New Training Officer: Life in the Fast Lane

BY JASON BLOUNT

Have you ever looked at other areas of your department, such as the training division, and wondered, “What do they really do?” I know that I didn’t, and so I didn’t have a great perception of the training division. It was like being a passenger on a trip where you felt like you were just along for the ride. Although we may have criticized training from time to time, in the end, we did the best we could, and the department worked together perfecting our craft, keeping for the most part a positive “can do” attitude.

I work in Hillsboro, Oregon, a city of about 85,000 that occupies 23 square miles outside of Portland. The city is primarily residential with a large high-tech business presence. Our department has had a long tradition of sound and aggressive fire tactics, and we prided ourselves on doing a lot with little. Previously, our training division had a training chief, but the company officer or battalion chief handled most of our daily fire, wildland, EMS, and hazmat training.

In recent years, we had a new fire chief and the department has favored an all-risk approach that required training all personnel in all areas of technical rescue and incident command. We increased our community involvement and became more involved with other regional and state agencies, including helping to form and be part of the new state urban search and rescue team.


(1) The training officer position provides many opportunities to work with various groups and develop instruction skills, coordinate training schedules, prepare drill and class sites, and run drills. [Photos courtesy of the Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department.]

We were changing quickly, and the rate and amount of change challenged us. Management and the line members discussed our training program from time to time: Would adding a training officer, either in rotation with a company officer or as a full-time position, be a solution? The rotational option was the least favorite with the crews, since it would require a move from the shift schedule to a regular day job. In addition, some personnel questioned how effective the position would be if it rotated every year. Would the training officer be doing meaningful work in delivering training, or would he also be assigned to special projects, which we saw happen to others assigned to training? Although these projects may be important, they can cut into the training officer’s time, resulting in a loss of focus on needed training.

Finally, it was decided that this position, called “training lieutenant,” would rotate every year and would report to the training chief. After giving such a move a lot of thought, I applied for it; as it turned out, I was the only one. I soon learned how effective this position could be.

At that time, as a 15-year veteran of the department, I had been very happy with my position and my current crew. Why would I want to go into the training division? Certainly, no other officers wanted to. It meant a radical schedule change that would undoubtedly affect my home life and job duties. Most of all, it meant that I would no longer do what I love to do—respond to emergencies and work with a great crew. I saw it as a challenge, and I needed the opportunity to grow. I had a lot of questions: Could I succeed in the position? How would it really work out? How would the crews respond to me in that role?

But it was a conversation I had with a respected officer that really motivated me. After he listed the pros and cons as he saw it, he summed it up, saying, “It won’t make a difference in the end, and the position will not have any lasting impact.” That statement really ignited me! I began to see the whole situation as a personal challenge to make a difference in training, surpass expectations, and develop myself as a firefighter and as an officer.

It could not have been a better time for me to take the position. The current training chief was retiring, a recently retired chief officer was filling the position part-time in the interim, and a new training chief was still going through the hiring process and would not be ready for at least 30 days. So I had a wide-open opportunity to pursue the position’s responsibilities however I wanted. The department chief’s expectations could be summed up as follows, “Provide training for everyone, and learn as much as you can from the position.” The expectations of the chief and other staff were great, but not as great as those I had of myself. Our agency always had very committed personnel; now that we were heading in this new direction, I wanted to provide a high level of service.

Following are some lessons I learned from going into the training division for the first time. If you are considering such a move, realize what you are getting yourself into. We have the best job in the world, period! Working in the training division with my own expectations was hard work and regrettably took me out of shift life for 2½ years. It required late nights of reading and preparation just to keep up with the pace. But my time in the training division was one of my greatest experiences. As a result, I am a better prepared lieutenant/paramedic and a more well-rounded leader. So if you are wondering about whether to accept the challenge yourself and what it will be like, read on.

