Rural Connections: The Importance of Training

New recruits perform a farm vehicle extrication for a tractor rollover. (Photos by author.)  


By Tim Zehnder

This column will cover all types of situations that the rural fire department may encounter. In each article, we will discuss different topics such as rural water supply operations, rural tactics, mutual aid, grain bin rescue, farm vehicle extrication, training, and recruitment and retention (just to name a few) from start to finish.

The most important part of a rural fire department is to have well-trained members. That said, the majority of the American fire service do not respond to as many incidents as our do our urban and metro members, and thus we do not get the life experiences/on-the-job training. However, we still need to stay on top of our training programs.

I advocate that all new members of your organization be trained to NFPA 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, as a base line the first year they are members of your organization. This will be a great foundation to build on for their entire career.

Setting a yearly training calendar for the following year by November is key to having a great training program; this gives your members a proper schedule. We have found that the better informed they are, the better the response we received. Following is a plan that worked for us in my rural department in Minnesota.

  1. Cover all of your state requirements such as Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, blood-borne pathogens, right-to-know laws, and confined space rescue.
  2. Hazmat awareness, operations or technical refreshers.
  3. Driver training for any member who drives apparatus.
  4. Self-contained breathing apparatus refresher every year for all members who have interior status.
  5. Annual refershers for pump operators.
  6. Look at your response area and determine what is the most likely incident that your department will respond to, and become extremely proficient at this type of incident.

(2) New recruits train on grain bin rescue.


You can now fill up the rest of your training schedule with everything else that needs to be covered such as extrication, live fire attack, confined space building construction, water rescue, and so on. However, be realistic with your training. I have encountered departments that have all kinds of rope equipment as well as a few members that are “rope crazy,” and this is all they want to do. Yet, they have responded to just one rope incident in the past 10 years. Focus on what your department responds to the most, and work with your mutual-aid departments to help cover the rest.



Haddon on Rural Winter Water Challenges

 Polenzani on Mobile Home Fires: Rural Tactics in the Big City

Culshaw on Rural Emergency Response

 Rural Connections: Water Supply

Live fire training is vital in keeping your members sharp. Yes, it is getting harder to burn acquired structures, but if your area allows it, follow NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions; it is well worth your time to get it done. If not, work with your state or local college to get a mobile live fire prop to your location—it is all about muscle memory. The more times you do it the better you will become.

(3) Never forget the importance of NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions.


So, how many times a month do you have training? If your department is training one night a month for three hours, you are doing an injustice to the members and the people that you protect. Yes, we are volunteers (I have been one for 27-plus years), but can you truly train enough for something that can kill you? This is the question you need to ask yourself.

If the training is relevant and engaging, your members will understand, they will make being part of your organization a priority. For example, if Thursday night is the one night of the month when you meet, then make EVERY Thursday your training night. This will not only keep your members sharp but it will also build team cohesiveness when the call to respond comes in.

Train hard and train often—never miss a chance to become a better firefighter. Your community and your family are counting on you.

Click HERE to view the Truman (MN) Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department’s 2008 training schedule.


Tim Zehnder began his fire service career in 1990 as a member of the Truman (MN) Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, where he has held every position from firefighter to chief. He received his emergency medical technician and NFPA 1001 training that same year. Zehnder has a degree in fire science from Lake Superior College. He also worked for two years as an engine foreman for the United States Forest Service at the Payette National Forest in Idaho, was a Minnesota State fire instructor for 18 years, and was the fire rescue training program manager at a Minnesota state training college for seven years. He retired from the Truman Fire & Ambulance service in April 2013 after more than 21 years of service. Zehnder then accepted the position of director of fire science at the Mid Plains Community College. He is also a paid-on-call firefighter with the McCook City (NE) Fire Department and the president of the Nebraska Society of Fire Service Instructors as well as the city of McCook’s 2015 Firefighter of the Year. Zehnder co-authored the “Grain Bin Rescue” video for Fire Engineering Books and Videos and presents programs on firefighter survival and safety, rapid intervention team, rural tactics, grain bin rescue, and more. He is also an International Society of Fire Service Instructors 1403, Live Fire Instructor, and travels the country delivering the program.