To Train or Not to Train? That Is the Question

BY GARY LANE

It’s 9:45 ON Wednesday morning. Today’s drill is scheduled to start in 15 minutes and will be finished by lunchtime. As the members start working their way into the kitchen, the usual commentary starts: “How long is this going to take? Do we really need our bunker gear again? It’s too hot. It’s too cold. I have sand in my shorts!” A typical fire department training session is coming together once again! As soon as the members top off their coffee cups and grab seats, class begins.

The drill starts out fine. There are a few blank stares and a couple of jokes (usually made at the expense of the probie), but there are promises of getting to the “good stuff” momentarily. The better part of the next hour is spent trying to outline the drill, answer questions, listen to a story or two, and deal with all the usual interruptions. As you run slightly behind schedule, an emergency medical service (EMS) run tones out, and three shift members head out in the ambulance. Left with just four members, you start the drill again. The training is now rushed. Some of the material is washed over, and other parts are completely cut out. The “getting dirty” portion is deferred until “better weather,” and you are finished before the members on the EMS run return. Everyone is glad another training session is over and done with and they can get back to “more important” things. The required paperwork is filled out and turned in. Finishing up, a few members seem to be thinking the same things, “Oh well, typical. Better luck next time.” Sound familiar? If it does, you are not alone!

Whether a chief, a company officer, an instructor, or a firefighter, we have all been involved in a training scenario similar to the one above. We have almost come to expect training to be dull or lacking enthusiasm or interesting content. Although many have accepted this as the new norm, it doesn’t have to be. There are many ways to get in the required training at the firehouse, even with all the distractions of the daily routine.

Let’s talk about some of the typical reasons for not training and the many obstacles that must be overcome.

NOT ENOUGH STAFF

Staffing is a hot topic, as many fire departments across the country struggle to have enough firefighters available for all the things the public now expects us to do, on top of maintaining our proficiency at putting out fires! The list is long, and with only a few firefighters on hand to accomplish it, something has got to give. Don’t let it be our training! We need to conquer with creativity. Four firefighters on duty who are split between an ambulance and an engine? Three? Two? I think everyone agrees by now (I hope) that this not the ideal staffing level. Well, you make the best with what you’ve got! That is the fire department way!

No training division or even a training officer to tell you what to do for today? No problem! This is where the Internet is a fantastic source for ideas. Most firefighters can access the Internet with computers or their smart phones. Spending five minutes searching for a drill-of-the-day topic will result in an amazing number of ideas. Pick one, and keep it simple. If your company or department is busy and short staffed, long, complicated, and involved drills are almost doomed to fail from the start. Save these for the annual departmentwide training, or break up a complex drill into several small simple drills to do over several shifts.

The countless fire service magazines and books that are probably lying around the firehouse are another great resource. Although most everyone agrees the best way to learn is to get down and dirty with hands-on practice, often you will have to make do with some “coffee talk” at the kitchen table and some photos or articles. Quiz each other on topics such as size-up, building construction, and pertinent strategy and tactics. Take the February 2012 cover of Fire Engineering. It depicts a 2½-story balloon frame structure with fire showing in the half story. Lines are stretched and ladders are thrown. How would first-due units of your department with your staffing handle this same fire? You may not solve all the world’s problems, but you will spend some time engaging the old computer (i.e., your brain) in fire-related topics for a short time! This type of drilling has led to some fantastic real-world problem solving.

NOT ENOUGH TIME

Right behind staffing (actually neck and neck) is our second hurdle, the often heard “We’re too busy to train” excuse. Made from coast to coast, the “We can’t train because we might get a run” group has made its voice loud and clear. Don’t buy into it! Could we be interrupted by a run? Absolutely. That’s our job. Just don’t let that be the reason for giving up training. This situation may call for a high level of motivation from the members, but it can be done!

The answer lies again in the length and simplicity of the drill. If you fit into this “too busy” crowd, you will benefit by keeping it simple. Keep the basics of the drill short, but leave it open-ended in case you do have extra time available. This point must be stressed. Leaving it open-ended means if all you get is 10 to 15 minutes, that’s okay, but if you get a solid hour in, even better! This is where you fight for every inch you gain. A top-notch officer and a strong esprit de corps will truly make this a minor speed bump in the road. Take pride in the fact that you are that busy and still make the time to be a well-drilled and disciplined shift, company, or department!

DRILL AFTER THE CALL

Why not make your calls the drill? When you have completed your response to whatever emergency you are on, take five to 10 minutes and do a quick drill that is relevant to the response. One common example is responding to a false fire alarm at a local business or, in the case of my first-due area, a college campus. After you’ve established that there is no fire (you did check and not just take the occupants’ word for it, right?), spend a few minutes talking about the structure’s layout, apparatus placement, standpipe usage, forcible entry problems, and so forth.

For example, you find that the fire alarm to which you responded was caused by some burnt popcorn in a microwave on the third floor of a seven-story multiple dwelling. You confirm there is no fire or emergency and then gather the crew. In this case, you ask them, “Where is the standpipe connection—in the hallway or in the stairwell? Does it have any extra locking mechanisms or antitampering devices? Is it the correct thread for your appliances? Does your hoseload reach from the standpipe to the farthest room or apartment? What is “Plan B” if it doesn’t? A few minutes of conversation now will become priceless if the next call is the real deal.

