Training Probationary Firefighters

By JAMES T. SWANICK

“The New Guy,” “Probie,” and “rookie” are phrases with which any new member of a volunteer fire department may be labeled. Probably the least common phrase used to refer to a new member is “probationary firefighter.” In our world, that phrase seems to be too long, so we shorten it to a more comfortable term.

Never diminish or ignore the training that this new member receives. Many states and most volunteer departments require that firefighters attend a Firefighter 1 or equivalent course in basic firefighter skills and fireground operations at a fire academy. However, new firefighters at a volunteer department do not usually attend a training course immediately on joining a department. They may be required to complete a probationary period prior to attending; a course may not be scheduled at the fire academy for a few months or even a year. What happens during this time period in your department? Do the new members participate at fires and drills with no training? Who supervises the new members at fires or drills to ensure that they will not be injured or, worse yet, get someone else injured because they have no training or experience? This article suggests the training a probationary firefighter should receive before he participates in exterior operations on the fireground prior to attending a Firefighter 1 course.

WHY TRAIN BEFORE ATTENDING A FORMAL ACADEMY?

Most members who expect to assist at emergencies understand that firefighter training is needed for them to properly do so. They also understand that they need this training for their safety as well as for the safety of other firefighters and the civilians they serve. Many new members, however, will not understand being told that before they can assist at an emergency or participate at a drill they must attend a formal fire academy. They may feel excluded during this waiting period for a course and not feel appreciated by the department, which may cause them to quit the department. This could result in your department losing a potentially valuable firefighter, possibly the best your department could produce, all because of the department’s training policies. This would be especially true if these new members are expected to assist with fund-raising and other nonfirematic activities but are not permitted to assist at emergencies or participate in training drills.

(1) Probationary firefighters
(1) Probationary firefighters who have completed their probationary training position a fourth ground ladder during a structure fire in Rockaway, New Jersey. This assistance allowed experienced firefighters to perform other tasks such as vertical ventilation, which the firefighter on the aerial ladder (circled) is about to perform. (Photo by Adam Alberti.)

By training these probationary firefighters prior to their attending a fire academy, your department will gain firefighters who have been trained for exterior operations such as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottle replacement and rehabilitation, water supply operations, lighting, equipment staging, and returning apparatus to service at the end of the incident. During the probationary firefighter training, the department will also observe how well the probationary firefighter adjusts to the department and to firematic activities. This probationary firefighter could become an invaluable firefighter or the department’s best chief or officer in a generation.

ESTABLISHING A TRAINING PROGRAM

Prior to establishing a training program, the department should check with any state mandates or laws regarding firefighter training or response limitations. Also ensure that the training program instituted follows and adheres to these requirements.

The chief of the department should establish the instructor of probationary firefighter training; this duty will usually fall on the department’s training officers. Consider creating a supervisor of the training officers and appointing multiple training officers. This allows for more interaction between the probationary firefighter and other personnel and also actually increases the knowledge and ability of the experienced personnel because they will be expected to be at the top of their game while instructing.

In selecting personnel to serve as training officers, the chief should consider many factors including experience, availability, and the ability of the member to instruct other personnel. A good training officer must possess all three to be successful. Many firefighters have the experience and the time to instruct other personnel but lack the ability to follow a program and may tend to tell war stories about their own exploits rather than instruct personnel on the current topic. There is a time and place for war stories in any training program, but a good instructor knows when and when not to use them.

The probationary member training program should be in written outline form and should not be conducted as a “Let’s go out and train tonight” program. Training should be uniform for all new firefighters; having a written course outline is the only way to ensure that all receive the same type and quality of training. The program your department develops should follow the Firefighter 1 skills on which the firefighter will be instructed when he attends the formal academy course. This way, he will not be confused about the proper terms and techniques and thus not required to relearn that in which he was instructed at the local level.