STARTING OUT

On the first day, my role was described as “drill master,” which brought a nervous smirk to my face. I didn’t see myself as a master of anything, except maybe a master student. But I had the skills and understood what was meant, so I ran with it. Although the job description outlined the expected duties, it did not instruct me as a first-time training officer on how to do the training and where to get it done. Having been on the line, I saw what I liked and didn’t like about the training division. I had often thought that there could be a better way. But as I thought about it more, I suddenly realized that I had no idea of how to do things other than the way I was trained to do them in the first place. I also knew how easily the crews put the target on the training division; now the target was on me. As an officer on the line, I have trained with my crew and on my shift and have even set up multiagency drills. But I now had to think about my new role in a different way. Here is what I came up with.

ATTITUDE

There is always an attitude adjustment when moving from any position in the organization to another. As a firefighter, I viewed the world at the 500-foot level; as I was promoted, my perspective of the department changed because my altitude and view had changed as well. Being responsible for training a whole department means realizing what you need to change within yourself. You need to examine how you communicate and work with others, how you present yourself, and how you prepare for a class. You also need to be prepared to stay motivated through the hard times, especially when that target on your back is glowing! In short, your attitude will determine your altitude in any situation. It will allow you to rise above issues to see a larger perspective and climb over obstacles that might stop others less prepared.

LEARNING

Learn everything you possibly have time for! I understood the training division mostly from a distance. I knew very little of how its business was conducted, what documents had to be filed and submitted to the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards Training, or what training hours or skills were mandated. Since the previous training chief was no longer there and the new one was still going through the hiring process, I had a huge learning curve to overcome.

One of the first things I had to learn was documentation, something that most members (including me) do not fully appreciate until it is needed. It’s not just about keeping all your paperwork; it means correctly completing forms and filing and submitting them logically and uniformly. For example, we used folders for personnel’s hard copy training records, which allowed us to keep track of firefighters’ training status: classes attended, certifications applied for, and certifications received. Although it sounds simple, this low-tech change made life a lot easier for recordkeeping.

Proper documentation is a foundational necessity in preparing for internal and external audits and for establishing department and employee credentials and certifications. Documentation should provide you with a complete and seamless picture of everyone’s level of training and certification. Furthermore, it allows you to be prepared for liabilities that can and do occur when you consider the events involving training ground injuries and deaths over the years. Life is so much easier when your documentation is complete and easily accessible. To maintain security and accountability, limit access to your records to training division personnel only.


(2) Hands-on training is an excellent teaching format. Not only does it get the new instructor away from the podium, but it also can create a collaborative atmosphere for sharing ideas on skills, tricks of the trade, and equipment.

Additionally, understand the policies, regulations, and laws that govern how training should be conducted, such as department standard operating guidelines (SOGs), and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. As you study these documents, you will discover, for better or for worse, how your agency has perceived them and how they are applied. Be prepared in how you want to address any discrepancies or liabilities. This can be uncomfortable, since it may challenge your agency’s culture and traditions. As our organization changed how we trained on different subjects, I encountered some resistance at different levels. This was another opportunity to learn. It gave me experience in communicating new and challenging ideas, combating misinformation, and addressing fears.

In trying to learn the training division, I took every opportunity to understand how the agency and governing bodies worked and didn’t work, including lines of formal and informal communication. For you, it may mean researching and understanding what your boundaries are in terms of local policies; standards such as NFPA 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions; and state requirements. It also means looking at how and why your agency views training as it does and being able to justify continuing on the same path or challenging the process to create a better way.

There are several resources for you to do this. First, talk with members inside your own agency who are experienced with and knowledgeable about the training division. I was fortunate to know someone who had worked in the division before being promoted to a different position. Our discussions gave me great insight into our practices and helped me understand how we operated at the administrative level.

Next, look for classes, seminars, conferences, and articles that cover the job and responsibilities of the training division. The National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and your state’s accreditation agency are great resources, as are the local training associations and the local community college. I’ve been fortunate to attend conferences such as the Fire Department Instructors Conference, and I have found some great instructors who were more than happy to stay after class to answer questions.

