Training is the cornerstone of any organization, including fire departments. America’s most successful business leaders know this and invest millions of dollars annually to ensure their employees keep their skills sharp. Building on this cornerstone, however, can be a daunting task, especially for departments with limited staffing and small training budgets.

For a creative training facilitator who is willing to do some work to prepare realistic incident simulations, it is possible to create a positive and productive learning environment that builds confidence and develops teamwork and communications skills. These are all key ingredients to successful emergency operations but do not cost a lot of money to develop. For success, remember: keep the end in mind, set goals, start simple and gradually build up the simulation’s complexity, strengthen team members’ confidence along the way, and stay open-minded and creative throughout the process.

If you fail to plan, then plan to fail. When developing realistic incident simulations, planning is essential. Follow this simple three-step process to design training simulations.

Determine the current skill level. Assess where your organization is today (i.e., what skill levels your crews are operating at today for the tasks you want to accomplish-basic, intermediate, or advanced level). Observe members’ performance during training and emergency incidents, and ask crews how comfortable they are with their skill levels.


(1) Firefighters receive training at the fire station using a mobile rapid intervention training simulator provided by the Anoka Technical College Customized Training Services. (Photos by Richard B. Gasaway.) (2) Fire crews practice search and rescue techniques using Roseville Fire Station No. 2. Six plastic bottles were filled with hot water and strategically placed throughout the artificial smoke-filled basement of the station simulating victims to be located for rescue.

Identify the skill level you want members to attain. Decide at which skill level you want crew members to function. Involve department chief officers, not just training staff, in determining this. Keep in mind that unless you are among the larger and better-funded departments, your people cannot be experts at everything. So prioritize in order from most important (e.g., the types of incidents your organization is most likely to encounter or that are most likely to raise safety concerns for your crews) to least important (e.g., the types of incidents your organization is least likely to encounter or that are less likely to raise a safety concern for your crews).


Develop a plan to accomplish the goal. Create a plan to improve the skills of crew members to the preferred levels. Include goals and desired outcomes. Classroom training and skills practice should ideally include a simulated exercise. Once you have laid the foundation with training, the next step is to design a simulation that applies the skills the crews have learned. In developing the simulation, keep in mind the following sentence: “If this simulation is designed properly and the crews do it right, we will accomplish______” (fill in the blank). That way, you have an idea of what you need to do to prepare the crews to succeed and how you need to design the scenario.

The acronym SMART can help with your goal setting.

Specific: Know precisely what you want to accomplish, and write it down. For example, if you’re going to burn a house, the specific goals may look something like this: “This scenario will allow crews to practice and develop the following skills: donning turnouts/SCBA, pulling/advancing hoselines, forcible entry, search patterns, fire attack, ventilation, and overhaul.” Share this information with the crews. There’s no secret agenda here. Tell them what it is you want to accomplish with the simulation.


Measurable: Define “success” in a measurable way, such as the maximum time it should take to complete such tasks as primary search and fire knockdown.

Achievable: Make sure that the goals set for the crews can be achieved. For example, you would not expect the first-arriving engine company with a crew of four to pull the line, complete forcible entry, search the house, rescue five occupants, ventilate, and overhaul in 10 minutes. Realize your personnel’s limitations, and don’t overload them. The abilities of the crews will vary with the crew assembled for the simulation. The same holds true for actual emergency calls in departments that depend on firefighters to respond from home. Assess the crews’ quality and abilities, and take them into consideration for each simulation.

Realistic: Set goals that are realistic, such that the crew can look at the scenario and say, “We can do this.” Remember, building confidence is one reason for conducting simulations. If members feel like underdogs from the start, it will affect their performance.

