By Bob Carpenter
A bit more than a decade and a-half ago I found myself assigned to the training division of my fire department. The realization that I now had a systemic responsibility to provide meaningful training for my department was immediately shrouded in doubt, anxiety, and even a bit of fear. Was I up to this?
Like most departments, our training division was massively underfunded, understaffed, underappreciated, and the products it produced were underwhelming. Loosely connected to established standards regarding fireground evolutions and annual self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) proficiency testing, the training division was really more of a testing division. It was rare that a visit from the district training officer resulted in learning new skills or realistically building on existing skills. The sad truth was that it was usually just a test. Worse yet, the training officer usually had little support to correct deficiencies when noted. They were limited to advising company officers to “train up” the ones who had issues, and follow-up was unlikely.
Frustrated by the above circumstance, I left the division as soon as I could, only to be talked into returning about a year later. During that time, leadership had changed, philosophy had shifted, and I was told on my return that I was being empowered to improve the way we did business! EMPOWERED! Can you imagine? Well, that has to be a bit more than a cheerleading mantra. To make a long story short, eventually, it was!
I had the privilege of working with two like-minded captains who had begun including an instructional component to training initiatives. That’s right, they had begun TEACHING! Crazy, right? They stopped assuming that the participants knew what to do and actually explained the procedures. They demonstrated the steps and provided an opportunity for practice. They not only encouraged, but required, participation. The latter was less of an issue that one might think. You see, when people are given the tools to succeed, they are not only able to do so; they are willing to do so.
This manifested in a wholesale change in the entire department’s attitude towards training. Crews and individuals were less inclined to avoid training sessions; they actually looked forward to them and were often disappointed not to be included.
Sessions should be designed with and expectation of success with a possibility of failure rather than an expectation of failure with the possibility of success.
Reread the statement above a couple of times to let it sink in. The latter has been the default position experienced through much of my career. Officers and training staff seemed to operate from the position that the exercise had to be extremely difficult to be valid. The difficulty was often built in with the express intent to result in failure. During my tenure as a training officer, I was responsible for review and approval of training plans submitted by company officers that included submission of a formal Safety Plan. I recall receiving a phone call from an officer who had just e-mailed his weekend drill plan. He was so excited about his plan that he called immediately after hitting the send button to get my feedback. “Take a look at the plan that I just sent you,” he said. “You’re going to love it! They will never be able to do this!”
That exchange is an example of a failure-based training model. The instructor has, from the onset, an expectation of failure on the part of the participants. As this is his default position, the participants come to expect failure, too. Occasionally, someone may power through the maze of impossible objectives and succeed. But, this is the exception. Therefore, the expectation of failure with a slim possibility of success is in place. Participants who do try simply try not to fail rather than try to succeed.
In contrast, a success-based training model, one where the instructor as well as the participant expects to be successful, has the opposite effect. A training session that consists of a block of instruction on the task that includes demonstration and practice prior to performance gives all involved an expectation of success. If the task is complex, there may be some failures. That is okay. They can be corrected.
I have heard it said that what I describe above is part of what is wrong with the American fire service, that people like me need to stop trying to “change my culture.” I’ll make this simple. The success-based training model that I describe is known by another word: teaching. The other approach is simply testing. There is nothing wrong with testing. Testing determines one of two things. It establishes a baseline as a needs assessment. That’s what happens at the “no notice” drill; you discover what is not known. Testing also determines if the lesson has been taught effectively. Teaching improves performance. The two actions are interdependent.
Training ordinary people to do extraordinary things is a complex process. Workshops like “Drill Development: A Success-Based Training Model” seek to simplify the process by eliminating common stumbling blocks. The fire service culture has always been about making the job safer, the members more skilled, and the processes better. This IS our culture.
Bob Carpenter is a captain and a 31-year veteran of Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, where he is assigned as the captain at Station 21 in the 1st Battalion. He previously worked for a combination department and also served as a volunteer. He assisted in the development and presentation of the Officer Development Program and is its Drill Week lead instructor. He was officer-in-charge of the Recruit Training Bureau and the department’s North Operations District training officer.