Finally, and this is big, get out and meet other training officers in your region. This may seem like leaving the island called “We Know Best,” but you need to do it to see how others in your position operate to be successful. The relationships you build with others can reap huge benefits for all parties involved. You will be able to share ideas and experiences that can help you in your own agency. This networking can allow you to help each other out in joint exercises; in sharing resources; in gaining a common understanding of regulations; and, most importantly, in making friends with whom you can work and build mutual support.

Speaking of friends, you had better spend an equal amount of time doing this on your home turf. You will find that you will need help from administrative staff, line personnel, and chief officers. Building relations with co-workers and staff leads to greater cooperation and collaboration that will pay big dividends down the road.

ASSESSMENT

Next, assess the training needs, gather the facts, and identify the training tools needed. In any position, it is important to gather as much information as possible before embarking on an endeavor. The questions are simple: What are the organization’s training needs? What are the personnel’s capabilities? How can we deliver the training? Once I asked these questions, many more arose:

  • Does this training fit the department’s mission statement and strategic priorities?
  • What resources and curricula are available?
  • Who has input into personnel training? Is it just the training chief, or are there also other chief officers?
  • Who needs to approve the training?
  • What are the expected timelines and priorities?
  • What level of training does the department need and want?
  • What scheduling conflicts are there?
  • What are the budgetary concerns or restraints?

Once you’ve determined the agency’s needs, you’ll be able to formulate a plan to meet those needs through prioritizing, scheduling, and targeting resources such as instructors and props.

VISION

Although I had my job description, I still needed a vision on how to carry it out: Where does the program start, where does it end, and what will it do for the agency? The training division of an “all-risk” department has a broad range of subjects to deliver and a multitude of ways to do it. However, to effectively and efficiently use resources and time, you need to find a direction and go. Certainly, whatever the needs assessment reveals about the department, the training must be consistently relevant to the agency’s needs, applicable to its capabilities, and progressive in its delivery.

STAKE YOUR GROUND

Whether coming into a well-established position or establishing a new one, consider where you fit in with your skills, and establish yourself in those areas. When starting out for the first time, it can be difficult to get going if you don’t have good direction. For the first couple of days, I kept expecting to get an agenda or a list of tasks. I did get a few but not enough to fill a day. Since my supervisor was already committed to events and classes, I decided to just look for what work needed to be done and dig in. I called it “capturing flags” and approached it like a game. I simply made a list of what I thought needed to happen, gathered information from the line personnel, and ran as fast as I could until someone reined me in. But I didn’t go totally rogue! I did talk to my part-time supervisor about some of the ideas I was working on, and he was very encouraging. So I kept going. I met with crews to see what they liked and went to the building department, asking the personnel to notify me when buildings became available for training. I scheduled and coordinated classes and networked on my own with other agencies and businesses. I took every opportunity to establish myself and learn about the department.

CONDUCTING THE TRAINING

So now I had the correct attitude, I had a vision, I was looking at the organization’s needs, and I knew what I wanted to do. I was ready to train, right? Well, not quite; I had a few issues I had to overcome first. There was already an established schedule that for the most part was filled with other details. I had to start somewhere. Even though it was a bit clumsy, I scheduled things where I could fit them in. I selected two classes to start with, a lecture and a hands-on drill.

The second issue I had to confront was my fear of public speaking. I wasn’t just a little nervous; I was terrified! This was a problem since this was to be a large part of my job. Back when I was a firefighter, I requested permission to dress down for a class so my light blue dress uniform shirt would not show the sweat stains. I knew this was going to be difficult going in, but I decided to embrace the challenges and use the position to overcome this obstacle.

For my first class, I lectured on and presented the material from Dave Dodson’s “Art of Reading Smoke” class that I had attended previously in our state. Not only was it related to our department’s core mission, but it was also challenging to teach new perspectives on the fire environment. I was so nervous that, to keep a dry appearance, I waterproofed the inside of my uniform, which was helpful until I noticed my shoes became squeaky from the runoff. I taught this class four times; after each class, I reviewed what I did right and what I needed to correct. It was a great experience.