(2) Probationary firefighters
(2) Probationary firefighters changing an SCBA bottle during a training drill as part of their probationary firefighter training. (Photo by author.)

To ensure that the proper technique is being taught, the program instructors should refer to and use the Firefighter 1 book and practical skill sheets found in the curriculum of the course. The skill sheets are usually located at the end of a chapter or in a separate skill sheets book. These books are readily available from fire academies or from a firefighter who has already completed the course and has no desire to keep the books. The training program should be at the level of a new firefighter, who may have never seen fire apparatus up close, let alone participate in any form of emergency services.

The probationary firefighter training program should not duplicate exactly what the member will learn when he attends the required firefighting course at the fire academy. If the department can offer such a course—with the same content and quality in facilities and instructors—there would be no need for the member to attend the fire academy. Most departments cannot duplicate the resources a fire academy can offer. If there is no fire academy available or the department does not have the financial resources to send members to a fire academy, the probationary member should still receive training as a new member because if the department must conduct training, it cannot provide the bare basics training that this new member will require.

Whether or not the probationary firefighter attends a formal academy or receives all training through the department, he should still attend the department’s drills. This way, the probationary firefighter will learn how the department operates and also be introduced to other members in the department.

The type of drill being conducted should determine if the probationary firefighter will be permitted to participate. If the drill is on water supply (i.e., dropping hose from a hydrant or drafting), the probationary firefighter could participate after observing the department and be instructed on the operation being conducted by a training officer or mentor. However, if the drill is a live burn or involves interior operations (i.e., search and rescue, interior hose advancement) the probationary firefighter should only observe, never participate. If he were permitted to participate at training such as this and an emergency occurred inside the structure, the firefighter would not know what to do. This could lead to his or another firefighter’s death or serious injury and criminal or civil complaints against any chiefs or personnel involved in the drill. Even if nothing happens at the drill, it could result in the probationary firefighter developing a false sense of security. He could come to believe that it could now be done at a fire because it was done at a drill.

TRAINING COURSE

The training course should be long enough so that it gives the member the introductory training needed but short enough so that it can be completed and not overextend the training officer’s or probationary firefighter’s time. Remember, the training officers and probationary firefighter will be expected at other drills and activities. The firefighter must understand that this training is meant as an introduction to firefighting; at its completion, he will be capable of providing support operations at emergencies but not permitted to work on the interior or any area that is immediately dangerous to life and health.

If there are only one or two probationary firefighters to train, do not wait to conduct the probationary training. Simply have other fully trained firefighters participate in the training; this will polish their skills while interacting with the probationary firefighter, and having all involved will measure what the other is capable of.

Listed below is a sample of probationary firefighter training program sessions. As previously stated, it is not a credentialed program; instruction should be based on the curriculum of the Firefighter 1 course the probationary firefighters will attend later. Six to nine training sessions, lasting approximately two hours each, should cover the topics that a probationary firefighter will require. The first two sessions should be taught in order. After that, the sessions may be completed in any order.

Session 1—Safety and General Information. This session is usually conducted in an engine bay or a break room and must be completed first because it involves safety and general information about emergencies. It should include topics such as the following:

  • Department policies and procedures related to performance expectations.
  • A thorough explanation of firefighter personal protective equipment (PPE) and having the probationary firefighter don and doff his PPE properly.
  • Explanation and review of any personal alert safety system device issued, the department’s accountability procedure, and emergency communications on the fireground.
  • Response expectations—should the probationary firefighter respond to the firehouse to staff apparatus (and, if so, first- or second-due apparatus) or directly to the scene? Also discuss the possible limitations on what emergencies to which he may or may not respond.
  • General scene safety such as explaining proper fire attack and being aware of civilian traffic and safety at electric and gas emergencies.
  • What the probationary firefighter can expect at emergencies and what duties he may or may not perform.

