When’s the Last Time You Held an Ax?


In today’s world, we fire-fighters must respond to hurricanes, tornadoes, landslides, snowstorms, and all-out hellish weather. But we also must concern ourselves with cowards driving truck-sized bombs into government buildings; attention seekers setting off devices at national sporting events; foreign extremists trying to take out the heart of our nation; and now, deranged individuals going after our children. Training for such events will occupy more and more of our time in years to come.

What about the other specialized training that is emphasized so much today? When visiting with training officers all across the United States, I’ve heard many of the same concerns: “How can I maintain hazmat training with USAR being so time consuming?” “How can I provide proficient dive team training when the chief wants more confined space training?”

What I haven’t heard is, “We’re running out of things to train on,” or “With all the fires, we have no time for EMS.” How do we train on the many special operations that we offer while remaining proficient with the basics? May I ask, “When was the last time you held an ax?”

In the video, Fire Department Civil Liability: The True Story, Gordon Graham, a well-known attorney and risk management consultant, cites fire department training as a primary reason for lost litigations. In the video, he discusses the following: First, ask yourself, “What did we do wrong today?” Identify the task, then identify the proper and safe way to complete this task. When talking to instructors and officers, the majority of these tasks were those we learned in the academy and just haven’t revisited since.

Second, Graham states, “When confronted with a task we don’t encounter on a regular basis, all we have to rely on is our training.” The 1975 edition of the United States Fire Administration’s report, Fire in the United States, counts 572,000 residential fires in California and Ohio alone. Fast forward to 2001; with all of the states reporting, there were only 396,500 residential fires in the United States. With the decrease in residential fires today, even the simplest structure fires present us with tasks that the fire service doesn’t encounter regularly.

Graham goes on to say, “We should base our training on the frequency of our calls—high-frequency training for low-frequency calls and vice versa.” While we don’t see as many fires as we once did, they are still the basis of our profession. With EMS runs making up 80 to 90 percent of our call volume, why does the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians require 48 hours of continuing education and a 40-hour refresher for an EMT Basic every two years? Because they realize that we don’t confront every critical medical task on every single call, even though the percentage of EMS runs compared to that of fire calls is astounding.

“Get so good at what you do that it becomes second nature,” Graham urges, through solid, realistic, ongoing, verifiable training. No one does “solid and realistic” training better than the fire service. When was the last time you saw a police officer train with someone shooting at him? Do the police take down an individual with a gun and live ammo in training? Firefighters train with real fire from recruit school well into our officer years. One agency that brings a whole new perspective to ongoing and verifiable training is our military, while that of the fire service leaves something to be desired.

Next, consider the relationship of knowledge to time. Think about testing for Firefighter I a year after completing recruit class. How well do you think you would do? Educators believe that a person retains only between 30 and 50 percent of the knowledge acquired after 30 days of learning. Ongoing training will result in a higher retention level.

Although I can’t offer any concrete solutions to today’s training problems, I hope this commentary will encourage you to give training priority. Perform a needs assessment of your department. Identify your members’ task performance limitations, and provide all necessary knowledge and tools so they can accomplish these critical tasks.

In “Prioritizing to Improve Training,” John R. Duncan gives some insightful suggestions. First, listen to your firefighters; they will tell you in what areas they need improvement. Next, identify the natural leaders of your department, and empower them to lead and train those who desire and need it.

Duncan closes with a statement we must always remember: “The educational process in the fire service needs to be more deliberate and intentional.” Train as if your life depends on it; one day it might. Training in the fire service is the first step to providing exceptional services to your community, but we must know how to ladder a building before we can reach the top!


Graham, Gordon, Fire Department Liability: The True Story, (video), Graham Research Consultants, 1993.

United States Fire Administration, National Fire Data Center, Fire in the United States, (report), 1978.

United States Fire Administration Web site, “Residential Structure Fires” (2001), www.usfa.dhs.gov/statistics/national/residential/shtm.

Duncan, John R. “Prioritizing to Improve Training,” Fire Engineering, September 2000, 16-18.

CHARLIE METCALF is an 11-year veteran of the fire service and a firefighter with DeSoto Parish Fire District 8 and an emergency medical technician with the DeSoto Parish Emergency Medical Service in Mansfield, Louisiana. He is a certified firefighter I and II, fire instructor I and II, fire officer I and II, driver/operator, and EMT-Basic. Metcalf is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Management Training Program.

No posts to display