The second class was a hands-on drill covering firefighter self-rescue and rapid intervention team skills. This class was more interactive than the lecture, and I was able to incorporate different instructional techniques with more confidence. As we worked with different equipment and props, it also opened the door for a meaningful exchange of ideas with the students.

As time went on, I was able to schedule classes and drills every week, which provided for a more consistent delivery of training. It also meant that I needed to manage my time better. For example, the week before a class, I prepared the material and props. The week of the class, I delivered it several times for paid and volunteer staff and then went back to preparing for the following week’s class. In addition to this, I attended various meetings within the organization and prepared for future drills by meeting with property owners, the building department, or other agencies.

At the same time, I was working on assigned tasks that came up, regular office work, and pursuing my own projects and training needs. It was a very demanding position I had placed myself in, but it was also very exciting and educational. I was constantly on the go, presenting drills or classes and obtaining a valuable education for myself. The varied topics included extrication, flammable liquids, EMS, wildland, pumper operations, the incident command system (ICS), live fire, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), firefighter safety and survival, technical rescue, and more.

MISTAKES AND OBSTACLES

The training division is one place where mistakes and missteps of any kind are quickly seen. I knew this coming from the line. We saw things, rolled our eyes, and threw up our hands, knowing when something went wrong. We also were so sure of how to do it the right way. But once in the training division, I realized how much coordination and communication are needed at all levels of the organization to plan and present the department’s training. It was amazing.

Any slack in planning or communications, no matter at what level in the organization, can come back to haunt you and detract from a drill or class. Several times, this was confirmed in a very public and embarrassing way.

On more than one occasion, another officer would show up at a drill site and completely change the objectives, simply by commenting about something that did not look right to him or with which he disagreed. For instance, in one drill, crews were doing a technical rescue drill at one of our industrial sites. With the drill well underway, an officer came on site, walked up to the rescue area, and openly critiqued it. This created a very awkward situation that detracted from the flow of the drill and openly frustrated the crews.

I talked to the officer away from the crews to explain the objectives and how the drill was being played. When I came back to the crews after the drill, boy, did I get an earful! The crews felt they were set up to fail and had been embarrassed in front of others. For me, the hard part was that the drill, which was intended to build confidence, had failed in that respect. I also felt that I did not meet the crew’s expectations. After all, they are the ones you are working for in presenting a worthwhile class.

However, this did provide a big lesson for me on communications and accountability. At these moments of frustration, it does no good and is pointless to blame someone else in front of the crews—it just comes out wrong. Ignoring the problem does not work either. In the end, it is best to take responsibility for issues, be open with the crews, and work diligently behind the scenes through better communication and coordination to ensure that it does not happen again.


(3) That last evolution can be the most dangerous part of any drill. At a drill involving liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), through which crews rotated several times and are ready to go back to the station, they may take the hazards involved for granted. Encourage the crews to stay just as committed at the drill’s end as they were at the start. Likewise, the training officer may also need to refresh his commitment so that he does not fall into complacency.

So for me, the best way to deal with mistakes is to find what is to be learned from them and to be better prepared in the future. Remember that everyone has a bad day (or even a bad week or two). Instructors are those who are willing to put themselves out there and are bound to make mistakes or encounter unforeseen problems. Realize that everyone will be watching how you deal with them. Remember this in preparing to conduct classes and drills. Have a plan for what you are going to do, how you will do it, and what you expect the students to learn. Being prepared means having the class material organized, the props available, the time scheduled on the calendar, and yourself ready. Doing this in advance will allow you to present your drill with confidence and even allow you to have some fun. If you do not prepare for your class or drill, it can make for a very uneasy delivery.

As stated before, never underestimate the power of proper documentation. Keep records of your e-mails, memos, and other documents as evidence of communications, directions given, or permissions granted. You will be prepared for any questions or misunderstandings that come up. As for your agency, ensure that documentation is in order and easily accessible when asked to give an account of anything. Additionally, you must be aware of and have a competent understanding of the multiple regulations, guidelines, and best practices that apply to training. Missteps in this area can and often times do have far-reaching effects and can take valuable time to correct.

