Firefighter Training Programs: Do the Skill or Do the Drill

By Robert Finger Jr.

The warning label on firefighter gear reads: “Firefighting is an ultra-hazardous, unavoidably dangerous activity. This [garment, hood, helmet] will not protect you from all burns, injuries, diseases, conditions or hazards.” Studies in progress and those already completed by Underwriters Laboratories and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have shown that fires do not act the same way they did in structures of old. We hear too many veteran firefighters say, “We have always done it this way, and it works. Why change?” The reality is that we haven’t always done it this way. The fire service only started going inside buildings and putting firefighters in that ultra-hazardous environment with the invention of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and turnout gear. If we are going to change the way we fight fires, we need to change the way we train.

Why Train?

Why do fire departments have drill night, practice, muster, or whatever you want to call it? Often, it’s to meet state and federal requirements. We have to provide our firefighters with annual Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Bloodborne Pathogens, Respiratory Protection, and Hazardous Communications training and a litany of other governmental requirements mandated to increase personnel safety. We hold training sessions when we get a new piece of equipment in the firehouse to make sure everyone knows how to operate with it before it is put into use; however, are we really providing training that makes our members safe on the fireground?

In November 2014, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published Fire-Related Firefighter Injuries Reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (2010-2012). In that document, FEMA estimated that 70,450 firefighters were injured in that three-year period-31,550 of these injuries occurred on the fireground and 4,150 occurred while responding to or returning from incidents. Almost two-thirds of the injuries occurred at residential properties; more than half of them took place outside of the structure. Strain or exertion caused more than one-quarter of all injuries, and exposure to hazards was responsible for 18.5 percent of them. So, I ask again, are we really training our firefighters to be safe?

Traditionally, fire departments require members to attend a certain number of drills per year or to provide proof that they completed a specific number of training hours. The department holds a weekly training session. Sometimes, the training is run by the company officer with little advance planning. The benefit of this may be that the company officer drills members on a topic with which he is comfortable and well-versed. The downside, especially in a career department, is training often becomes repetitive as the same crew works together for extended periods of time. Also, members may not receive training in a specific topic (for example, drafting) for years. Another consideration here is whether those who show up for the training actually participate.

(1) Photo by author.
(1) Photo by author.

The reality is that skills and abilities are not improved or tested. Firefighters may avoid attending drills that make them uncomfortable or that the members consider unnecessary. They may stand around or stay in the back of the group and not perform the skills involved in the drills. Firefighters will avoid tasks they do not feel qualified to perform, especially the more demanding skills. They get credit for attending the drill, but their abilities were not tested or improved. Firefighting is a technical job, but it’s not a difficult job if we train and practice our skills.

What’s gone wrong in photo 1? This hydrant is providing the water supply to the first-due engine at a residential structure fire. We teach firefighters in their initial training to exit the vehicle and wrap the supply hose around the hydrant to anchor it before the engine pulls away. But, do we tell them to unwrap it before making the connection? The impact on this incident was minimal, but could the impact have caused a problem? Obviously yes. The bigger question is, could this have been avoided and addressed in training before the incident? Again, the answer is yes. If you were a training officer and announced to your department, “Tonight’s drill is going to be hitting hydrants,” how many members would show up? How many members would put their hands on the supply line and hydrant wrench?

You are the officer on the second-due truck company in photo 2, and this is the view out of your windshield as you arrive on the scene. This is a garage fire in a Type V lightweight construction single-family house. A car and a resident who cannot account for her daughter are in the driveway. Is this the time you want to look over your shoulder and assess which tasks your crew can perform? Or, would you rather get off the rig and know that your crew is going to gather the correct tools and equipment to go into that house and perform a primary search? This certainly can be addressed ahead of time on drill night.

The goal of any training program should be reducing firefighter and civilian injury and death while providing the members with competent skills and abilities to perform hazardous job functions as safely as possible. The model presented below allows members to determine which skills each deems important and to enhance those they view as necessary.

Case Study: New York State Combination Department

A combination fire department in a suburban community in central New York State is made up of 12 full-time paid staff firefighter/paramedics and about 25 volunteer interior firefighters plus 30 other members in various roles. The department runs about 675 fire calls and 2,100 advanced life support (ALS) transport emergency medical service (EMS) calls per year. Its training requirements, up to 2015, were the following:

  • Volunteers: complete 75 hours of training each year to qualify as an interior firefighter. The only “mandatory” training was the eight hours of OSHA requirements, one live fire evolution, and two window bailouts per year. Members could make up the remainder of their hour requirements in any way they saw fit.
  • Paid staff: required under New York state law to complete 100 hours of training in a variety of categories.

