We have spent the majority of the past seven years directly involved in training firefighters, either those assigned to our department`s training and safety division or conducting in-service training in our battalion fire stations. Additionally, we have had the opportunity to visit many departments across the country while conducting training for the tactical portion of assessment center processes. As a result of these experiences, we have come to the same conclusion as our colleagues in training divisions and fire stations across America: Students learn by doing. This is where the problem arises for most of us. The number of fire incidents is down. According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA), the number of fire incidents dropped 17 percent from 1986 through 1997.

While the numbers of fires to which we respond continue to drop, the number of nonfire-related duties we are asked to handle continues to multiply. In the 1970s, many fire departments became the primary providers of emergency medical services for their communities, initially at the basic life support level and later at the advanced life support level. In the 1980s, in response to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration CFR 1910.120 regulation, fire departments instituted hazardous-materials response teams. Now in the late 1990s, most departments have some form of technical rescue response team for confined space, trench, high-angle, collapse, and swiftwater incidents. These additional duties, with their mandatory refresher courses and required continuing education hours, have left little room on the training calendar for our primary mission of firefighting.

Another trend we see in the fire service is the increasing numbers of company officers who spend the bulk of their careers in support or specialized divisions. Many of these officers, who simply do not have the requisite field experience or training in fire suppression, now find themselves in the unenviable position of serving as incident commander at a critical fire incident.

Finally, despite what many old-timers will tell you, today`s fires are more dangerous to fight than those our predecessors faced. Modern lightweight buildings that substitute geometry for mass and are filled with synthetic, toxic fire loads burn hotter and collapse faster. Modern, lightweight self-contained breathing apparatus and improved turnout gear allow today`s firefighters to go where their predecessors feared to tread.

The question then is, How do we provide initial training and continuing education to provide company officers and incident commanders with the necessary skills to do the job? In an ideal world, we would take all newly promoted officers and pack them off to intern with an experienced officer on a busy rescue or engine company for eight or 12 months. A more realistic alternative is to develop and implement an ongoing program of fire incident simulations.


This article will examine a simulation program we have initiated in our department. We began by focusing on command decision-making skills but soon realized that this versatile tool lent itself to many other training demands. The incident commander`s position requires expertise in many complex areas in which each decision is closely linked to another. To create a simulation program on command decisions alone seemed to be placing the cart before the horse. We observed that quality departments routinely extended consistent organized responses to situations. To put it another way, they responded to standard situations with standard responses. The goal is not to remove all creativity and decision making from incident commanders but to provide a framework within which members can work. The end result is a consistency that flows from battalion to battalion and from shift to shift.

We have found that simulations are best delivered and received in conjunction with a topic or lesson. The topic can range from size-up reports to Mayday communications, from water flow to a new radio SOP. Introducing new procedures or reviewing existing policies is an extremely effective way to encourage members to participate. The most reliable person from whom to get feedback about processes is always the one doing the work. The problem has always been how to collect this feedback. The simulation environment provides members a forum from which to express their concerns and demonstrate their solutions. The simulation exercise is an excellent opportunity for an honest review of the written word. How many trees could have been saved by a review of policy through simulation prior to departmentwide distribution in print and the subsequent revisions?

It is true that the most credible sources on the efficacy of work processes are the ones utilizing them. Simulation exercises provide an opportunity to rehearse our skills. No one would be surprised to see John Elway practicing throwing short passes across the middle or studying the game plan for Sunday`s game. Professionals rehearse for the game or the play under game conditions. Why should firefighters do any less? A structure fire of any significance is going to draw as many viewers as a prime time TV production. The nightly news broadcasts our performance on a regular basis. The look of a well-oiled team is no accident; it has a direct relationship to practice. More importantly, the Broncos can lose on Sunday and everyone lives to play another day. We and those we serve, on the other hand, are players in a far more serious game.

When highly skilled and successful teams are analyzed, one common theme keeps surfacing: The members all trust and accept the choices made by the other members. When decisions are structured in a predictable format, they need not become scripted or just memorized steps–they become internalized responses. Teams excel when clearly established guidelines for performance are understood, modeled, and rewarded.

This takes us all back to the first days of hose evolution class where we received a riding position and were told what to do but still had reservations, wondering if all would work out as the instructors had described. After time and countless repetitions, we began to trust our classmates and instructors and accepted that all of these actions would result in the fire`s going out. This is the result of team building. Teams build on success. Great teams allow members to play the positions for which they are best suited. Great teams review the game films, searching for areas for improvement. When these areas are discovered, they go out and practice options, look at alternatives, and encourage creativity. Most importantly, they focus on the player carrying out the play.