The great part about this is that you can use every run as a new training topic. Although well known, this method is often underused. Quite honestly, this may be one of the best types of training in which you could participate. With most on-duty personnel right in front of the building and “all dressed up with no place to go,” now is the time to ask questions and throw out ideas. Everyone is usually “in the moment” and typically eager to hear something from the officer or senior member about the “woulda, coulda, shouldas” of this emergency. Take advantage of it!

MORALE, EGO, ATTITUDE

Now I’m sure you have been reading along and thinking, “That’s great, but it will never work here because ….” Stop right there. I know what’s coming! It’s the “M” word, right? Or maybe the “E” word? No, it’s the “A” word! Morale, ego, and attitude. Keeping complacency at bay and people’s egos in check are a full-time assignment that usually doesn’t appear in your contract or on your “to-do” list. When morale is low and attitudes are even worse, good luck getting anyone to even agree on what’s for dinner, let alone training! The driving forces behind these two obstacles can be strong. Labor management issues; economic/financial hardships; and a lack of standards, leadership, and interest in the job can all put a damper on your training schedule and eventually your performance in the streets.

Unfortunately, for many departments, training is near the bottom of the priority list. If your department, shift, or company makes training the top priority, second only to responding to emergencies, consider yourself lucky and stand tall with pride! Once poor morale and attitudes take hold in the firehouse, it is a long and difficult climb back. It can be done, but it takes patience, determination, and a “never give up” attitude! The good news is that this attitude can also be contagious. Most people don’t want to be miserable at work and generally gravitate toward the positive side of the table. Show them the way, and lead from the front!

Fire departments are filled with egos. Some are good and actually create a healthy competitive spirit among our firefighters, but some are just plain rotten and a waste of everyone’s time and energy. These three things (morale, ego, and attitude) will make or break your department.

This is where training starts to get tricky. If you find yourself in the dire straits of this situation, the next statement may offend some people, but it holds absolutely true: Sometimes, you have to be selfish. Yes, selfish. This means you aren’t training for the betterment of the department or community; you aren’t training with like-minded firefighters full of thoughts of bettering themselves for the job. This is a dark, lonely place where you are doing it for yourself and no one else.

Although this goes against many of the much harped-on and hyped fire service traditions, sometimes it is the only way. It is one of the toughest and most desperate situations in which to find yourself. I will refer you back to the beginning of this article. YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Do not give up or give in!

You must first find other like-minded firefighters out there who have the same love for the job you do. Talk to them at other firehouses over coffee. Use e-mails and social media sites like Facebook to reach out and connect with others who are fighting the good fight.

Second, participate in training outside of your department or area, even if you have to pay for everything yourself. It will be worth it, I promise! You may think that this job just isn’t for you and may have even considered quitting. Although that is your decision to make ultimately, just know that there are thousands of firefighters out there who are exactly like the ones you read about in all those books you own—full of good traditions and LOVE FOR THE JOB! It is easier than you think to find them, and before you know it, you won’t even notice all the bad apples! You will have planted the seeds for your own apple tree, and they’ll all be good ones!

Third, know that it can and will get better! Keep your chin up, and stay positive. Remember that this job is full of highs and lows. If you can hold the good times close to your heart, it will help you get through the bad. Keep the passion for the job alive, no matter what.

Many Web sites show videos of fires and emergencies. Fire Engineering‘s Web site www.fireengineering.com offers “Training Minutes,” short videos filled with dozens of training tips and tricks! Check them out! YouTube is another place to find videos related to firefighter training. Search for “working house fire” and just see how many results flood in. There is a lot to learn (good and bad) from them! Some days you may be down and out from a dry spell and have had no “good” calls for awhile. We’ve all been there! This may sound funny, but you can “make believe” you’re going to a fire, an extrication, or any other type of response. Role play in the apparatus bay with some of the equipment out. This may get some funny looks from people passing by, but who knows? Maybe they will be interested and join in! Boom! Training has been born!

With so many obstacles to effective training, take solace that the effort will be worth it. None of the bad attitudes will matter after your training makes a real difference at an emergency. You can even learn from some of the mundane things that happen around the firehouse at every level of the game. One thing that comes to mind is painting hydrants. I used to hate doing this! But then I realized that I was missing an opportunity to better myself by simply changing my mindset. Many of our hydrants spin open opposite of “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.” Many take a different style hydrant wrench than what is typically grabbed first.

Simple things like this do matter. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to start a conversation with a compliment or a thank you. Ask about or offer up some history of your district or coverage area and any notable fires or medical calls. It’s a great way to spark some interest in the community with your younger firefighters, especially if they don’t live where they work. It’s important to care about not only the fire department but also the city or town in which you work. Many of us have lost sight of this at some point in our careers. Training can be the starting block on the path toward reclaiming that love and passion for the job and the community we serve!

Training is the cornerstone of this job. Sometimes it is thrown in your lap and seems easy. Other times, you have to scratch, claw, bite, and fight for every little scrap you can get.In the end, the training opportunities are wherever you find them and make the most of them.

GARY LANEis a career firefighter/paramedic for the Kent (OH) Fire Department and a volunteer with the Brady Lake Fire Department. He is an Ohio-certified fire instructor I and the lead mentor for new probationary firefighters. Lane is an adjunct instructor for the Maplewood Career Center in Portage County and co-owns FireGround Fundamentals, LLC, which provides firefighter training.

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