If you see obstacles as opportunities to prove your determination, you can learn a lot from them, perhaps seeing different perspectives in approaching the problem or identifying where you need improvement. In making a list of what you want and need to accomplish, choose your battles wisely to avoid wasting time and energy. If you are getting resistance in one area, redirect your energy to those items that you can move forward on now, and maintain a consistent, measured pressure on the more difficult issues until something changes.

PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT

One benefit of the training officer position is the training you yourself receive from on-the-job exposure to department practices, mentoring from chief officers, and continued education from attending classes and receiving training. Although this can be one of the biggest opportunities of the position, if you are not careful, it can become a distraction from doing the job of training officer. While in the training division, I targeted five areas of personal development:

  • Knowledge of the organization.
  • Certification of education and training.
  • Increase in knowledge and skills.
  • Preparation for advancement.
  • Development of new skills for the future.

I hope that anyone going into the training division sees it as a time to improve himself; the position offers a lot of opportunities.

LESSONS LEARNED

From Day 1, my time in the training division has been a constant learning process. At the beginning, it was a nonstop task of assimilating information and adjusting to a faster and much busier pace of life. The schedule that was so comfortable before had changed into a daily schedule that in truth was spilling into the evenings and weekends. The position, dubbed the “drill master,” allowed for creativity in training delivery and the freedom to work within many subjects. It also constantly challenged my ability to multitask; address personnel issues; overcome the terror of public speaking; and, most importantly, balance career and family. Here are the lessons learned that I would emphasize. Mind you, I didn’t nail these 100 percent myself. I made my mistakes, but this is what I strived for.

  • Commitment. Be committed to doing a good job. When you invest yourself in the training officer role, the end product will benefit your agency and yourself. Take the weight and responsibility of the position seriously so that you instruct with confidence and authority.

  • Consistency. Build an environment of persistent expectations. Along with commitment comes tangible proof in the form of consistency. Strive for consistency in all that you do, in managing your time, setting the training schedule for the different disciplines in your agency, and preparing and conducting the training. Sometimes circumstances may require you or your agency to veer off course to accommodate higher-priority issues, but work to get back on course. Typically, we don’t like surprises in our schedules, so be diligent in getting back on track.

  • Communications. Understand how your agency communicates at all levels. Learn how your supervisor wants to receive information for everything from daily interactions to e-mails, notes, voice mails, and formal proposals. I experienced a lot of initial frustration when I submitted a plan for extrication training, only to find myself in a meeting with chief officers who had expected to see a detailed proposal. Keep records of these communications for future use. Don’t forget to let your supervisor know what kind of communication you need to do your job as well. Last but not least, be open and honest with the crews on training issues and schedules.

  • Contingency. Have a well-thought-out plan, and have a backup plan. Expect the best, but also consider alternatives to account for such things as weather, schedule conflicts, and emergency calls.

  • Credibility. Know the subject matter you are teaching. It might be a topic you know already and need to brush up on. However, it might be something new that you need to study more, or you may have to select a more knowledgeable instructor. Put yourself in the students’ place: If you’re going to talk the talk, you had better walk the walk.

  • Credentials. Build up your credentials. This might include working on a fire-related degree or getting certified through your state in various disciplines.

  • Contacts. In the training position, you will have the opportunity to network. Use this opportunity to build relationships that will help you in your position and allow you to help others in return. This will open up your world in terms of resources, information, and advice. Likewise, build new relations within your organization. You may now be working with people who can make the difference between having a good day and a bad day. Of the contacts you develop, find a confidante to whom you can go to discuss ideas, issues, and problems. This should be someone who knows the agency and whom you trust to keep the discussion confidential. Maintain your contacts, and don’t burn your bridges; you never know what may happen in the future.

  • Conduct. Have the character to be honest, transparent, and stable in all situations. After all, you have received a lot of responsibility and trust. Work hard so others have no reason to doubt your commitment and integrity. Avoid the gossip and bad-mouthing; it just encourages all the wrong things in people.