Session 2—Apparatus Equipment and Review. This session should be a physical walkaround and review of department apparatus, equipment on the apparatus, and the response order of the apparatus to emergencies. A probationary firefighter having knowledge of where equipment is located will be a great resource; he can act as a gofer, thus leaving a fully trained and capable firefighter available for other duties. If a department has multiple fire stations, the apparatus the probationary firefighter may encounter or be assigned to at an incident should be reviewed.

Session 3—Water Supply Operations. This session should explain verbally how to establish a water supply and should be followed by a practical exercise. Whether it is done by hydrant, drafting, or water shuttle, this session is a good opportunity for other personnel in the department to get involved in the training. If your department is training pump operators, have them attend this session; repetition is the key. If the firefighter can establish a water supply from a hydrant or assist in a drafting evolution multiple times rather than just once, he and many others will have a much better learning experience.

Session 4—Aerial Operations. This session should explain verbally the department’s aerial apparatus, followed by a practical exercise. If your department does not operate an aerial device and relies on mutual aid, the firefighter should be exposed to the aerial operation and equipment. Permit the firefighter to put outrigger plates in place and observe the aerial in operation. Ensure that the firefighter understands the possibility of the aerial being electrically energized by working in close proximity to or in contact with overhead electrical wires; explain what actions to take and not to take in such a situation.

Also, provide instruction on properly climbing the ladder or bucket operations and the placement of the ladder tip or bucket during different aerial operations. Consider whether or not to allow the firefighter to climb the ladder or be involved in aerial waterway operations from a bucket or ladder tip; some departments allow this, while others do not.

Session 5—Fireground Operations. This verbal session explaining basic fireground operations should be followed by practical exercises such as deploying handlines and positioning ground ladders. Because of this session’s content, it may have to be expanded to two sessions to properly cover the material.

The firefighter should be taught to properly deploy 1¾- and 2½-inch handlines from the apparatus. After deploying the handline, the firefighter can flow water and be instructed on proper firefighter positioning and the different nozzles on the apparatus. Afterward, the firefighter can learn that old-time probie job of packing hose. The instructor should ensure that the trainee understands why the hose is packed in the manner it is.

Ground ladder instruction should include the parts of the ladder, removing and returning the ground ladders to the apparatus, raising, and positioning for the different operations that may take place from the ladder in any given position. Teach proper climbing and tool carrying techniques, and consider whether or not to allow the firefighter to climb the ladder at this time; some departments allow this and others do not.

Session 6—Support Operations. This may be considered the probationary firefighter’s bread-and-butter session. It includes instruction on rehabilitation operations; positioning ventilation fans; exterior lighting; and, most importantly, changing SCBA bottles. Training officers should remember that the use of SCBA requires more knowledge than simple operation of the SCBA. It requires knowledge of fire behavior, building construction, fire spread, and a host of other information that is above the firefighter’s level of instruction at this time. Instruct the firefighter on how to change the SCBA bottle; that’s all. In the future, there will be a time for the probationary firefighter to be instructed on all matters of the operation of SCBA prior to its use.

OTHER SESSIONS

Your department may also provide other services that require training such as EMS operations, understanding vehicle extrication equipment, and using portable ponds for water shuttle operations. That’s what’s best about a probationary firefighter training program: It is created specifically for your department and the operations your department performs and does so at an introductory level so you can get the most out of all personnel.

My department has had success in training probationary firefighters with this type of format. Most have stated that when they attended the required Firefighter 1 course, they were ahead of their classmates, having already been exposed to the material prior to the course. The department itself has benefited greatly; these probationary firefighters were able to perform many of the tasks covered in the training sessions at actual incidents, thus relieving fully trained firefighters of these support functions and allowing them to perform more vital tasks.

JAMES T. SWANICK is a New Jersey Division of Fire Safety Level 2 instructor with Firefighter One Training Division and has served for more than 29 years with the Rockaway (NJ) Fire Department, where he serves as a training officer and has served as a chief.

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