that once selected, barring unforeseen circumstances, you will be allowed/expected to stay for a minimum of three years. This lets the instructors applying know that they will not be transferred and helps to ensure that the applicants want to be there, since they are expected to stay for their three-year commitment. Some incentive, such as a flexible work schedule or possibly a stipend, budget allowing, may need to be built in. We switched to a four 10-hour-day workweek with a rotating day off so the instructional staff can have weekdays off, similar to our field personnel. An added benefit for my department was that this allowed the instructor to begin one hour before the recruits arrived, giving them additional time for classroom or practical setup, and to end their workday one hour after the recruits left so that any discussion or administrative work was completed without interruption.
Another option is to allow a departing instructor to choose his next assignment. By treating the instructional position as a specialty assignment, we have been able to develop a culture of excellence that builds on itself, making it a sought-after position to the point where we now hold interviews and instructor candidates must go through a selection process to be considered. Find the incentives that are important to your people and incorporate them into your program, and you will have no problems finding qualified people.
Once the instructional staff is in place, you need to plan your school. Establish a basic timeline that covers all state and federally mandated objectives at minimum so the appropriate certifications are met. Establish a relationship with your state fire department administrator; this will help you to know if you are meeting the requirements and have properly filed your paperwork. Depending on your allotted time, build in extra time for those topics that are important to your department and deserve time beyond the minimum allocation. A method that worked well for our department was to develop each topic as a standalone module and allot it an estimated number of days or hours. We then took the overall academy time and plugged each module into the slot where it fit logistically so that the flow of information was coherent. We often found that as we built out our calendar, holidays, equipment/apparatus availability, or other training events would have interrupted the flow of our training requiring multiple adjustments to the calendar. Having each topic built as a module allowed us to plug the topic where it best fit with the required equipment or facilities available. Many states require that certain topics be taught before live fire training, so make certain of these requirements ahead of time. As you are building the module, assign your instructors so they know well in advance what topics they are teaching.
Once the topics were assigned, it was the instructor’s responsibility to develop the training plan to include lectures and any practical lessons to reinforce in the classroom. Typically, one instructor will handle the classroom lecture, and multiple instructors would be present for the practical exercises. As we know in the fire service, there are many ways to accomplish a task, but in a teaching environment, we sometimes need to settle on one or two accepted methods so students can be tested for competency later.
A common complaint heard on evaluations is that different instructors gave different answers. To aid in continuity and presenting with one voice, the topic instructor develops a skill sheet or an instructor brief for the practical exercises so that each instructor has the required objectives (state/department guidelines, and so on) with a detailed plan of what they are expected to teach and how the students would be tested. This prevents the students from being confused by the lecture instructor teaching one method and a different practical instructor teaching another. As the class progressed, we built in time for the instructors to share personal experiences and methods, which are invaluable; but we made it clear to the students what the testable methods would be. With a schedule and skill sheets, the topic instructor created a list of equipment, apparatus, or building needs so items could be prepped in advance and to ensure that the equipment needed would be available. On days with practical exercises, there was greater efficiency, since the other instructors would take the equipment list during the lecture and set up for the practical evolutions, allowing for more training time.
Once the schedule was developed and equipment set, we established policies for human resources issues. Discipline, injuries, and absences are just a few of the items that must be considered. Depending on your agency, town, or county policies, this will vary, but a handbook outlining required behaviors and the consequences for noncompliance is the easiest way to keep everyone informed. We operate under a regional academy that created a handbook, and the City of Virginia Beach has policies and procedures that apply to our recruits. All of this information is printed and presented to the recruits at the beginning of their academy so that they understand what behavior is expected. Everyone receives a copy of the information and is given time to ask questions or seek clarification. Recruits then turn in a signed statement confirming the receipt of the materials so later they cannot claim ignorance of the requirements. This may seem unnecessary, but in this age of ever-increasing documentation requirements, this sets the tone from the beginning.
This is just the basic framework for outlining and developing a fire academy. The true success will lie within all of the details that must be planned at each stage of academy development. By gathering the details of what type of academy will fit your department’s needs, you can then gather the best instructors to suit those needs. Having the instructors prepare lesson plans, briefs, and equipment needs will allow for greater cost control and planning, and this greater efficiency will allow for more training time with the recruits. This high level of detail will give your department’s administration a true accounting of cost and time requirements and will allow you to substantiate your need for the funding and staff requested.
Jonathan McIvor is a captain/paramedic with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, where he is assigned to operations. Previously, he was assigned to the Virginia Beach Fire Training Center. He is an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs and a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency VA-TF2. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from James Madison University.