  • Customers. Remember why you are there in the first place. The line firefighters want to know you are working for their best interests. Show them you are on top of issues, completing your duties and staying in touch with them.

  • Conflicts. They’ll be there, so get used to it. As you work with different individuals, conflicts are bound to come up. Learn from them, make amends as needed, and move on. If you have to choose between being smart and being wise when picking your battles, choose to be wise. Being smart is having the right answer, but being wise is knowing when to give it.

  • Constitution. As a member of the training division, you may be seen as having gone to the “dark side.” You are now someone who will need to explain and defend the division’s direction and actions. So be prepared for the rumor mill and individuals’ false perceptions. You need to develop a thick skin because sometimes, no matter what you do, you may receive criticism.

    My training chief told me something once that I always remember when I am being pulled in different directions. He said, “Training is an animal whose appetite is never satisfied.” How true: No matter how hard I tried or how many extra hours I put there, I rarely felt, “Whew, got that done!” There was just always more.

    Keep it all in perspective. Although this position may be rewarding and fun, it can consume you if you are not careful. Balance your work with family; in fact, tip the scales in favor of your family. If you work hard to maintain a rock-solid training program but neglect your home, what have you gained? Talk with your spouse to plan ahead for date nights, family activities, and vacations. I remember some brutal days where the bright spot in the day was heading to my six-year-old daughter’s soccer practice. All my concerns left me when I just stopped thinking about work and invested myself in what my daughter was learning and enjoying.

    WAS IT WORTH IT?

    So in the end, was it worth it for me personally, and did it make a difference in the department? Of course, it was worth it; how could it not be? The position from start to finish was real work—a challenging, stimulating, fun ride that gave me opportunities I had looked for. I had met and worked with people from local, regional, and state agencies. Working with my new training chief, I learned as much as I could about how it was to lead at his level, how he worked and established relationships, and particularly how he prepared and presented everything.

    I gained a true appreciation for those who handle and manage our documentation that I once took for granted; these are the people you want on your side.

    I worked through my public speaking fears until I found it not only tolerable but even enjoyable. I had increased my own knowledge and skills by investing time in my education and development in the department’s multiple disciplines. Being in the training division gave me a larger perspective of things altogether and a better understanding of our department and how it interacted with the rest of the city and other agencies throughout the region and state. In the position, I was pushed and frustrated many times by both happenstance and manmade obstacles, only to be reminded of my vision and to press on, not allowing the obstacle to get the best of me.

    DID IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

    Now, for the second question, did I make a difference? I think what happened and what one should look for is a change in attitude, then behavior, and finally the culture. So I believe I made a positive impact and a difference. But really, for me, you will have to ask the crews I worked with if it made a difference for them. I work with great people who are good at what they do, and they allowed me to take risks and try different approaches to training.

    •••

    It is easy to remain comfortable in whatever position you have in an organization. You understand your role and have confidence in your skills. Stepping out into an unknown and possibly uncomfortable situation causes you to face a simple truth: It is not the situation that dictates the attitude but the attitude that dictates the situation. Moving forward with proper attitude is everything in determining your altitude in the organization. Obstacles such as miscommunications, scheduling demands, fears, personnel problems, and organizational politics are all opportunities to test your attitude. If you take up this challenge in your agency and are prepared for what lies ahead, you will succeed. It may not feel like it. It may not fit your definition at first. But if you keep at it, you will make a difference!

    JASON BLOUNT, a 22-year veteran of the fire service, is a lieutenant/paramedic with the Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department, where he has served for the past 17 years. He has served as the department’s training lieutenant and is the secretary/treasurer for the Western Washington County Training Association. Blount has an associate’s degree in fire science from Rogue Community College, is an Oregon-certified fire instructor III, and is involved with Oregon USAR TF-1. He was named the Instructor of the Year by the Northwest Fire Trainers Association in 2006 and by the Western Washington County Training Association in 2007 and received the Chief’s Award from the Hillsboro Fire Department in 2007.

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