How Bad Mental Models and Toxic Culture Can Hurt Firefighter Training
By Adam Parkhurst
Photo above by Tim Olk
In part one, we looked at how firefighters can use mental checklists to expedite the fireground decision-making process and how to develop mental cues for known operational events.
Training Skills and Training Concepts
For a long time, I would pull hose at the start of my shift. Most of the guys on the crew would join in and we would time ourselves in how fast we could get our gear on, deploy a line to the front of the station from the apron, and get ready to enter a structure, tools and all. It was great training and a morale booster for the guys. It let everyone know where they and the members of their team stood, and we got to where we could do it pretty fast. Then one day at a fire, one of the newer members, who had done the morning drill multiple times without difficulty, was asked to deploy a line to the front door of a structure. Fairly basic stuff, considering he had done it countless times before without difficulty. But this house presented a challenge. There were cars parked in the front of the house and in the driveway and a large tree in the front yard. The new member did exactly what he was trained to do, what he believed to be correct—he deployed the line straight to the front door. When the line was charged, it opened up and wedged itself underneath a car, slowing down the process of interior attack.
We had trained on hose deployment skills, but not on concept. We had not trained on being able to make decisions regarding how a hoseline should be deployed based on an understanding of how it will act when charged and what you need it to do. Since we had only trained on deploying hoselines straight, both at the station and during training at a drill tower, the firefighter had never put much thought into how he would deploy a line. He would simply pull it straight to the front door. We see this in a number of areas in the fire service lately, but in my opinion mostly in the information that is being released about flow path and applying water. We are looking at the concepts behind why we apply water in certain ways and dispelling some rumors about how fire spreads. Understanding concepts is vital to our decision-making abilities.
Don’t get me wrong: we need to train on skills development. Firefighters need to know how to pull a hoseline off a rig and how to throw a ladder and so forth. But they also need to train on how to make the right decisions regarding how they will execute that task. This moves past just drilling skill development and looks at understanding concepts. If our aforementioned firefighter not only knew how to pull a hoseline but also knew that when charged the line would expand and looked at ways that the line could become entangled, he may have made a better decision regarding deployment. Now when we do hose training at the station, once the firefighter can successfully deploy a hoseline straight, we start applying obstacles to train adaptability and reinforce theory. We must move past simply thinking of skill development and move toward decision making, teaching concepts and understanding so we can all be thinking firefighters.
Training theory improves decision making. It allows people to select the most appropriate actions among a list of options. Decision making is done through the processing of processing information and comparing it to knowledge that has been gained through previous experiences, like a filing system that we are able to reach into and draw experiences from. During training we fill our folders, and if we fill them with bad information, that is what will be available later.
Think about another area that we may train bad habits, namely training with liquified petroleum gas (LPG) fire. Now I’m not opposed to using LPG fire for training; it has many benefits, but I do think we build bad habits by treating the fire differently. Tell me if this sounds familiar: You walk into the building, because there is no heat to make you think about crawling. You walk up to the fire pan and spray water into it until the sensor is tripped and the fire goes out. That’s not how we fight real fires. We don’t walk up to the fire and spray water directly on it; we bank it off walls, use doorways to protect us from heat, or spray water while moving down hallways. So why don’t we fight LPG fires like this? Why would we treat these training fires differently? I think it’s because we know the fire won’t go out this way, so we work in a way that, although different, does work. Training in a manner that is not the same as how you normally work builds bad habits and fills your experience folder with bad information.
Dialing It In
We’re all guilty of this training sin. I know I am. Participating in search training and you walk around the rooms sort of looking for victims. Pulling hose off the engine at a walking pace during a non-live fire drill, even though you are practicing as if there is fire. When we do this, we are building a mental model for the behavior we are practicing. When you train with a lackadaisical attitude, you are building a faulty model that you will have to overcome during a real-life emergency. We know that one of the primary reasons people fail to perform appropriately during periods of elevated stress, like those we experience during an emergency call, is because of explicit monitoring. Explicit monitoring is what you do when you are working your way through a problem step-by-step instead of being able to flow through the process. We explicitly monitor our performance when a task is new and we lack confidence in our performance of the skill. We should be explicitly monitoring ourselves during training, because we are perfecting the mechanics and working to get the skill as close to perfect as possible, but during high-stress situations explicit monitoring can drastically decrease our ability to perform. Explicit monitoring may seem the same as having a checklist, but the difference in the two ideas is that checklists helps to keep you on task and gives you cues for moving forward, whereas monitoring is related to lack of confidence in a basic skill.
