Developing and Implementing a Field Training Officer Program

By Walter Lewis

As generations of firefighters retire from the fire service, their experience goes with them. What can we do to retain some of that wisdom that only comes from years of experience fighting fires? What can we do to ensure our newer generations of firefighters are trained to what we expect of them in our department, not just what they are taught at the fire academy? What can we do to improve the chances of operating an effective fireground, as our citizens expect? One answer is to implement a method to extract and keep information from our senior members and leave a legacy from which future members can benefit. Developing and implementing a field training officer (FTO) program is a blueprint for doing so.

Program Components

Students. What employees do you enroll as students for an FTO program? Typically, the employees’ first year is the probationary period and the best time for them to receive training. Some new firefighters will come in with previous experience; others will have no fire service exposure at all. To ensure everyone is educated to the level your department expects, everyone should receive the same information and evaluation for each lesson. Don’t take their knowledge for granted. If you do, you risk overlooking a training issue that may arise later, and you will have to deal with it then. Keep the building blocks small and progressive. For example, it is counterproductive to teach pump operations if the students aren’t well versed in pulling hoselines (photos 1 and 2).

(1) Before we can operate proficiently here, (2) we have to practice here. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

Instructors. Who do you want as FTOs? You want willing, experienced firefighters and officers. If your candidate pool is large enough, use those members who have the reputation to teach without putting people to sleep and have the humility to know what they teach best. Consider factors such as honesty, ability, and availability. Don’t be afraid to coach or redirect instructors as the program progresses or, if necessary, replace them. As you evaluate the students at the end of each phase, so should you evaluate the FTOs. Ask the probationary firefighters to note any difficulties in learning-whether the reason is content/subject matter, delivery, or frequency. These evaluations help guide future development of the program, making it better for future candidates (photo 3).

Skills. What skills should the program cover? The answer should be simple: What would you expect your first-year firefighters to know? Of course, hoseline operations, forcible entry, search, and laddering are necessary skills, but if you have emergency medical technicians (EMTs) but limited emergency medical services (EMS) training, for example, then ensuring your new employees will perform at their best in both arenas may be a necessary topic to cover. Do your new firefighters drive and pump apparatus shortly after they begin working? Most states require a minimum pump operator program that may be generic; however, make sure your FTO program ensures familiarity and experience with your department’s apparatus.

Duration. How long should the program last, and how should it be broken up? For more than a decade, the Orlando (FL) Fire Department has had an FTO program, and it has been modified a few times to accommodate changes during its maturity. What has remained consistent is that the program lasts for almost one year. For the most part, in Florida, students attend the fire academy, as well as EMT/paramedic training, on their own. They then take a hiring written and physical test, which puts them on an eligibility list, requiring the hiring department to have only the new firefighters attend an orientation program.

(3) An FTO watches as a new firefighter becomes familiar with a rotary saw. (Photo by J.J. Cassetta.)

Our orientation lasts three weeks. This three-week period coincides with the first two months of the FTO program to create the first phase. Three more phases follow, at four months each, which allows sufficient time to meet with FTOs in an off-duty capacity for four hours per session, two sessions minimum per phase. If more education is necessary, the FTO coordinates this with the FTO program coordinator and the Training Division.

During alternating phases, the probationary firefighter is assigned a different FTO. This allows a variety of instructors to ensure information delivery and prevent favoritism or disparity. If the same FTO works with the student throughout the year, a failing firefighter may cite personality conflict as a probable cause, which brings in Human Resources, the chief, and the union. In addition, if the firefighter is excused from duty, there is a greater potential for a civil suit against the department and likely the FTO. In today’s litigious society, the fire service is not immune to individuals who may seek financial retribution for their poor performance. To limit or prevent this, consistent and unbiased documentation is necessary from a fair number of evaluators (photo 4).

(4) New-hire firefighters are recurrently trained on fire behavior as well as a myriad of other topics.

Documentation. What documentation is necessary? Seek input from your legal department. Start with the worst-case scenario and work backward, ensuring you, your department, and your city or county government would be as protected as possible if a new hire were to do poorly and sue. A sample documentation timeline is as follows: (1) monthly, done by the probationary firefighter’s officer; (2) end of phase, done by the FTO; (3) end of phase, done by the probationary firefighter, who evaluates the FTO and the program as a whole; (4) EMS evaluation during and on completion of precept time, if applicable; and (5) final evaluation with a practical and written test.

