The Volunteer Firefighter Training Crisis—and a Solution

By Joseph V. Maruca

Writing for the NVFC

We don’t have enough time. We don’t have any fire instructors. Our training budget is only $2,500. We have no props. We don’t have a curriculum and don’t know what to do. Nobody shows up for drill. Training is boring.

These are just a small sample of the comments I hear in the volunteer fire service when it comes to training. Collectively, these comments indicate that many volunteer fire departments need to increase training, and in particular hands-on engine company training.

In recent decades I’ve observed a tendency at fire departments to rely more and more on classroom training, canned programs, online training, and check-the-box compliance training. While all of these have their place, the only way to make certain that your fire department is prepared and capable of a smooth, safe, and effective initial attack on a fire is to practice hands-on engine and truck company evolutions.

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I’ve also observed that many volunteer fire departments have not increased their training over these same decades. Departments that trained twice a month 20 years ago are still training twice a month. At the same time, their mission has increased and become more complex, and their emergency call volume has doubled. They try to jam more into the same training hours, and new mission training, compliance, or required training tend to win the competition. Hands-on training (particularly after initial recruit training is complete) gets pushed off and then forgotten.

In a 2015 survey of small-town Massachusetts fire departments in communities with populations under 3,000 people, the Massachusetts Call/Volunteer Firefighters Association (MCVFA) found that the typical department has an annual training budget of about $2,350, does not have a single certified fire instructor in its ranks, and drills about 50 hours per year. The typical department has 18 volunteer or paid-on-call firefighters.

Sixty-six percent of these small departments had not conducted a single hands-on training evolution based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1410, Standard for Training for Initial Emergency Scene Operations, in the prior year. Only 13 percent conducted a quarterly hands-on engine company training evolution, and none conducted training evolutions monthly or weekly.

If the volunteer fire service is to continue to be successful and provide excellent service to its communities, it needs more and better training.

The good news is that at least one solution is available, accessible, and free. It is NFPA 1410, Standard for Training for Initial Emergency Scene Operations.

NFPA 1410 was first published in 1966. This particular NFPA standard is a roadmap for how to design and implement simple engine and truck company training evolutions. While the standard sets forth dozens of evolutions, measures, and techniques, the standard is designed for each department to modify to meet its own needs.

For a small volunteer fire department, NFPA 1410 is the answer to the barriers they face with their training programs. You don’t need any fire instructors or a training facility to implement it; any members of the department can organize it and run the drill in any parking lot. You don’t need any special props. Although props can be used, simply placing a street cone at one end of your parking lot and calling it “the fire” works. You don’t need to buy any books or curriculums. You can read NFPA 1410 online at the NFPA Web site for free. You don’t need a big training budget because there’s nothing to buy to use these drills and techniques; all you need are firefighters and your engine.

Drills will stop being boring and the number of firefighters who show up for drills won’t be an issue because you can do these drills with as few as two firefighters. The typical evolution only takes a 10-15 minutes to run, repack, and review, so these are easy drills to add to your training program without creating a significant time burden.

NFPA 1410 has the added benefit of giving you a means to measure the effectiveness of your training program. You do this by setting goals for the drill – such as deliver 250 gpm onto the simulated fire with a 2 ½-inch hose within three minutes of arrival – and then tracking each crew’s performance with a stopwatch and simple score sheet. You can also track such things as compliance with safety procedures, stretching the hose without making spaghetti, and proper PPE use on the score sheet. You can track as much or as little as you like.

The best reason to use NFPA 1410 drills is that your fire department will get better. You will experience a measureable improvement of your first-due firefighting capabilities. You will stop experiencing hoselines that look like spaghetti. Firefighters will stop fumbling with SCBA. You will be getting water on the fire faster and with greater effect. Team spirit will build.

These benefits will all occur because your NFPA 1410 drills will become your de facto playbook. Just as football teams have a playbook and the players all know what to do when the quarterback/coach calls the play, your fire companies will do the same when the first-due officer “calls the play” on arrival. In my department, all the first due officer has to do is call the play and say “blitz attack” to his crew, and they will execute a 300 gpm exterior attack with the blitz gun or a 2 ½-inch hose just as we’ve practiced it over and over again in our parking lot. No detailed instructions are needed.

Adding NFPA 1410 drills to your training program takes willpower. If you are training twice a month, I suggest you add a third drill each month and devote it to engine company evolutions. Another approach is to assign a monthly engine company evolution for each of your shifts, groups, companies, or whatever smaller divisions you have within your department, and let those divisions schedule it and execute on their own schedule.

And yes, there is likely to be some resistance to adding training to your firefighter’s already busy lives. But, if you keep at it, even if only a few members show up the first time, or the first few months, it will catch on because it goes to the core of why we like being firefighters. It becomes engaging and we are using the tools and equipment we like to use.

If you add an hour a month of NFPA 1410 company drills to your volunteer fire department’s training program, you’ve potentially increased each firefighter’s training by 12 hours per year. Spend two hours a month and you’ve added 24 hours per year. At first, this might not sound significant, but if your firefighters are typically training 50 hours per year, another 12 hours represents a 24-percent increase in training.

In my experience, people want to be part of a volunteer fire department that is good at what it does. They crave hands-on training and the chance to use the trucks, tools, and equipment. If you get out of the classroom and train better in the parking lot, I promise you that morale improves, operations improve, safety improves, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do this years ago.


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Joe Maruca is chief of the West Barnstable (MA) Fire Department, a combination fire department on Cape Cod. He served as a volunteer firefighter from 1977 until becoming chief in 2005. He is a director of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and represents the NVFC on the NFPA 1917 Technical Committee. Joe is a retired attorney and Of Counsel to the Crowell Law Office in Yarmouthport, concentrating in the area of estate planning.

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