Developing Officers as Instructors: Is “Good” Good Enough?

You are A new company officer. You have the credentials: You have received several commendations as a firefighter and have received a well-deserved promotion. But what are your credentials for training your firefighters in one of the most dangerous occupations on the planet?


We are constantly adjusting our firefighting strategies and tactics to reflect modern challenges. The modern firefighter is not the firefighter of your day; significant generational differences exist in what the modern firefighter expects in the classroom. When did you last update your instructional methods and techniques? Hopefully, you will go to an instructor class to develop your instructor skills, which is usually an afterthought in most organizations.

Although not formally trained as instructors, fire officers become responsible for training once they are promoted. They are expected to conduct regular training to increase their firefighters’ competency. What skills do you, the company officer, possess to provide better than “good” (i.e., satisfactory, acceptable, OK) training sessions for firefighters assigned to your station?

Basic Instruction Skills

The basic instruction skills include developing a framework to provide better than good instruction and training consistently. The basic framework is the Four-Step Method of Instruction: preparation, presentation, application, and evaluation. This method was used to train women to provide war support while the men were overseas fighting during World War II. National Fire Protection Association 1041, Standard for Instructor Professional Qualifications, also supports this time-proven methodology.

Did Better Learning Occur?

Consider the following questions to evaluate the scenarios below. Did better than good learning occur?

  • Has the firefighter learned a new skill?
  • Did the recruit demonstrate a new skill?
  • Has the firefighter successfully used the skill in practice?
  • Can the firefighter demonstrate what has been learned?
  • Has the firefighter fulfilled learning expectations? How can you as the instructor tell?
  • Ultimately, has better than good learning occurred?

Exercise 1. Did Learning Occur?

Learning Situation



For the first time, Recruit Higbee was taught in the classroom how to connect hoses. Although he watches the instructor demonstrate the skill, on the training ground, he is unsure of the proper sequence of the steps for the skill.

A group of recruit firefighters watch a video on donning self-contained breathing apparatus.

Cadet Kermantle learns rappelling. After practice using a skills checklist, he completes a performance test with a passing grade, and the company officer certifies Cadet Kermantle.

The answers are at the end of the article.

Step 1. Preparation

This includes developing measurable training objectives together with written lesson plans. The topics for which training is needed can often be decided on many levels. You may have a department training officer or a committee that creates a training schedule. You might base training on qualifications, standards, or job descriptions drawn up by your department. In some cases, professional organizations or department problem areas might determine training decisions.

Regardless of who makes those decisions, the training will eventually come down to you and your department. Effective training depends on you and on the student’s knowing what your training objective is.

Training objectives are important. For the instructor, an objective makes clear exactly what the training will cover; for the firefighter, it makes clear what the firefighter should be able to do at the end of the training session. For both, it clarifies an otherwise confusing situation. At the beginning of the training session, tell students the objective so there will be no confusion about the lesson’s objective or about testing expectations. Along with explaining the objective to the class, let students know how the training session will be organized, what tools/equipment will be used for hands-on training, and how performance testing will be done.

ABCD objectives. Better than good objectives are measureable and pass the Audience, Behavior, Conditions, and Degree (ABCD) test. The Audience is your students. Behavior is the skill you are teaching, what the learner ought to be able to perform after the lesson. Conditions are specifications related to the behavior, such as “without assistance,” “in writing,” and so forth. Degree specifies the minimum performance expected: “with 80 percent accuracy,” “four out of five times,” or “in 60 seconds.” For example, (A) recruit firefighter, (B) will don self-contained breathing apparatus, (C) wearing full turnout gear, (D) in 60 seconds.

Apply the ABCD test to all objectives to determine if they are measureable, the first step in developing and evaluating better than good training materials. For each pair of objectives, determine which is not measurable and which is better than good (measurable). Use the ABCD test.

Exercise 2: Measuring Lesson Objectives


Not measurable

Better than good


The first responder will become familiar with poisoning.


The first responder will list from memory three types of pesticide poisoning.


The pump operator will understand friction loss.


The pump operator will be able to calculate friction loss, given gallon-per-minute flow, within five pounds per square inch.


The new firefighter recruit will understand sprinkler drawings.


The new firefighter recruit will identify parts of a sprinkler system in writing when given a diagram of a sprinkler system with 90 percent accuracy.

The answers are at the end of the article.

