By Christopher LeDoux
Writing for the NVFC
When I joined my local volunteer fire department in 2005, I was as green as green could get. I was thirsty for knowledge but didn’t know exactly how to go about getting that knowledge. My department didn’t have much of a training program. The overall culture of the department was a very “good ole boy” environment, and it didn’t take me long to notice that training more often than not took a back seat to everyone visiting for a few hours and calling it a night. I tried to attend as many local- and state-offered trainings as I could, but those weren’t very frequent in those days. Most of what I learned I picked up on the emergency scene.
Fast forward to 2012. I had been taking the initiative to put together some type of organized training on our drill nights. That April, my department voted to create a training officer position and it was given to me. I was handed the reins to a training program that was basically nonexistent. I was given very little direction on what to do or how to do it. Does this sound familiar to anyone out there?
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I slowly was able to build up a training program that was semi-successful, but it was still lacking. In 2015, I made myself read the IFSTA Instructor book. For those who have studied from any of the available instructor books out there, they aren’t what I would call thrilling reading material. But I learned lots of good information and successfully passed the Fire Instructor 1 certification. I followed that up by passing the Fire Instructor 2 certification in 2016. I was officially certified, but it’d be foolish to say I was qualified.
Fast forward again to 2016. My department was going through changes in administration and, along with that, a big culture change. I had left the department for a short time and returned to find a department that was seeing lots of changes…good, positive changes. I was no longer the training officer in 2016, but I was often asked to assist or lead in trainings.
In January 2017, our department policies were changed, and the third assistant chief position was entrusted with being the chief of training and fire prevention. We held elections, and I was voted into that position. Here I was, training officer again, just with a different color helmet. But things were different this time. I had evolved as a firefighter. I had evolved as an instructor. For lack of better words, I had grown up. I also had a young, progressive fire chief who entrusted me to lead the training program as I saw fit. Talk about an intimidating time!
As time has gone on, my department has continued to transform our culture and we’ve become what others have said is the “standard” for what a volunteer fire department should be. We’ve obtained 50+ IFSAC certification. We’ve organized and hosted two state-wide weekend mini schools, where volunteer fire officers could come get valuable training. We’ve put on the first-ever recruit academy in our parish, where new volunteers could come and get a solid baseline of knowledge and skills.
In the last year or so, I’ve been approached by numerous people who were handed the reins to their volunteer department’s training program. Many of these, much like I once was, were certified instructors but were thrown to the wolves and given little to no direction on how to lead a training program. I exchanged countless phone calls and texts with these people, giving tips and having ideas bounced off me. Don’t get me wrong, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1041, Standard for Fire and Emergency Services Instructor Professional Qualifications, and Fire Instructor I & II courses are great and are much needed. But do they truly prepare you to be handed the responsibility of leading a volunteer fire department training program? Sure, you’ll learn the laws of learning. You’ll learn how to create and edit lesson plans. You’ll learn that you must have a spare bulb for your overhead projector (insert eye roll). But does 1041 truly prepare you for what you will be doing in the real world? This was where “Tips for the New Instructor” was born.
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The following list is in no particular order. You’ll notice that some of these tips have relevance for fire officers and NFPA Standard 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications. I cannot take full credit for this list as I had multiple of my instructor friends review the list and give their input.
- Figure out what works for you. You can try to copy the teaching styles of other instructors, but you need to figure out what works for you.
- Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, but don’t be afraid to change the tire. There are lots of resources out there for training purposes but that doesn’t mean they are a perfect fit for your department. Don’t try to completely overhaul that resource but edit it as you need.
- Remember the basics. The basics are some of the easiest things to get complacent with. It’s not feasible to do an advanced search and rescue class if there are still people who struggle with donning a self-contained breathing apparatus.
- Listen to your people, even when they aren’t talking. Some people will tell you the training they want/need. For others, you will need to be observant to identify weaknesses. Either way, pay attention to them to see what training needs to be addressed.
- Always be a student. Take as many classes as you can. Not only will this improve you personally, but it will help you to grow as an instructor.
- Be a leader. As the training officer, you are responsible for the growth and knowledge of your people. That may seem scary (and it is) but embrace it. Show your people the way, and lead by example.
- Don’t be afraid to step on some toes, as long as you step with truth. Individual personalities can be a funny thing, especially with volunteer firefighters. You will have every personality—God’s gift to the fire service, the person who doesn’t believe in themselves, the person who has seen it all and got the t-shirt after only six months of service…the list goes on. The truth and facts can be a hard pill for some to swallow.
- You will NEVER make everyone happy. Always keep the best interest of the department and community in mind when making decisions. Refer to #7 again.
- Always give 110 percent to your people. Not everyone has the same level of dedication and commitment, and that will frustrate you beyond your imagination. As a training officer, you have to give 110 percent or else you are wasting their time. You can’t control their dedication, but you can control yours.
