By JIM McCORMACK
Every fire department wants and should have its own training facility. Too many departments want to build a Taj Mahal-like training center, because they think that having the latest, greatest complex will end their training problems. That’s wrong. A fire department training facility is much more than just buildings.
Consider the local supermarket. If a building is built and called a supermarket but there are no aisles, no groceries, and no sales clerks, it really isn’t a supermarket; it’s just another building. To construct actual training facility buildings, just take a panoramic snapshot of the local community, account for safety, and hand it off to the builders. After construction, you must address the following essential components.
WHY DO YOU NEED A TRAINING FACILITY?
Training forms the foundation of all fire department performance. You must create an atmosphere where firefighters can practice and maintain proficiency at their craft. Fire departments perform both on the fireground and off. The skills required to get the job done on the streets are only a percentage of the skills needed to be a complete firefighter or officer. Consider these complete candidates professionals when they consistently perform a first-rate job; they only achieve this through continuous training.
The overall run load is down. As the number of runs decreases, so do the number of times firefighters use their skills. On-the-job training occurs less with the decreased number of runs. More importantly, on-the-job training does not allow firefighters to gain proficiency—only maintain it. As with any skill, the less you use it, the less proficient you become.
New construction features and technology require more practice. Every day somebody invents a new product or skill or improvement on something that has been used in the past. These improvements require firefighters to continually update their knowledge and skills. One example of this is lightweight wood trusses. A firefighter used to ascend to the roof of a fire building and ventilate it—then his proficiency and knowledge would come into play. With the advent of truss construction, the same approach may now lead to deadly results. The only way to gain and maintain proficiency with everyday advancements is to train on them, and the only way to do this is to create a real training facility.
Fire department training improves firefighter safety. Conversely, the lack of training usually kills firefighters. Safe fireground operations result from firefighter competence, and competence comes from training. An unfortunate predecessor to many firefighter fatalities is a reduced effort in training—and that’s criminal. Safety depends on training, and training depends on being able to do it.
In a nutshell, fire departments need a training facility because practice makes perfect, prevents mistakes, and brings firefighters home to the firehouse and their families.
THE TRAINING ATTITUDE
A fire department training facility will never become a reality without the right training attitude. The fire department must embrace training at all levels. This is not a blanket statement that means everyone on the job must embrace training. Simply, it means that all levels must acknowledge the need. There will always be firefighters, officers, and even chiefs who don’t feel training is essential, but it’s doubtful that there is ever 100-percent agreement on any issue, anywhere. A training attitude is contagious. Even if that attitude begins with one member, it can spread and become a department attitude.
Everyone involved must realize the importance of attitude. Departments could have every fire service manual and textbook, every piece of equipment available, every type of fire apparatus, and an entire community dedicated as a training facility and still be unsuccessful in gaining and maintaining firefighter proficiency in the skills they need to get the job done if they don’t have the right attitude.
A SOLID TRAINING PROGRAM
A fire department training facility requires a solid fire department training program. Unfortunately, many departments put the cart before the horse. Without a solid training program, a department really doesn’t know what a training facility needs. A facility without a program is like buying a car without an engine: It’s not going to get you to where you need to go. Sure, you can buy an engine for the car or build a training program to fit the facility, but both are limited by the preexisting condition and not the real-life needs that exist.
A fire department training program should address all department and personnel needs. Department personnel fill many organizational levels, and your training program must address each level. New recruits need the basic knowledge and skills to perform their roles on the streets. Existing firefighters must be kept proficient in basic firefighting skills and schooled in the more intangible skills required as they move up within the organization. The program must provide company officers with not only the basic firefighting skills but also the important skills to deal with their crews and their superiors. Sometimes they’ll need to be practitioners, sometimes managers, sometimes followers, and sometimes leaders.
The training program must also address department administration. Fire departments are businesses, like it or not, and must provide business training for those responsible for running the business. As a result, a fire department training program must be open-ended and flexible and provide the ability to adapt to new technology and situations when the need arises. Training is continuous throughout the career of any member, and the training program must be built with that in mind. Only then can the facility take shape.
The training program must be results-oriented. Not only must it include all of the areas listed above, but also it must provide a steady flow of personnel who can effectively perform at the levels they’ve been trained. Bells and whistles are not important—performance and results are.
The training program must be community based and incorporate community needs. Too many departments take the easy way out and use generic material to train individuals on how to operate in their community. A community-based training program analyzes the community (i.e., response and construction types, the population) and all the variables that make the community what it is and then incorporates them into the training program.
One of the most important features of any fire department training program that will lead it into the future is that it must take an unconventional approach. Creating the “same old, same old” just isn’t working. “Whatever it takes” has been a philosophy of firefighters and fire departments since the beginning. That approach must now shift toward developing and maintaining department training programs. Business has done it for years. Departments must break away from the status quo and create a training program that’s effective, provides results, and provides the fire department and firefighters with the advantage every time they respond, on and off the fireground. So what if playing paintball becomes the most effective way to teach fire company teamwork? Now that’s unconventional!
A fire department training facility cannot exist without quality people. Sure, there may be a building or two and there may be people working there, but without the right people it might as well be a ghost town. Department personnel who develop, maintain, operate, and prosper at a fire department training facility are there to help others, period. Although there may be any number of other reasons that people become involved, if helping others learn the trade and giving back to the profession aren’t their driving forces, then the facility will never reach full potential. In fact, dominance by traits such as individual recognition, advancement, and superiority are often enough to destroy even a well-built training facility.
People’s passion and desire, solid skills and performance, and effective communication (in their own way) both on and off the fireground form a winning set of qualities in a training facility. With the right people who have the right attitude and who work with a solid training program, competent firefighters can develop without a fixed training facility (that’s how important people are); that’s like having a three-legged table. It will stay up for a while, but ….
One important point that I must make about the people involved in fire department training, which includes facilities, is that they shouldn’t be strangled with requirements. Unfortunately, one of the downsides to technology and advancement is that we tend to get hung up on the distinction between process and content. We place too much emphasis on the process (the individual’s qualifications to train others) rather than the content (what we try to accomplish). This hangup is one of the easiest ways to lose quality people, who must be constantly solicited from within the fire department for what they know and how they perform. Once enlisted, they must be allowed to continue to do what they were doing and how they were doing it, because that’s what got them noticed in the first place. Everybody has their own way of striving for excellence. That’s what makes quality people.
IMAGINATION AND VISION
The ultimate fire department training facility incorporates all of the above components and is a facility built around the department’s needs, members, and community. It’s custom. One of the biggest misconceptions about building the facility is that it is built by firefighters. It’s not. It’s designed by firefighters and built by professional builders, architects, engineers, and so on.
The ultimate facility should be a snapshot of the community protected. Imagine instituting a curfew that required all citizens to vacate the community for fire department training to take place. Although this will never be anything more than a concept, you can realize the concept in a fire department training facility. A fire department responds every day to calls for help in the community it protects. It responds to actual buildings with realistic building construction on realistic streets with real-life problems. Training without incorporating these concepts is not really training.
Creating the facility will require land, location studies; all building types; and varieties, roadways, water supply systems—basically everything that the current community incorporates. But that’s easy once the above components are in place. Funding is another issue.
We’re in the business of firefighting and training firefighters. When constructing the actual complex, call in the professionals who know how to do it. It’s easy to get a builder to build something when he knows what you want.
JIM McCORMACKis a 19-year fire service veteran and a lieutenant with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department. He is the founder of the Fire Department Training Network and the author of Firefighter SurvivalandFirefighter Rescue and Rapid Intervention Teams.