(3) Rescue crews were presented with a simulated twisted wreckage that challenged their teamwork, communications, and creativity to solve a problem. (4) A cooler is used to simulate a victim trapped in an industrial accident or partial building collapse. The cooler weighed only 200 pounds, but the crews were told it weighed 800 pounds and could be moved only with hydraulic or pneumatic tools. A sofa or table could be used as a prop to create a challenging rescue scenario. (5) Crews practice forcible entry on solid-core doors at a school that was scheduled for demolition. Because of asbestos issues, the school could not be used for live burn training. However, the ample supply of doors, windows, and walls provided significant forcible entry simulations.

Realistic scenarios should be ones that your department is likely to encounter in your community. For example, don’t simulate a school bus accident with 30 critical patients if it is not appropriate to your area. While it’s possible for this to happen, it may not be probable, and you may risk your credibility by developing a scenario that is not realistic for your town. The probability varies with the demographics of each community. Take stock in what you’re likely to see, and develop scenarios that prepare your crews to handle it effectively. When possible, use buildings in your community in your simulations to make the scenarios more realistic.


Consider the cost to design and conduct a realistic incident scenario. While scenarios can be very complex, time-consuming, and expensive, they don’t have to be. Consider the demands on staff time and other resources needed. Be realistic about time and cost projections, and avoid shortcuts to save money that result in poorly designed or unrealistic scenarios.

Time dimensional: During incident simulations, time is often distorted, and the amount of time needed to complete tasks is usually underestimated. If you’re facilitating a tabletop structure fire scenario and the incident commander calls for mutual aid, the incident must still progress. If mutual aid is 15 minutes away, the incident should progress to reflect what happens while the IC is waiting for help to arrive.

Firefighters are very creative. When conducting simulations, it’s important to understand and accept that any incident simulation can yield a variety of outcomes. As the facilitator, you may witness an excellent team-building activity or you may see performance that leaves you frustrated and disappointed. Take written notes of the good things that happened as well as the bad. Be open-minded to various outcomes, and be supportive of the creative and sometimes unorthodox solutions that crews will come up with (without sacrificing safety).


Always find some positive lessons to be learned from the crew’s performance. The performance of your personnel may leave you pleasantly surprised or terribly disappointed, but they will always have done something right. Frame the lessons learned and the opportunities for improvements in a positive way.

As a simulation facilitator, don’t be fixated on a single solution. One of the neatest things about giving talented and motivated crews a problem to solve is they will solve it, one way or another. A facilitator who remains flexible and open-minded is likely to learn as much as the students.

One of the easiest traps for the facilitator of an incident simulation to fall into is believing that the scenario must consist of multiple events with layers of complexity that “test” the crews to their physical and mental limits. This often leads to crews feeling poorly about their performance and frustrated with an incident that was too complex or not realistic to the locale. The facilitator will also become frustrated because the learning objectives will not be achieved. This frustration translates into criticism of the scenario, the facilitator, and the crews’ performance. This may lead to members being less willing to participate in future scenarios because they feel (rightfully so) that they are being set up to fail.

The instructor is responsible for ensuring that the scenario is well-planned and that the students have the physical and mental tools to handle the situation they will encounter. The students must be open-minded to this situation and must also engage themselves in the activity to obtain the maximum benefit.

Unless the crews have trained on, practiced, and mastered the skills needed to resolve the scenario successfully, the facilitator should start with basic incident scenarios and build the complexity as the crews develop their skills and build their confidence.

Building the crews’ confidence and self-esteem is an unwritten goal of every training session ensured by removing barriers to success.

Firefighting is a team activity. We search in teams, we advance hoselines in teams, and we should encourage our crews to make decisions at simulations as teams. Unless it is the standard practice for your department, don’t force one student to make critical decisions that can negatively affect the outcome of the entire simulation. You may leave the crew member feeling intimidated and embarrassed. A better approach is to encourage the incident commander to use the other members to help make decisions. While incidents do not run like democracies, we all know that the power of two or three minds makes for better solutions to problems. Encourage teamwork.

