Planning Effective Training Drills

BY PATRICK J. CHAMPAGNE

In lieu of performing actual fireground skills during a live incident, training is the best way for volunteer and career firefighters to always be prepared and stay sharp in firematic skills. Training is not discriminatory. With call volume decreasing or remaining stagnant for many departments, this could result in firefighter complacency in performing the vital skills and tactics at an incident. Although we can enhance our knowledge by taking various classes, it is in-house that we perfect our skills by consistently training. Therefore, it is incumbent on all fire officers, specifically training officers, to ensure that their department members are sufficiently trained and prepared.

Many of the key ingredients in making an effective officer are intangible. Yes, hands-on ability is an absolute requirement, but communication, articulation, and effectively listening are the necessary people skills for interacting with personnel. Additionally, an officer who is innovative and a good planner is a plus.

When presenting any training material or performing any hands-on skill, it is important that the officer know his audience. Every officer should be aware that each person has his own learning style. We have all heard of those who are book-smart and those who are hands-on learners. Accordingly, it is important that the officer is able to communicate on various levels for each individual. The ability to relate to and convey subject matter to students of various learning styles is a rare talent. There is no question that this is a challenge, but part of an officer’s responsibility is to help firefighters understand the material presented and the skills to be performed in addition to “this is why we do this.” We do not want our firefighters to just be robots. In the fire service, we have to keep in mind that the firefighters we train today could be the leaders of tomorrow.

To be an effective training officer, it is important to avoid presenting material that you do not know well or fully understand. When you become an officer, the learning does not and should not end. Conscientious and dedicated officers will always find ways to educate themselves further. This makes a better officer who will share his knowledge with the rest of the members. A training officer is not necessarily expected to be an expert. If you are, that is a bonus. It is more important that the officer understand the material to effectively convey the message. This is very important—you should always be prepared to field questions and provide intelligible and accurate responses. Reach out to other officers, past and present, to get their perspectives. You should never hesitate to say that you don’t know the answer. If you need to further research an issue, always let your firefighters know that you will follow up. It is imperative that training officers lead by example and groom the skills of those with whom they will lead and be working. By preparing and presenting effective training drills to your fire department, each drill night will be constructive and educational and encourage a more significant turnout.

I suggest the following criteria for officers involved in their fire department’s training.

1. KEEP IT RELEVANT

Stick to what is relevant for your fire district. Don’t waste valuable time on a subject that is not pertinent or applies to situations with which you are unlikely to deal. For example, if your department doesn’t specialize in high-angle rescue and lacks the necessary equipment, it has no dire need to train on it when other more important bread-and-butter operations should be perfected.

However, there is a caveat in some cases. For example, as is common in my area, if a neighboring mutual-aid fire department is in a predominantly rural, sparsely hydranted area, then knowing how to draft from a static source is an important skill. Even if your fire district is predominantly hydranted, you could have some nonhydranted pockets. Also, keep in mind that your department could arrive first due to a mutual-aid call, and a neighboring fire district may include hotels or businesses that contain standpipes, so training on standpipe operations would be relevant.

2. INVOLVE EVERYONE

No matter what subject you’re presenting, get people involved. Below are some of the ways I used to involve my department’s members and the benefits.

  • Provide notice of the drill sufficiently in advance. The earlier the better so that members can make plans to attend.
  • Highlight the skills to be covered so members can prepare.
  • Encourage participation and questions; foster interaction.
  • Create small groups for more individual attention.
  • Invite neighboring departments to train with you to foster good working relationships.
  • Use hands-on training as much as possible so firefighters can perfect their skills in a controlled environment.
  • Use drill props (e.g., portable hydrant, wall breach, and forcible entry) to allow firefighters to perform the skill (photos 1-3).
    (1)Photos by author.
    (2)
    (3)
  • Present a prelude to future drills. For example, when confined indoors in the winter, set the foundation for the outdoor training that will take place during the spring and summer. For example, if your department has a portable hydrant prop, set it up in the station bay and drill on how to properly dress a hydrant and perform the various forward, reverse, and split lays. The prop’s portability makes a great drill tool. Such indoor drills can prepare your members ahead of time for live hydrant operations outdoors drills in the spring and summer months (photo 4).
    (4)
  • Use other officers to assist you to give them responsibility and create working relationships with the firefighters.
  • Use your local training center, and always comply with National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions. Take advantage of this resource to set up and conduct compliant live burns. Always schedule such burns in advance with the proper authorities.
  • Use your station bays for drills. They’re good for large-area search drills and for deploying your training props.

3. SET DRILL OBJECTIVES

I am a big advocate of the basics. As a training officer, I presented the following topics, many of which are basic firefighting skills, and included a brief description of the objective.

  • Response procedures. This is a good refresher course to hold every January, when you can discuss mutual-aid requests; the running order of apparatus; and response priority based on your department’s protocols, rules and regulations, and overall needs.
  • SCBA. Combine practicing various escape skills with wall breaching (photo 5).
    (5)
  • Forcible entry. Eliminate the danger of firefighter complacency regarding these skills as a result of the general availability of fire department building key boxes.
  • Hoseline pulls and advancement. Emphasize the importance of properly stretching and putting the first handline in place.
  • Hydrant operations. Focus on properly dressing the hydrant and demonstrating forward, reverse, and split lays.
  • Drafting. Practice setting up and connecting the hard suction and strainer, and discuss the types of static water sources.
  • Walk-throughs. Familiarize everyone in the department with the layout and contents of various building construction and occupancy types in your jurisdiction.
  • Large-area search. Use a department resource, the station bays, to simulate a large area of a commercial occupancy. This enables you to drill on related scenarios within a safe and controlled environment.
  • Tabletop scenarios. Assign members to small groups; have each group analyze a potential incident scenario. After an open discussion, have each group create an incident action plan in conjunction with tactical objectives. Most importantly, each member learns how to do a proper incident size-up.
  • Ladders. Emphasize that setting ladders is just as important as getting the first hoseline in place.
  • Sprinkler and standpipe operations. Discuss the variety of sprinkler and standpipe systems and their differences.
  • Ventilation. Familiarize members with the variety and types of saws and blades available and the best application for each.
  • Search/rescue. This is a good way for members to practice calling a Mayday and making a location, unit number, name, assignment, resources (LUNAR) report in a controlled environment.
  • Foam operations. Discuss the difference between Class A and B foams and their uses.
•••

A few years ago, during my first trip to the Fire Department Instructors Conference, I attended the classroom session “Be a Leader, Not Just a Position” and listened to the speaker explain how being a fire officer is more than just a position. I couldn’t agree more. When one chooses to become an officer, the expectations are higher, and they should be. This is even more so when an officer is involved in fire department training. An officer who takes the position seriously, pursues further education, and finds ways to make himself and his firefighters better doesn’t mind taking on the responsibility of making his department better prepared for fireground incidents.

PATRICK J. CHAMPAGNE is a 24-year fire service veteran and second assistant chief and Explorer Post advisor in the Jonesville Fire Department in Clifton Park, New York. He has a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from Russell Sage College in Albany, New York.

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