Leadership

Big City Tactics for Small Town Fire Departments: The Fire Academy

By Bob Fields

My first day as a career firefighter consisted of watching a half-hour video about the hazards of firefighting, the assistant chief fast forwarded through most of it. After the video I was sent on my way to my assigned firehouse. My new bunker gear was on back order, and they didn’t have any spare gear form me to use. Luckily the volunteer department I just left let me keep the old gear they had issued me.

It was a frigid February day with several inches of snow on the ground when I knocked on the door of the tiny, single-story, one-bay engine house where my uncle had been a captain many years ago. The senior man greeted me and showed me where to put my gear on the rig. The new southside firehouse hadn’t been built yet so we were riding “heavy” with four instead of the usual two on an engine.

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The lieutenant had worked with my uncle and he welcomed me on my first day on the job. The fourth man on the engine had only a few months on the job and was making his infamous 10-alarm chili for us to celebrate his birthday. There was the normal chit chat getting to know each other and some brief instruction on what to do if we caught a run.

We didn’t have to wait long before we caught our first job. I quickly donned my non-issued gear on the open jumpseat as we pulled out of the engine house. I strapped on the ragged pressure-demand self-contained breathing apparatus and did my best to become familiar with it before we arrived at the scene. The lieutenant was the only one with a portable radio. With the siren blaring and the motor roaring right next to me, there was no way for me to know what we were about to encounter.

When we arrived on the scene, another engine, the snorkel, and an ambulance were already there. A small fire in the bathroom of a bank had been quickly extinguished before we arrived. Our duties consisted of picking up line before we were returned by the chief. The rest of the tour consisted of three or four unmentionable calls.

That was the extent of my initial training and first day on the job. I was surprised to find out there was no formal training for probationary firefighters within this paid professional department. I can only recall one- or two-timed training drills we had over the next 12 months!

My recruit training at the fire academy when I joined the big city by the muddy river could not have been more different. Forty-eight classmates and I endured 13 weeks of eight- to 10-hour days of intense training, including daily physical training, uniform inspections, classroom sessions, and hands-on evolutions. Not to mention we always ended our day running the eight-story drill tower countless times in and out of full gear!

You Owe It to Them

Whether you are a big city, small town, suburban, or rural department, you have an obligation to your community as well as your members to ensure they have adequate training. There should be a minimum standard to which your members are trained before they can even begin to ride an apparatus. Most states establish these minimum standards.

Training is one of the single most important ingredients for a safe, professional, and effective fire department. It is vital that all members are properly trained on all aspects of firefighting to help safeguard his or her life, the lives of other firefighters, and the lives of those we serve.

No probationary/recruit firefighter should be permitted to respond to or participate in structural firefighting activities that require the individual to enter or be near the fire, building, vehicle, or any other enclosed structure until he or she has completed the required training.

A Class All by Themselves

Many small fire departments may only hire two or three new personnel at time, and sometimes they may only hire one. Having a formal fire academy for a single recruit may not be feasible or affordable. That does not excuse your department from training the recruit on the basic principles of the job.

Your recruits may literally be in a class all by themselves, but your department can structure their daily training routine in a fashion that mimics a Big Brother Fire Department that may have recruit classes of 50 or more.

With a little research on Google, you can find many of these departments recruit training manuals and training programs. They are not one-size-fits-all. Use them as a template and adapt them to the needs and capabilities of your department.

 Outline what the training objectives are for the recruit such as:

  • Firefighter I/II
  • Hazmat ops/awareness D
  • Department policy and procedures
  • Department rules and regulations
  • Respiratory fit testing
  • EMS protocols
  • Mandatory new employee orientation (Benefits, Insurance, EAP, etc.)

 Summarize what the daily routine will look like:

  • Morning physical training
  • Uniform inspection
  • Classroom instruction
  • Hands-on evolutions

Your training program should also explain in detail the expectations of the recruit regarding academic and practical performance, dress code, reporting for roll call each day, etc. It should also explain what the consequences are for unsatisfactory performance in each area. You should also outline what the recruit should expect from their training staff.

One thing that is often overlooked is what the probationary firefighter can expect once he or she is assigned to a firehouse. It is a good idea for your academy to take time to expound upon what happens when they walk into their firehouse for the first time. Each firehouse might have their own customs or routines, but usually the probie will have many of the same responsibilities wherever they are assigned:

  • Raising/lowering the flag each day
  • House watch
  • Daily house duties
  • First one in the sink
  • Cleaning and maintaining tools, equipment, and apparatus
  • Memorizing streets and buildings in their first-due area
  • Training, training, and training
  • Basically…everything!

These tasks among others are not meant to use and abuse your probies; let them know that everyone from their officer to the senior man with 30 years on the job was in their shoes when they were new. It’s all about learning the job of a firefighter, instilling pride in what we do, and becoming part of something bigger than yourself. In keeping with tradition, these are rites of passage to one of the best jobs ever.

Let’s be clear about something: do not make scrubbing floors and polishing toilets a priority over training. If all you have done is trained the probie to be the firehouse maid and he or she has no idea what to do when the bell rings, you have failed at your job.

Knowledgeable Instructors Are Everywhere

A key element to a successful recruit training program is quality instructors. This is an investment that will pay dividends many times over.

All trainers do not necessarily have to be certified. I bet you can name more than one member of your department who is a guru with a passion to share his or her knowledge of a discipline in which the primary instructor(s) may not have as much experience. Involving other members gives them the opportunity to be a part of molding the future generation of your department.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to neighboring departments. If both organizations respond to incidents together you could pool your training resources and even have a consolidated recruit academy. There can be many benefits to working with your neighbors.

The End Is Only the Beginning

A nice way to finish off a recruit’s initial training is to have a ceremony to celebrate their accomplishment of completing the “academy.” It does not have to be anything extravagant. A simple ceremony with a framed certificate where your members have the opportunity to invite their family and friends will be a memorable way to close the first chapter of the recruit’s career.

State and local jurisdictions usually dictate what the minimum training standards are for entry-level firefighters. Obviously, the operative word is “minimum.” The purpose of the initial training is to impart basic knowledge, skills, and standards so a recruit can have an idea of what to expect on their first day assigned to a fire company.

Whether training at your own fire academy, a consolidated class, or a state/county fire academy, the initial training should be just the beginning of career-long learning and training opportunities. No matter the size of your department, it is your obligation to properly train new recruits before they ride the apparatus and respond when the bell rings.

Bob Fields has more than 26 years of experience as a career firefighter. He has spent 14 years with the St. Louis Fire Department in some of the busiest companies and is a captain on an engine company. The first 12 years of his career was spent with a small department with fewer than 60 personnel in Northwest Indiana. He also spent several years as a volunteer in a suburban and a very rural fire department.

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