How many of us have participated in scenarios with multiple events occurring simultaneously, or with multiple layers of complexity, only to be denied access to the resources needed to solve the problem adequately? For example, you request a second alarm or mutual aid, only to be told that none of the aid you requested is available. Yes, this can happen in the real world, but what is the probability that while your crews are working a complex haz-mat incident or a warehouse fire that all the mutual aid in the region will be unavailable? If you don’t want to involve regional resources in your incident scenarios, then don’t create scenarios that exceed your department’s resources.

The best use of incident simulations allows crews to practice and refine the skills they already know. Use simulations to allow the crews to practice in a safe environment what they have already learned. An incident simulation is not the appropriate time to teach new skills. Simulations not only build confidence with hands-on skills, but they also are essential to building teamwork and communications skills.

Good policies and procedures are among the resources needed for successful incident simulations. Make sure that the goals you set for your incidents reinforce the policies, procedures, and standard operating guidelines your department uses.

There’s nothing wrong with developing incident scenarios and guiding the participants through by allowing the crews to practice the scenarios without applying the measurements of success. Let the crews walk through the scenario beginning to end, and let them discuss among themselves the things they need to do to be successful. Critics would say that this makes the scenarios too easy. Let’s hope it does. After all, when the “real” scenario is conducted, we want them to do it right. Whatever we can do to help them do it right is not only fair, it’s the proper thing to do. This includes ensuring that the crews have plenty of training before the day of the simulation.

If you’re planning a realistic simulation that exceeds the capabilities of your department and you know that the IC will call for mutual aid, inviting the mutual-aid departments to participate in the presimulation training will ensure success. It’s not uncommon for mutual-aid departments to use different terminology or tactical methods. Knowing this and discussing in advance how to work through these differences will help the scenario be successful. Of course, if you do not involve the mutual-aid departments in the advanced planning but call them to assist on the simulation, these differences will become apparent, and learning will occur. So, be smart, and work with your mutual-aid companies before the incident takes place. It will reduce frustrations and build confidence to iron out differences in advance.

Usually, the only limit to how creative an incident simulation can become comes from the mental blocks the facilitator has. “Thinking outside the box” has become a buzzword in the corporate world used to get staff and line workers to exhibit more creativity. In the fire service, it is easy to get stifled by traditional ways of thinking. Fortunately, we can learn creative tips from corporate trainers through books and magazines dedicated to training. Broaden your horizons, and read training materials developed for nonfire service organizations. Then let your creative juices flow. Here are just a few examples of what can be done.

This is a common scenario. A building in your community has been condemned and is scheduled to be torn down. You evaluate the building and determine it is not safe for structural firefighting scenarios. Such a building can still be used for training on rapid intervention, forcible entry, search and rescue (including thermal imaging cameras), ventilation, and industrial rescue scenarios. Don’t get trapped into thinking, If it can’t be burned then it can’t be used.

Use the fire station to create realistic scenarios. Use a smoke machine to simulate a fire, or cover SCBA facepieces to create zero-visibility conditions. Let crews advance hoselines through the truck bays. Use props like tables, chairs, turnout gear, old car tires, and donated furniture to simulate the obstacles crews encounter during structural fires.

Use plastic water bottles filled with hot water to simulate victims during exercises involving thermal imaging cameras. Strategically place six to 10 bottles throughout the fire station basement, and allow the crews to search for the bottles using a thermal imaging camera. If you have a smoke machine, use it to make the scenario even more challenging. The crew that finds all the props in the least amount of time wins (a prize or just bragging rights). You’ll be surprised at how competitive a simulation like this can be. You’ll also see the learning curve rise sharply as the crews practice using the camera during a simulation to find victims or hot spots.

Use a sofa to simulate a heavy piece of machinery or a partial structural collapse. Place a rescue manikin (or use a rolled-up blanket to simulate a victim) under the sofa. Tell the crews that the sofa simulates machinery or a building collapse and weighs 1,000 pounds. They have to use the rescue tools available to lift the sofa off the victim.

