Are we cheating our students?

By Matthew B. Thorpe

I have been an Instructor III for the State of North Carolina for several years now, teaching for numerous community colleges as well as for FDIC. Although I have noticed many different teaching styles that are beneficial, I have also noticed many styles that discredit the fire service and cheat the students.

Through no fault of the State Fire Marshal’s Office, we have some instructors who are teaching that need teaching themselves. No student should forget how to put up a 24-foot ground ladder a week after being trained. This problem is twofold.

First, some instructors do not come prepared to teach the designated topic, instead spending an entire class telling war stories or reading Powerpoint slides verbatim. It takes a minimum of one week of preparation to teach a Firefighter I and II class; instructors should re-read the material, study the state objectives, and have a grasp of the topic that they are teaching.

The second problem is practical scenario training! As instructors, we are required to run each student through the practical scenarios issued by the state, a very important part of firefighter learning. However, there is a problem when there is only one instructor for 15-20 students and 18 hours allotted to teach the topic. Students are cheated because some instructors do quick versions of the practicals or just don’t do them at all. In such a case, community colleges should demand more instructors for the number of students on the roster.

The use of technology is another issue. New technology gives the fire service instructor a crutch that enables an instructor to simply walk into fire department classroom, play videos or DVDs, and never say a word. Fire instruction publishers offer teaching packages that include lecture outlines, tests, and Powerpoint presentations. Some instructors use this material in the classroom without viewing before showing to the class, suggesting a lack of preparation. Such instructors use this material and don’t compare the material with the state objectives to see what may need to be added or omitted. Some may make use this material by reading the slides to students without adding any additional information. If an instructor is going to use this technique, he should just put the slide on the board and sit down; the students can read to themselves.

Just as importantly, some instructors are using these technological crutches and not taking the firefighters onto the fireground for hands-on exercises. Most firefighters are kinetic learners–those who learn best by doing and experiencing real-life situations. You can spend all day long in a classroom teaching someone to stretch a minuteman preconnect, but unless they physically do it, they will not learn how to do it the real world.

During practical evolutions, fire service instructors must put safety above everything. Some fire service instructors I have observed have no idea where the students are or what they are doing during practical evolutions. Take training an acquired structure for instance. Is accountability set up? Are you usng a RIT team? Are we really teaching students or just running them in and out as fast as we can build the fires?

Some of these so-called “live burns” have become a disaster waiting to happen. I have witnessed structural burn classes in which the instructor used rookie firefighters as victims. “John, I want you to lay right here, don’t move! I’m going to light the room next to you on fire and send some guys up here to get you.” And what about throwing fuel? “Okay, Bob, let’s get this thing rolling out the front door.” “Hey y’all, watch this!”

This mentality has no place in today’s fire service. We must put safety first. The days of throwing fuel while students are inside a structure are long past. To teach the students, try doing a critique of every fire, especially if you see something that made you shiver. Critique them and let them tell you what went right and what went wrong.

Fire service instructors should be worthy of respect. We are teaching the future generation of our fire service, the firefighters who will be here after we are gone. We are also influencing others to teach. We must strive to make these students understand that the job that they are doing is not a joke, nor a ticket to join the “red light club.” Ours is a job that deserves respect.

So, to fire service instructors instruction methods resemble those I’ve mentioned, I say: Don’t cheat the students. Study the material you are going to teach, look at the state objectives, and develop your own programs. Come up with realistic ways to train students. Ask the local community college for more help. Above all, teach your firefighters so that they will never forget that this is the greatest job in the world.

Matthew B. Thorpe is a 14-year veteran of the fire service. Since 1992, he has been employed by the City of King (NC) Fire Department, where he currently servces as the assistant chief of operations. He is a Certified Level III instructor for the state and teaches for numerous community colleges across North Carolina. He has taught in the FDIC HOT program and is currently working on the test bank for the fourth edition of Building Construction for the Fire Service. He holds numerous state certifications and has just completed the Fire Officer III course.

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