Given that level of training, one might assume that all of the interior firefighters were very skilled. The department, however, took a very hard look at the training program and decided a change was needed. The training program had no real direction. The members were required to do 75 hours of training to qualify as interior firefighters. Members were becoming harder and harder to recruit, and their personalities were different. The chiefs were some of the more experienced members of the department, but they were able to realize that the newer generation was different. For a few years before the analysis, groups of younger men and women would join the department, stay for a year or two, and then fade out. Eventually, they were dropped from the roster. The training officer tried to bring in new ideas and teach the “really cool new techniques” in an attempt to hold onto these individuals. Unfortunately, that attempt failed, and firefighters were becoming less and less confident and competent on fire scenes. Something needed to be done quickly.

2015: Time for a Change

The department formed a small committee whose members had specific knowledge of training and education principles. The committee members were an assistant chief who was serving as the fire training officer, the EMS training officer, a municipal fire instructor who was relatively new to the department, a member from the paid staff, and two members from the volunteer staff. This group was very well-versed in training programs. Two members were ProBoard certified at the Fire Instructor 2 level and one at the Fire Instructor 1 level.

The committee began with the fire department mission statement and targeted specific areas where the public deserved and expected a certain level of service. It also assessed the department members’ skills and abilities. Volunteer member expertise included attorney; business executive; heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning specialist; truck driver; utility worker; pharmacist; office manager; and information technology expert. The paid staff came from a number of backgrounds as well: mechanic, finance, education, and military, for example. The breadth of experience could be advantageous to the training program; all members will have something to contribute.

If the drill is on fires in Type V construction residential homes, for example, and there is a carpenter in your department, allow him to share his knowledge of construction techniques. It is frustrating to try to overhaul a soffit and fascia when you don’t know how they should go together; the roofing contractor knows how to put it together and take it apart. The same goes for the mechanic. Today’s vehicles are not like those a shade tree mechanic could work on. When training on vehicle incidents, the mechanic or body and fender repairman can be incredibly valuable. The training officer should talk with these members ahead of time to ensure the educational objectives of the program are met.

Committee members surveyed department members to determine the role each wanted on the fireground. The responses were scene support only, fire police, apparatus operator, interior firefighter, rapid intervention team or firefighter assist and search team member, and company and command officers.

Scene Support and Interior Firefighter Positions

The initial rollout occurred in January 2015. The positions of scene support and interior firefighter were addressed initially. The committee chose these roles because they represented the greatest risk and had the potential to provide the greatest reward.

The committee created a core group of skills that all members should be able to perform in their turnout gear regardless of whether they went inside the building or wore an SCBA. Interior firefighters had a larger skill set. Specific skill competencies were tested. The program was explained to the department members as “Do the Skill or Do the Drill.” An annual training calendar was developed; skills were grouped into Core Competencies, Scene Support, and Interior Firefighter tasks. Interior Firefighter skills were broken out into Life Safety, Scene Support, Engine Company, and Truck Company groups (Table 2).

Some evolutions, like life safety (photo 3), could not be trained on in a real-life call atmosphere. This exercise will have some relative sterility because of its nature, whereas evolutions like roof ventilation or pulling a handline into a structure can be run to proficiency in as close to real time as possible. In scenarios like life safety, the training officer need only look at the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and actual on-scene departmental practices to design the scenario. Multiple tasks can be completed in each scenario or evolution.

The training calendar offered each group of skills on drill nights twice a year, once in the first half of the year and once in the second half of the year. The paid staff also offered opportunities for paid and volunteer members to attend skill evaluations at times other than the normal drill night. Members were given the evaluation criteria (skill sheets) for each skill ahead of time. If they could successfully complete the skills when assessed, they could forgo attending the remaining drills in that group. It built in flexibility for the members while improving their skill set. The department officers became more confident that their crews would be competent on the fireground.