Lesson Plan

Develop better than good lesson plans that include basic lesson information. Teaching a lesson without a lesson plan is like a building a structure without an architectural plan. A training objective tells you and the class where the lesson will go; it is the map that tells you and the class how to get there. A lesson plan is a reference tool in conducting training. Whether you prepare one yourself or get one from your training department, a professional service organization, a manufacturer, or commercially, a good lesson plan identifies the essentials of a better than good lesson plan.

You should be able to identify the elements in the Lesson Plan Format in most lesson plans:

Step 2. Presentation

Instructors find this component the most challenging and rewarding. It is challenging because you are on stage, and your preparation, knowledge, and experience as an instructor are put to the test. The reward is seeing your students increase their skills and effectiveness at the job.

Lesson Plan Format


Donning self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

Time frame

60 minutes.

Objective (ABCD)

The recruit firefighter will don SCBA with full turnout gear in 60 seconds.

Materials needed

SCBA set and full turnout gear for each student, stopwatch, donning checklist for each firefighter.


Department standard operating guidelines, SCBA donning checklist.

Preparing the student

Prepare and spur the student’s interest in the learning experience. How can the instructor demonstrate the importance of correct donning?


How will the instructor present the information? What aids and methods will be used?


What practice opportunities will the instructor provide for the students to develop proficiency in achieving the objective?


How will the instructor determine if students have learned what was presented? If they attain a passing grade on the SCBA Donning Checklist.


The most commonly used instructional methods are lecture, illustration, discussion, and demonstration. If presented well, a lecture is an efficient way of introducing your students to information. Find out what your students already know and take them deeper into the topic, or you will bore them. Use the following ways to properly build your lecture: Go from the known to the unknown, from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and from the simple to the complex. Do not lecture for a long time. Break lecture material into segments of information; each should not be longer than 10 to 15 minutes. Usually, student attention is maxed out at around 10 to 15 minutes. Follow each lecture information chunk with a learning segment—have the firefighter practice or demonstrate that segment of information mentally or physically, similar to the exercises above after each talking point.

For example, consider cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Break down the CPR instruction into components of information: checking for safe surroundings, checking airway, checking pulse, breathing sequence, and chest compression sequence. Teaching the complete CPR sequence would be disastrous without practice after imparting each chunk of information.

A better than good instructor would have a learning check after delivering each component of information. But even after segmenting information, give students a physical break after 60 minutes.

After lunch, significant physiological resources are engaged in digesting food. Plan hands-on activities so that students are actively engaged mentally or physically in learning activities. More lecture after lunch is usually not productive.

Break up your lecture with short discussions, learning checks, question periods, and demonstrations. Most adults are action-oriented active learners, so too much listening will make them restless and bored.


Use illustration aids to show details or processes too small or too hidden to be revealed in a normal demonstration. Ensure that your illustrations are uncluttered and show important detail clearly. Creating visual emphasis increases the chances that learning will occur. Use circles, arrows, and color contrasting. For example, if you are using a black-and-white illustration, highlight the part you are focusing on with a lighter or a darker shade or color.

The following are some points for effectively using illustrations and visuals:

  • Visibility: Ensure the image is large enough for all students to see from a distance.
  • Focus: Use one illustration at a time; seeing several charts around a classroom is distracting.
  • Step-by-step process: Use visual aids to illustrate and explain each step once as if conducting a demonstration. Let your students explain the process using the same visual aids.


A good discussion is more than just an aimless conversation about a topic. In a good discussion, students can learn facts, principles, or techniques that you have determined they need to understand. But they can learn by sharing with one another. The following tips will help you improve the educational quality of the training discussions.

  • Define the lesson objective clearly at the start.
  • Make the topic clear to the group.
  • Use discussion starter questions.
  • You are the gatekeeper and must keep the discussion centered on the topic. If the discussion strays, bring it back on track, saying, “That’s a good point, but today we are actually concerned about ….” Tactfully, give the student credit.
  • Encourage alternative answers. When one person offers a suggestion, encourage others to share theirs, asking, “Are there other ways handle this situation?”
  • Record important points and summary information on flip charts.

Expect and allow differences of opinion. Using the brainstorming technique works well as a discussion technique.

  • Record all ideas.
  • Allow everyone to speak.
  • Encourage creativity— i.e., “There are no wrong ideas.”
  • Respect each group member.
  • Evaluate and prioritize ideas.
  • Act as a facilitator.
  • Use a flip chart to record ideas.


Demonstration is the teach-by-doing strategy. Use demonstration as the primary teaching method to instruct students in how to perform a skill. Student do not learn a skill just by hearing how it is done.