Success or Failure

What if the probationary firefighter fails? Our program allows a month for remedial training and retesting. But what if that isn’t enough? If you have set up the program properly and the candidate still fails, then you may have to let him go from the fire department roster. Some agencies assign the member to another role until he retakes the program or to another department within the city or county government. Meet with your Human Resources Department and union (if applicable) to determine what course will be taken if this situation presents itself so that the answers are in place before the question arises.

Ensure several supervisors and instructors have contact with each candidate so that there is as fair an evaluation and chance for success as possible. Likewise, if the candidate is doing poorly, several members would be able to note that as well, which better substantiates poor performance documentation validity.

How do you plan for success? During the course of the training, if the student isn’t capturing the information, evaluations should indicate what the issue is. Various factors could result in a student not understanding the lessons-poor instruction, information too advanced for the ability level, not enough time for the amount of information presented, and inadequate amount of practice of the skills are just a few reasons a new hire could fail.

Again, ensure the program isn’t designed for failure. Build it with a strong foundation and progress to the finale with the steps in the appropriate order. Consider all the energy you, the FTOs, and everyone else involved will expend. Is it worth setting up a program that is questionable with varied potential results, or would you rather have one that will provide the path for new hires to become good firefighters and better assets for your agency?

Program Support

Financial support. There are a few ways to implement a program; however, everything has a price tag, and sometimes we are strictly limited because of cost. However, money spent now investing in our personnel pays dividends in the long run. The department budget usually doesn’t allow for new programs to begin once the budget year has begun; therefore, submit for the following year’s budget. But keep in mind, even if you do submit it, it may not be accepted. If there are discretionary funds, you can ask for those. Perhaps a federal grant can fund your new program. Depending on how much you will need, you may be able to get financial support from corporate donations or private sources, if your department and city or county government allows.

With more training comes more cost-especially for equipment. You may have to build props or obtain additional tools. The potential to damage fire gear is greater with some of the drills; some of the tools or equipment used may become damaged. Because of this, I advocate having a training cache of equipment that mirrors field used equipment. The argument will always be for training on the equipment you will actually use; however, if it is damaged or rendered unusable, then service to the community is compromised.

(5) Probationary Firefighter Jacob O’Connell was ready for his “moment” because of his training and preparation. As a result, two people were rescued from this apartment fire.

Moral support. Getting buy-in for the program has to start at the top. Before you meet with the chief, have some ideas in mind. Show the intent of the program and its value for ensuring consistent training of new firefighters. Have a list of FTOs, a curriculum outline, work schedules, projected costs, and expected results. You can’t go to the chief and expect him to plan it out, but if you bring him a project, show its value and how it will benefit the department, and have a reasonable plan to enact it, typically you will garner the support you need.

In addition to the chief, you may have to win over some department members. Along with recruiting members to become FTOs, you may have to explain the intent of the program and gain input from field members, if necessary. Having buy-in will certainly aid in developing the program and improve cooperation. For us, one of the side benefits of the program was a stronger, more trained fire department. As the program progressed, tenured members, along with the FTO, worked with the newly hired firefighters, which increased the number of training hours performed. Frequently, the senior members didn’t want their junior counterparts “showing them up” or “calling them out.” Whatever the reason for it, additional training on a more frequent basis only helps to strengthen the department.

Win Win

Increased training will help strengthen a fire department by making its members more prepared. Having an FTO program will help strengthen a department by ensuring consistent training is done on a set timeline with supported results. As the department strength increases, so will morale. With improved morale comes a more efficient department. With a more efficient fire department comes better service, better employee retention, greater potential for financial increases, and reduced sick hours used.

Our senior members can leave their mark on the department by imparting their wisdom, but they can do so much more by being a part of an FTO program. The value of a better educated fire service cannot be overstated (photo 5). After all, what kind of firefighters do you want working to save your family?

Walter Lewis has been involved in the fire service for 25 years, the past 19 with the Orlando (FL) Fire Department. He has taught hands-on and lecture classes locally and nationally, including at FDIC. He was one of his department’s original FTO instructors until his recent promotion to district chief.

Walter Lewis will present “Developing and Implementing a Field Training Officer Program” on Thursday, April 23, 3:30 p.m.-5:15 p.m., at FDIC International 2015 in Indianapolis.




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