Civilian Emergency Response Training

By George H. Potter

Every day, more and more private enterprises approach their local fire departments to request fire safety training for in-house emergency response personnel. For many years, career and volunteer firefighters have given talks and demonstrations at local schools, producing a notable increase in fire safety and fire prevention awareness among the young. In more than a few residential fires, these talks were influential in occupants’ survival. Fire department involvement in business activities, though, is a newer concept.

When you consider delivering a fire safety training program to a local company, there are a number of considerations for the preparation and presentation of that program. Probably the most important is, what does the enterprise do? Is it a commercial center that attracts hundreds or thousands of customers? A manufacturing facility closed to the general public but generating intense vehicle traffic in and around the plant? A chemical storage facility with large quantities of very hazardous substances?

One common error departments make far too often in preparing training programs is to “standardize” content and format, including the actual delivery evolutions. The program designed for employees of a cement factory has little in common with one directed toward hospital personnel, shopping mall staff, or shipyard workers. Although the basic concepts of fire, fuels, and extinction are indeed quite similar, the needs of diverse levels of people are quite different. The development of the training program must take into account the following aspects (although these are not the only factors to consider), and the instructor assigned to the course must become totally familiar with them:

Activity: Is the enterprise a manufacturing operation, a commercial property, a health care facility, a warehouse, or a hydrocarbon processing and storage plant? 

Emergency response plan: Does the facility have an emergency response plan and structure established, and is the training program to be in accordance with that plan? Will the program include emergency incident management, hazmat incident response, mass evacuation, first aid, and so on? The emergency response plan provides the overall information about the facility–its activities, size, risk levels, and emergency response structures. If no emergency plan exists, the training program developer must work closely with those responsable for emergency response in the enterprise to create an adequate course.

Level or depth of training: Will the participants have to use only first-aid fire protection equipment (portable extinguishers and small-diameter hose as is found on some standpipes) or must they have competence in the use of personal protection equipment (PPE), including SCBA? Is high-angle rescue one of the operational requirements? This factor will be decisive in determining program structure, duration, and practical hands-on evolutions.

Number of people involved: Depending on the size and activity of the enterprise, should all or nearly all employees be trained, or does the emergency response structure contemplate a fixed percentage or exact number of employees forming the response teams?

Practical, hands-on training exercises: Depending on the levels required or contemplated, what types and quantities of fuels will be adequate for live fire extinguishment? How much of and what kinds of extinguishment materials must be available?

Where the training will be delivered: Will part of or the entire program be given at the premises, at the fire department’s training facility, or at a specific purpose-built fire training center? Depending on the levels of training and the location of the enterprise, it may be viable to deliver the entire training package on-site. If the company does not have adequate facilities, it may be necessary to give part of the program on-site and another part at some other site—a fire academy, a training center, or another acceptable location. How far away from the facility can the participants be expected to travel?

How many people and how much time will be needed for program preparation and delivery: This must include the production of specific content for audiovisual and physical training aids. Does the program include student study and reference documents, simple handouts, or no printed material? During the practical evolutions, the participation of several instructor assistants may be necessary and will require adequate technical and operational preparation.

It is not uncommon for a fire department to develop and deliver a fire protection training program to company personnel and receive sharp criticism afterward. This is more than likely because the firefighter who gave the course was not properly prepared for it. An instructor may assume students know as much as he does about fire, combustibles, and extinguishing agents and may not be completely familiar with the company. Financial institution employees’ interests in fire growth may well be limited to the absolute essentials, and their primary considerations in a fire emergency will probably be getting all occupants out and away from the hazard area. Cement plant emergency responders, on the other hand, need to know, among other subjects, that coal dust can be extremely explosive, the rotating ovens can generate tempertatures upward of 2000ºF, and the fixed foam extinguishing systems protecting the fuel oil storage areas must be properly maintained. If the enterprise has chemical hazards, either because of product fabrication or storage, the instructor must have knowledge of and experience in hazmat emergency incident operations and be able to prepare and supervise realistic and safe simulated exercises based on the properties and characteristics of the products present in the facility.

Fire service personnel have a unique quality that can be extremely advantageous when training civilians—real-life experiences and training. The students most assuredly do not know nearly all that we do about fires, fuel spills, and confined space rescue, but they do know a lot more about their activities and operations than we do. The instructor must establish a delicate balance that will make the company want to continue a good working relationship with the department that may lead to periodic refresher training and programs year after year.

George H. Potter is a former Maryland volunteer and USAF firefighter who has lived in Spain for more than 46 years. He is a certified Spanish fire service instructor and has developed fire safety training programs for hundreds of Spanish and Portuguese entities including hospitals, banks, cement plants, food product processors, hotels, liquid and gas fuel storage facilities, and telecomunications operators as well as public service fire departments. He is on the Board of Governors of the Spanish firefighters association ASELF.

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