Take some chairs from your training room and stack them on top of each other in a way that simulates twisted wreckage. Place six balls of various size (i.e., tennis ball, bowling ball, basketball, golf ball, marble, and volleyball) in various places on the chairs. Tell the crews that each ball represents a victim. Instruct the crews that they are not allowed to touch the balls or chairs with human hands, only tools. The goal is to remove all the balls and unstack all the chairs without any of the balls touching the floor. Sit back and watch the communications, teamwork, and creative juices flow.

Obtain permission from fellow department members to use their homes to simulate responses to structure fires. Practice size-ups, apparatus placement, hitting hydrants, pulling lines (to the door, but not into the house), setting positive-pressure ventilation fans, and laddering.

Check with your state fire training director for a list of community colleges or technical colleges that may have resources available such as flashover simulators, propane fire simulators, car fire simulators, and rapid intervention team training simulators, to name a few. Oftentimes, these simulated training aids are portable and can be brought to your facility for a reasonable price. These props can help ease the financial and logistical burden of trying to provide those types of training on your own.

Computer technology advances have revolutionized the way most businesses operate. There are a variety of computer-based training aids available that simulate actual fire, rescue, and hazardous-materials emergencies. The good news is you need only to have a basic understanding of how a computer operates to make the programs work to your advantage. They use real buildings (which can be buildings from your town); the graphics will make it look like you spent hours developing the scenario. Most of the programs are affordable, but if your department has an extremely limited budget, consider a joint purchase with neighboring departments or your county fire association. After all, you’re not going to be using simulations every week, so there will be time to share the program. Check the vendor for single-use or multiple-use licensing agreements before you buy any software. Make sure you can load the software on more than one computer.

Scanners, digital cameras, and video cameras can make creating realistic simulations a breeze. You can take pictures with a regular 35 mm camera and create digital images from the negatives, slides, or prints at a very reasonable price. Once you have the images, you can manipulate them using commercially available editing software. Some of these programs cost less than $100 and make manipulating images easy, with great results. Many software vendors now have software specifically for creating fire simulations. One product particularly easy to use has a point-and-click interface that makes it easy to add smoke, fire, and wind direction and uses animation, which makes the smoke and fire actually move, giving the appearance that the fire is actually burning. You can set the program up to respond appropriately to the actions the students take to control the situation.

Computers are not the only answer to fire service training. However, if used properly, they can create challenging tabletop incident simulations. These simulations are helpful in challenging incident commanders and firefighters who are already very proficient in their hands-on skills.

A wise person once said, “I’ve learned more in my life from the mistakes I’ve made than from the things I’ve done right.” This is appropriate for incident simulations. Don’t be afraid to let the crews be creative and to make mistakes. This doesn’t mean compromising safety. However, a great deal of learning can occur from mistakes. Just make sure that mistakes are not framed as “failures.” If learning has occurred, it’s a success. Besides, in the real world of emergency services, how often do incidents go exactly as planned? Making a mistake is not a bad thing; failing to learn from the mistake is. Capitalize on the lessons learned.

One of the lessons often learned through incident simulations is that the depart-ment’s policies or operating procedures don’t work and following them leads to an undesired outcome. The true impact of a policy or procedure (similar to a law) is not realized until it is tested. Thankfully, department policies and procedures are much easier to change than laws. Acknowledge when a policy or procedure inhibits the success of the crews, and change it as needed.

RICHARD B. GASAWAY has 22 years of fire service experience including 14 years as a chief officer. He is currently chief of the Roseville (MN) Fire Department. Gasaway has an MBA and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. In 2001 he became the 30th chief fire officer to be accredited by the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation.

GREG PETERSON is a 14-year veteran of the fire service and is deputy chief of training for the Roseville (MN) Fire Department. He has an associate’s degree in fire science and is currently enrolled in the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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