Instructional Demonstrations


Most fire service training focuses on enabling firefighters to perform certain tasks. Before we talk about our training methods, let’s first ask ourselves how the brain processes information to learn. Before recruits can perform a task, they need the proper knowledge that enables them to act.

Have you ever asked for directions to someone’s house, but that person has trouble communicating them? Although these individuals are experts in this particular subject matter, they may have difficulty putting that information into words and, furthermore, you may have difficulty understanding and accomplishing the task.

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Our brain processes information and transforms it into usable knowledge that allows us to name, explain, and talk about matters, called declarative knowledge. In contrast, procedural knowledge enables us to act and to perform a task. As instructors, we must be aware of the knowledge type we deal with so that we may choose the best instructional method to transfer our knowledge to the learners.

As instructors, we are tasked with training our firefighters how to use a piece of equipment or perform a specific skill or technique. The next question we ask ourselves is, How do we teach? Which instructional method should an instructor use when teaching a student procedural knowledge? We could talk about how to “hit a hydrant” until we are blue in the face. However, if your house was on fire, how confident would you be in assigning that recruit to establish a water supply?

An anonymous person once said, “You may think you will rise to the occasion, but in a crisis you will default to the level of your training.” As an example, a buddy and I were talking one day about the importance of getting the guys out of the training room and onto the drill ground for some actual hands-on training. He shared that his department upgraded its self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), which included the addition of the universal air connection (UAC). The department went over the new features of the upgraded SCBA when the units arrived, and when the rapid intervention team (RIT) operations topic cycled back around on the training calendar, the UAC was again discussed (declarative knowledge).

However, approximately two years after receiving this extra tool in their toolbox, his department completed a downed firefighter drill. This hands-on training exercise required the deployment of the RIT, which was equipped with a RIT pack. The RIT members were assigned to locate and rescue a disoriented firefighter who was low on air; not one crew used or thought about the UAC option. This wasn’t because these crews were uneducated about their equipment.

Learning research tells us that declarative knowledge is not easily converted into procedural knowledge and vice versa—especially not in high-stress, emergency situations. The members hadn’t practiced that skill until it was “on their card,” put into their volumes of experiences. Consequently, when faced with this realistic scenario, they defaulted to their training level.

What do you talk about with your crew, and what should you train them on before they must face it on an actual call? An instructional demonstration is a great way to train others’ procedural knowledge; it is the preferred method for our academy. This is not merely a demonstration or presentation such as a salesperson would make; it is not a “show-and-tell” session but an instructional method within the learning context. An instructional demonstration is a method that promotes interest in learning and confidence in accomplishing a new task.




Introduce the topic and gain the student’s attention, interest, and motivation by doing the following:

1 State the objective (task, condition, and standard). Lay out the road map, where the training session is heading, and what is expected. As training progresses, the conditions and standards for the objectives should increase as well. Base instructor expectations on the stated objective.

2 Demonstrate the task (fireground speed). Seeing a task performed correctly provides greater understanding than any amount of explanation. A demonstration paints a picture that is worth a thousand words, provides an aspect of realism, and presents a holistic perspective of the task.

3 Walk recruits through the task (step by step). This step reduces hazards, as opposed to trial and error, and allows the instructor to emphasize safety issues. Instructors should use multiple instructional materials to facilitate students with varying learning styles. Recruits can also digest and clarify the content. This is where they appreciate and understand the finer details or subtask. Instructors must begin the instruction at the recruits’ level.

4 Allow the recruits time to practice (practice, practice, practice). We must involve recruits. The more they participate, the higher their proficiency. With each repetition, the probability of future recall increases. Also, this step helps instructors determine what remedial training the recruits may need.

5 Evaluate recruits’ performance (evaluate). The instructor must ensure that students meet the objectives—i.e. the students can perform the task to standard. That is the responsibility we have to the students, their department, and their community. On completion of the evaluation, we must provide feedback on their performance.

Now let’s get out there and train, train, and train to complete the skills our communities expect from us. Let’s not just talk about it—let’s get on the drill ground, put the equipment in the recruits’ hands, and do it. It is not only a matter of your students/department members knowing it, but a matter of their getting the job done and knowing if they can perform the tasks to standard. That is our job as fire service instructors—to help our students succeed; to direct and coach; and, when the learning experience is over, to ensure that they walk away competent.




1. Telling Ain’t Training, Harold D. Stolavitc and Erica J. Keeps; American Society for Training & Development, 2002.

KURT GLOSSER is a 13-year fire service veteran and an engineer with the Savoy (IL) Fire Department. He is also an education specialist with the Illinois Fire Service Institute. He has a master’s degree in human resource development and various fire and EMS certifications. He also instructs for Southern Illinois University’s fire science management program.


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