Building a Better Training Culture

Firefighters training
Photo by Tim Olk.

Part 1

By Adam Parkhurst

Photo above by Tim Olk

Why do firefighters train? This should be a fairly easy question to answer. We train to improve, to tighten up the slack and find where our deficiencies are. Training and education are cornerstones of the fire service. We have been training since we started and will continue to train, to some degree, until the day we hang up our helmet. But what if training was bad? What if the way we trained had the opposite effect, where instead of improving our skill set it was making us worse? What if our training was priming us to make bad decisions? What if we were training for failure?

The purpose to training is clear, but the methods used seems to vary widely, and people often rely on methods to teach that may not be grounded in sound research. Understanding how adults learn and how people make decisions during stressful and unique situations can improve the way that we train people in the fire service. A focus on decision making and judgment in extreme stress environments and teaching individuals to recognize thinking fallacies and bad mental models can improve the way we as educators approach training. But there is not a one-size-fits-all method to training and training performed incorrectly can be just as detrimental as not training enough.


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When we train, we often build a plan on how the training should transpire, a plan for the course of actions that should be followed. This is good when training is directed toward the mastery of specific skills but could be detrimental when we are training firefighters to perform and make decisions. Training builds a folder of experiences in our mind, and if we fill that folder with incorrect experiences then we are setting ourselves up for a negative outcome. We should plan to have training that pushes individuals into unfamiliar territory and allows them to adapt and troubleshoot. We must work on both skill mastery and decision making.

We want to believe that if we are put in a dangerous situation that we will have a plan B, but sometimes plan B turns out to be lay down and die. If we build training that is compelled to follow a specific course even when that course if not working, then we are training guys to hold on to a failing plan when they are under stress. We must start training firefighters to make decisions in training, to adapt, and build mental cues that trigger actions. Sometimes the solution to your hammer not working isn’t to grab a bigger hammer, but instead switch to using a screwdriver. When we train firefighters to make decisions and adapt and we push those characteristics in training, firefighters will be more likely to make the appropriate decisions when they are fatigued and responding emotionally to a situation.

The Benefits of Checklists

If you were placed in a firefighter rescue situation, what would be the first thing you would do when locating a downed firefighter? This question can spur great conversation during a tabletop or scenario but is terrible when you are in the actual situation. You should know exactly what the first thing you will check is, and the second, third, and so on. You should also know when it is time to abandon the first plan for the next. Sometimes to be the most effective in a high-stress/low-frequency situation you have to take some of the decision making out and rely on a guideline, a series of steps that you will execute in a specified and practiced order so that you do not fail to overlook anything. That means a mental checklist. In his 2009 book Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gwande looked at how implementing checklists into medicine could decrease infection rates and mortality following the insertion of a central line, a procedure that only has five steps. It was discovered that even though the procedure could be broken down into only five steps, one step was missed almost two-thirds of the time. A short mandatory checklist was constructed, which resulted in a decrease of infections by 66 percent. This is an impressive finding, especially when it is applied to something with so few steps. As firefighters, I believe we like to think we are able to solve problems on the fly and will make the appropriate decision when we are faced with them, and that we do not want to be constrained by a checklist. But I think the idea of using a short checklist will only make you better at making decisions and adapting to the environment; it’s one less thing you have to think about. Gwande writes, “Checklists seem able to defend anyone, even the experienced, against failure in many more tasks than we realized. They provide a kind of cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness.” In short, none of us are too good for a checklist.

How Do You Build Your Checklist?

The modern fire service has become an incredibly transparent place. We seem to be more eager than ever to share both our triumphs and failures to improve the industry. If you are looking to develop a checklist for certain tasks, look data surrounding it would benefit you. For example, when it comes to rapid intervention approaches, examine the data published in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Mayday study. The FDNY found that 54.54 percent of firefighter’s face pieces were dislodged. One routine might then be to check that the down firefighter’s face piece, since it doesn’t matter how much air you give them if they aren’t getting any of it.

Checklists should also be short, between five and nine steps, and easy to remember. For example, for fixing an air problem with a down firefighter, one sequence might be:

This is nothing complicated. It is a simple process of making troubleshooting efficient, which may be the reason firefighters seem to frequently employ acronyms—they are a way to easily remember steps in a process. Acronyms are checklists.

Mental Cues

Firefighters often set out with a plan of action in mind when conducting drills and training. We design the training to accomplish a certain learning objective or build a plan for how the drill will progress. This is good and important for skill development, but although we need to train for skill development, we also need to train for troubleshooting and adaptability. Specifically, we need to teach firefighters how to not “fall in love with the plan” and build cues in their head for when what they are doing isn’t working. Our firefighters need to know when to move to the next plan, assuming there is one. There’s the story of a quarterback that was getting sacked a lot because he was not getting rid of the ball fast enough. To fix this, the coaches would sound a buzzer in his helmet after five seconds during practice to help him develop an internal clock. As a result, he began delivering the ball faster and was sacked less. We need to teach something similar such that firefighter build an internal clock for when they must move on to the next plan. Whether that “clock” is a perceived time or a number of failed attempts is up to your discretion and part of the training process.

Fighter pilots use a similar concept when bailing out. Bailing out of a plane is incredibly dangerous and results in the loss of a multimillion-dollar aircraft, so parameters must be set so that there is no question for the pilot what they must do. When the pilot is faced with certain problems, they have a protocol for how they should correct them. When this fails or critical errors occur, they bail out. They do not have to start from square one in figuring out a problem. They know what must be done and how and what to do if it does not work.

In part two, Adam Parkhurt reviews training drills vs. training concepts and more.

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.

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