It is easy to think that when we are pressed in a real-life situation, we will step it up or act accordingly. The pressure of the situation will drive me to perform at a higher level, the thinking goes, but this is usually not the case. The pressure of the situation can instead distract you from the task at hand and affect fine motor skills and decision making. If you practice at half speed, then you will respond at ¾ speed and feel that you are going all out. Consider how much faster and more proficient, and safer, you could be if you gave 100 percent during drills. Now I’m not talking about situations where you are learning a new skill are working to improve a skill; these must be practiced slowly to acquire proficiency and understanding. I’m also not talking about moving with reckless abandon just for the sake of speed. I’m talking about moving with a purpose and drilling with the same attitude as you fight. Coach John Wooden, arguably one of the greatest coaches of all time, would focus not on winning, but on effort. He asked his players to give it their all not only during games, but during practice, and promised that he would do the same. I think that’s pretty sound advice.
Some important concepts in training adults, a concept outlined by Malcom Knowles in the theory of adult education, is that adult learners need to be involved in the process of learning and must focus on problem solving and not simply memorization. Additionally, they need to feel free to troubleshoot and make mistakes without the fear of punishment.
This can be challenging for some people who train in the fire service. I have seen many people involved in training who are very knowledgeable, but have difficulty allowing those who are learning the time to work through problems. In such cases, we must not resort to yelling or become frustrated. This type of environment is not advantageous. I would bet that the last time you were in a training situation where you were more worried about being yelled at than about working through a problem you didn’t retain much information; you probably weren’t too eager to even participate. You weren’t focused on learning. You were focused on staying out of trouble and out of sight. The influence of strong social support from mentors and trainers has a positive effect on training outcomes, improves practitioners’ abilities to adapt to new experiences, and benefits long-term performance. Remember that the individuals you are training bring unique knowledge and skills to the table, and they should be allowed to have input in their training and should be treated like people that want to learn.
Adult learners need to have buy-in when it comes to the learning process. They need to know how the information they are learning will be able to be applied to their job immediately. Be transparent with your training plans and your learning objectives. If the members learning are able to understand why the information is important and how it applies, then they will be more open and they will more willing to participate. You need to build a strong purpose in your training plans, because a strong purpose will build a strong department.
Toxic training environments are more damaging than no training. If we do not work to amend some of the issues in training that build negative mental cues or that make members not want to train, we will never advance to a level of proficiency that is critical for this job. A positive training environment will improve your members’ readiness to learn and orient them toward self-discovery and skill ownership. Just because nothing bad has happened does not mean you are doing everything right, so continue to evaluate the way you train and the way that students learn to help build positive mental models and a culture of excellence. We fill our mental folder with great experiences that can be drawn upon in the most extreme of situations. We must build strong thinking firefighters that have numerous positive experiences to draw upon when it matters most.
- Cotterill, S. (2017). Performance psychology theory and practice. New York: Routledge.
- Gawande, A. (2014). The checklist manifesto: How to get things right. Gurgaon, India: Penguin Random House.
- Knowles, M. S., & Holton, E. F. (2015). The Adult Learner (5th ed.). London: Routledge.
- Wooden, J., & Jamison, S. (2005). Wooden on leadership how to create a winning organization. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Adam Parkhurst is a firefighter/field training paramedic for the Euless (TX) Fire Department. He has been in the fire service since 2006 and has a masters degree in sociology. He works as a medical specialist for a FEMA USAR team and is an adjunct EMS instructor at Tarrant County College. His research areas are adult education and human performance psychology.