The simulation program, as we will describe in detail in subsequent articles, hinges on the incident commander and company officer in the role of coach. We believe our program`s success comes from the development of good coaches. Good coaches produce good teams. There are many types of coaches with just as many types of styles. We believe success comes not so much from one type of style but from an understanding of the game plan supported by practice. Different personalities lend themselves to different styles, and some people function better for different coaches. We see improvement in all areas of performance from simulations. The simulation environment allows the coach to observe without the pressure of having to call the next play. Commanders can watch their subordinates` thought processes and evaluate the quality of the interactions between the members. The simulation environment also allows the players to have the coach`s expectations and intentions clarified so that they can gain a clearer understanding of what is expected from them.


Developing and presenting case studies based on significant fire events, both good and bad, are excellent and nonthreatening ways to introduce the concept of simulations to your department. We have used case studies to emphasize key fireground safety issues such as the use of rapid intervention teams, the need for incident accountability, and the dangers of hidden fire in void spaces. Case studies, when properly facilitated, are powerful teaching tools. They allow firefighters to put themselves into critical fireground decision-making situations they might not otherwise have to face. Lessons learned and reinforced in this way can have a more lasting effect than simply reviewing standard operating procedures (SOPs).

There are several good sources of information for case studies. The USFA`s Web site ( is an excellent one we use quite often. Technical reports on various incidents can be downloaded in Portable Document Format (PDF) and opened using Adobe Acrobat ReaderT (Macintosh and Windows versions of Acrobat Reader are available free from the USFA Web site). The great thing about PDF files is that text, charts, illustrations, and photos can be selected and imported directly into a presentation program such as Microsoft PowerPointT. This makes producing professional quality case studies very easy. In addition, USFA materials are not copyrighted, which eliminates potential problems with copyright violations. Another source for materials for case studies is the National Fire Protection Association`s Fire Investigation series. Hard copies of these investigations are available from the NFPA for a reasonable fee. A nice feature of the NFPA investigations is that they reference the relevant NFPA standards in the report. Be advised that NFPA materials are copyrighted, and permission must be obtained from the NFPA for any use beyond what is considered fair use for educational purposes. Finally, trade magazines often have detailed reports and case studies on major fire and rescue incidents.

The key to a meaningful case study is how well the facilitator tells the story. First and foremost, the facilitator has got to have the facts straight. We recently attended a class on positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) in which the instructor (from a well-known manufacturer of PPV fans) used a case study to illustrate several important points about the use and misuse of PPV. The only problem was that he didn`t know the case very well and made several significant factual errors. We had used the same case just a few weeks earlier during a firefighter survival course. The end result was that the instructor may have been very knowledgeable about PPV, but his credibility with this class was lost.

A case study is not a lecture. Students must feel free to ask questions, discuss important issues, and engage in an open exchange of ideas. The facilitator must be comfortable and experienced in the role to succeed. Once again, mastery comes from doing. The more case studies you develop and facilitate, the better you get at it.


A nice transition from case studies to incident simulations is to build a local simulation based on lessons learned from a recently presented case study. Creating a simulation around a building with a wooden bowstring truss roof that incorporates elements of the Hackensack Ford fire (New Jersey, 1988)–a freeburning fire in a truss void prior to the fire department`s arrival–or a high-rise apartment complex fire based on the incident at 750 Adams in Memphis, Tennessee in 1994–use of elevators in a fire, SCBA use in an emergency, and other problems experienced–are examples of this type of transition simulation.


Another way to make the transition into a simulation program is to narrow the focus of a simulation to a single vital function on the fireground. Perhaps the best example of this type of simulation is the size-up exercise. The ability to give a clear, concise size-up report is one of the single most important skills a company officer must master. Unfortunately, most company officers do not get to practice this skill very often on the fireground. The solution is to conduct a size-up exercise.

For this exercise, the facilitator needs to assemble a large number of images of different building construction types enhanced to show fire conditions ranging from “nothing showing” to “fully involved.” Although this exercise seems simple, it reinforces and hones many crucial skills. These skills include the recognition of various construction types and the hazards associated with them, the use of the order model and communications SOPs, and the use of staging procedures and command functions. We have seen tremendous improvement in initial size-up reports after company officers have participated in this type of size-up exercise.

It is important to note that incident simulations are an adjunct to and not a substitute for hands-on skill training. However, when it comes to developing command skills, improving decision making at the strategic and tactical levels, and fostering better teamwork, few training tools can compare with well-conducted incident simulations. n

n ROBERT HALTON is a fire commander with the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department and a trainer in critical incident management nationwide under the direction of Northwestern University and BOWMAC Educational Services. He also develops and evaluates promotional materials for Burroughs and Rockhill & Associates of Oviedo, Florida, and conducts seminars and develops content for fire service promotional examinations.

n TED NEE is the assistant chief of and a fire commander in the Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department, where he has also been district chief, paramedic course coordinator, and captain/EMS education coordinator. He is a member of the Emergency Cardiac Care Committee and the board of directors of the American Heart Association–Southwest affiliate; the Joint Organization on Education, New Mexico Primary Care and EMS Bureau; the National Association of Emergency Medical Service Educators; and the International Society of Fire Service Instructors.

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