Use the following techniques to achieve effective demonstrations:

  • State the objective for the class.
  • Arrange the classroom space so that everyone can clearly see the demonstration.
  • Using the skill checklist, identify key points discussed in the application step above.
  • Tell students you will demonstrate the skill three times: once at normal speed, once at a slower speed, and once again at normal speed.
  • Add a fourth step, and have the students explain the skill or process as they are performing it.

Step 3. Application

This is the most important part. In training, you will not be satisfied solely with teaching students a list of facts or helping them to form opinions. The final goal of better than good training is improving performance. You are concerned with doing, not just knowing. In this step, you direct the student to apply previously learned knowledge to the performance, the doing that is the student’s job.

Skills Checklist: SCBA Donning

Key student performance points

1. Checks air cylinder gauge to ensure it is full (a minimum of 90 percent of cylinder capacity, per NFPA 1404, Standard for Fire Service Respiratory Protection Training).

2. Checks remote gauge and cylinder gauge (within 100 psi).

3. Dons SCBA using overhead or coat method, per department SOG.

4. Fastens chest strap, buckles waist strap, and adjusts the shoulder straps.

5. Dons face piece and checks face piece seal.

6. Connects air supply to face piece.

7. Activates PASS device if not integrated.

8. Dons remainder of protective equipment (hood, helmet, gloves).

9. Completes all tasks in a safe manner within 60 seconds.

Performance Test

Student Name:

Key performance points

Pass/ Fail (circle one)

1. Checks air cylinder gauge to ensure it is full.


2. Checks remote gauge and cylinder gauge (within 100 psi).


3. Dons SCBA with overhead or coat method, per department SOG.


4. Fastens chest strap, buckles waist strap, and adjusts the shoulder straps.


5. Dons face piece and checks face piece seal.


6. Connects air supply to face piece.


7. Activates PASS device if not integrated.


8. Dons remainder of protective equipment (hood, helmet, gloves).


9. Completes all tasks in 60 seconds.


Students must attain 9 points for a Pass grade.


Instructor: Date:

Key Elements

Key questions to ask in designing the application step include the following:

  • What observable behavior (skill or knowledge) do I want the students to learn? (Refer to the ABCD objective.)
  • What are the key performance elements of the knowledge or the skill (task analysis)?
  • In what practical situation will the students perform this skill or use this knowledge?
  • What are the safety hazards that may surround this situation (risk analysis)?
  • What learning must students achieve before the application?

Since you have presented the information to the class using appropriate methods and aids, now what? Practice! The key to achieving better than good instruction is correct and consistent practice. Using the Skills Checklist, an analysis of the individual steps is the key component in accomplishing this.

Step 4. Evaluation

This step provides the proof that learning did occur. This documentation must be placed in the firefighter’s personnel file as proof of correct skill demonstration.

The performance test is also a great motivator, since it lets the students know that they are responsible for their learning and will have to do something more at the end of the lesson than just sit and listen to the instructor.

Better than good trainers know the importance of testing and evaluation. It is not enough to teach a skill or provide information; you must be certain that the students have mastered the skill or information and are ready to use it when necessary on the job. Testing and evaluation are also important ways to give the students final feedback. If they are working toward a qualification or grade advancement, testing becomes even more important. It is the measure by which students can demonstrate to all that they have made the grade.

Additional Training Concepts

The Four-Step Method of Instruction is only one facet of advancing company officers’ training skills to the better than good level. Additional training concepts include the following:

  • The proper use of training aids and methods.
  • The basic educational methodology as taught by Benjamin Bloom, Edward Thorndyke, Abraham Maslow, and Malcolm Knowles.
  • Educational concepts such as chunking, the cone of learning, and “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
  • In a more comprehensive plan, consider training on legal and safety issues and the responsibility of the officer for safe training.

What level of training do you want your firefighters to have when they are engaged in one of the most dangerous occupations on the planet? Is “good” good enough?

Exercise 1 answers: 1. No, 2. No, 3. Yes.

Exercise 2 answers: 1a. Not measurable, 1b. Better than good. 2a. Not measurable, 2b. Better than good. 3a. Not measurable, 3b. Better than good.

DAVID APGAR, a 50-year veteran of the fire service, is an assistant chief with the Camp Hill (PA) Fire Department. He instructs in educational methodology (the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy course), volunteer fire service management, fire prevention, Fire Service Instructor I and II, and company officer instructional techniques at a local community college. He is a Pro Board-certified fire instructor I and II and has a master’s degree in education and a supervisory degree in special education. Apgar has been a keynote speaker at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy Annual Instructors Conference, the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

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