- Build your contacts. There are plenty of knowledgeable instructors out there. Become friends with these people. You can bounce ideas off of them, swap training materials, etc.
- Know your job. Sit down with your administration and see exactly what your position will entail. Determine what the training requirements are each year.
- Stay organized. It can get pretty overwhelming with lesson plans, training records, and notes everywhere. Figure out a way to stay organized and it will go a long way to staying sane.
- Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Ensure that you have a simple and effective way to pass on training reminders to your people. When you give classes, speak clearly and loudly. Poor communication is a fast way to grow confusion.
- Set expectations early. Whether it’s your expectations for the overall training program or for an individual training, set those expectations and communicate them clearly.
- Train your replacement. It’s not realistic to believe that you will hold the position forever. It doesn’t matter if you’ve held it for 15 days or 15 years, you should take the time to start training a replacement. There are a number of reasons why you may leave your position before you originally planned to. It is up to you to make sure there is someone waiting in the wings to take your spot.
- Leave your ego at the door. Egos can destroy an organization. You are here to better your organization, not tear it down.
- If you learned it, then share it. As a training officer, you will get lots of opportunities to attend training. Take those things you learn and bring them back to your department. It is selfish to keep that knowledge to yourself, especially if you are using it to hold over another.
- Lead by example. When your people are training on skills, you should be training on skills. You don’t have to be the fastest or the strongest, but participate side by side with them. This is one of the biggest ways to earn their respect.
- Think before you speak. You may need to discipline someone. Someone may keep pushing your buttons. You hold a position of authority, rank, and respect. Don’t ruin that by running off at the mouth. Discipline in private, not in public. Take a breath, think about it, then reply. Sometimes the best reply is none at all.
- Teach within your means. You will be looked at as the foremost expert on most all fire training activities, but that doesn’t mean you really are. If you aren’t good at ropes and knots, don’t teach it! Find someone within your department or an outside instructor who excels at it and let them teach it. The last thing you want to do is teach incorrect information.
- Keep the best interest of your department and community in mind. Your position is all about “them,” not you. Every decision you make should be made to have a direct positive impact on your department and the community you serve.
- Be realistic with your training. Try your best to make training evolutions as close to real world as you can safely and affordably get. Be realistic with your training ideas. A class on aerial operations sounds all good and fun, but if your department doesn’t have an aerial, is it really a realistic topic? You will only have limited opportunities to train; make the most of them.
- Stand by your decisions. You will second-guess yourself. People will question your decisions. Stand by those decisions. Having a flip-flop attitude towards your own decisions can cause breakdowns in leadership and respect.
- Don’t forget where you came from. Remember what it’s like to be a young, new firefighter. You were once young and dumb too. Don’t steal someone’s passion.
- Have fun! The fire service can be very fun: the adrenaline, the excitement of live fire, all the things that we love about this job. Yes, there are times where we need to be serious, but don’t forget to have some fun too.
- Stick to your training plan. Don’t deviate in mid-drill as this will cause confusion on the established goals.
- Establish a culture of safety. Allowing unsafe acts such as freelancing and reckless cowboy behavior during training will only lead to those same acts on the emergency scene. Establish that culture of safety and hold everyone accountable for it.
- Train like you play so you can play like you train. Success on the training ground will lead to success on the emergency scene. Cutting corners during training will lead to cutting corners during an emergency.
- Have an open door policy. Make yourself reachable to your people. They may not want to talk to you in a crowd but would feel more comfortable in a one-on-one situation. Take steps to ensure that can happen.
- You won’t always be right. Accept criticism. Understand that you will make mistakes. Give your people the permission to correct you if the situation occurs.
- Find a mentor. A mentor is someone you can look up to. Someone you can always turn to for honest advice. A mentor will help to pick you up when you are down.
With nearly 70 percent of the United States fire service being volunteer, I’m sure there are people reading this list that have either experienced this or are currently experiencing this. Will every tip on this list be applicable to you and your department? Doubtful. Being a new instructor or training officer is hugely intimidating, but I believe that this list will help you in bridging the gap between 1041 and the real world. Good luck, train hard, and don’t play with matches!
Christopher LeDoux has been in the fire service for 15 years and currently serves as the third assistant chief in charge of training and fire prevention for the Iota (LA) Volunteer Fire Department. He has an associate degree in fire and emergency services from Louisiana State University Eunice and holds IFSAC certifications Firefighter 2, Fire Instructor 2, Fire Officer 3, Incident Safety Officer, Fire Investigator, Fire Inspector 2, Public Fire Educator 2, and Apparatus Driver Operator. He is a nationally registered EMT, an American Heart Association BLS Instructor, and volunteers as a certification lead evaluator for the LSU Fire & Emergency Training Institute. He was voted as the 2018 Firefighter of the Year for the Louisiana State Fireman’s Association. He can be reached at [email protected].