Member Buy-In

Everyone who has ever spent time in a fire station knows everything is decided at the kitchen table. Every new policy, order, piece of equipment, and call from the last shift is dissected, analyzed, and “Monday morning quarterbacked.” The kitchen table is where the chiefs, officers, firefighters, and probies are crowned or crucified. Before the program was rolled out, conversations had been taking place, and the committee knew that the firefighters would need a few guarantees when the rollout occurred. They needed to know the purpose for the change and that it was not punitive. They needed to know how the change would benefit them in the station and away from it.

The senior and junior members in your department will not understand each other when it comes to training programs. The senior members like and are comfortable with having training on the same night of the week and having it start and end at the same times. Everyone shows up at the station, gets into their gear, and does whatever the training officer says is for drill. The junior members, on the other hand, want to know the drill topic ahead of time. They want everything ready to go when they walk into the firehouse and want to be free to go when they are done with their task. They don’t want to stand around and wait. They want to know the objective, what is expected, learn or do it, and move on. They want information, but they view their time as valuable.

Senior members want to know they are still of value. Often, these members previously held some rank or special office. They were the leaders who made the decisions and dictated the direction of the department. They don’t want to be put out to pasture. They have the greatest knowledge of your district; know the quirks in the rural water supply, the locations of the best hydrants, and the best route of travel to an incident given the time of day; and watched buildings in your district being built, so they know where the dangers are.

Rationale for Training Change

The committee showed the members National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, which states, “The fire department shall establish and maintain a training and education program with a goal of preventing occupational deaths, injuries and illnesses.” Using the data FEMA collected through the National Fire Incident Reporting System, the committee developed a risk management plan, which is also recommended in NFPA 1500. The plan was tied directly to the service promised to the public in the department’s mission statement. This was the foundation for the training program.

One problem that surfaced was that the risk management plan identifies only the risk to members and public safety. The training was focused on addressing risk, but it had little to do with proficiency in real-world, real-time situations. For example, training designed to prevent falls from a ladder might include introducing a ladder belt and teaching members how to wear it properly, but it would not cover the skills of correctly deploying or climbing a ground ladder. Combining these concepts would build skills proficiency and would also enhance safety while getting the job done efficiently.

(2) Photo by Chris Halliday.
(2) Photo by Chris Halliday.

NFPA 1500 also states, “The Fire Department shall establish training and education programs that provide new members initial training, proficiency opportunities, and a method of skill and knowledge evaluation for duties assigned to the member prior to engaging in emergency operations.” The department requires every new member, before getting on any piece of apparatus and responding to an alarm, to take a basic firefighter course based on the role the member wants to fill. In New York State, that would be a Firefighter 1, Scene Support Operations, or Recruit Firefighter Training Program. Once that course has been completed, the department’s newly implemented training program would provide for developing and evaluating members’ skill proficiency.

The NFPA is very clear when it comes to skills checks: “The Fire Department shall provide an annual skills check to verify minimum professional qualifications of its members.” The new program was designed to provide for a rolling skills check where members passed or were told they needed improvement; the downside was that members who did not complete and pass their annual skills check would lose their status.

Continuing to follow NFPA 1500 proved to be a challenge. Section 5.2.9 states, “The Fire Department shall adopt or develop training and education curriculums that meet the minimum requirements outlined in professional qualification standards ….” One of the criteria is that the individual providing the instruction cannot evaluate the member’s skills. One of the roles of the company officer is to provide training for his crew members. In this case, the paid staff members in the department work consistent shifts together. The committee and the department leadership agreed that the company officer cannot evaluate his shift members’ skills, which did not please the members. Department leaders offered options that included allowing the paid staff to come in on the regular drill night when skills evaluations were held. A shift officer could ask an officer from another shift to evaluate his members, or a coordinated skills evaluation day could be offered to the entire department.

Training Plan Implemented

The core of the new training plan is the training officer, who is equivalent to the incident commander at an emergency scene. He devises the strategy and should clearly define the goals. In the case study, members who were one or more years removed from their initial training reaffirmed for themselves that they were able to perform the skills they had learned. As the program evolved, the goal was changed from skills competency to skills proficiency.

Lesson plans were drafted using established SOPs. If an SOP didn’t exist, the training officer and the committee put one together and had it approved by the chief officer before the drill took place. Most times, creating an SOP involved simply putting on paper actions taken on standard alarm types. Many senior members knew how to handle the alarms and which actions to take, but teaching newer members proved to be a challenge without a document to reference. The lesson plans and SOPs ensure that training is consistent with actions even when the instructors change.

Skills checklists (Figure 1) were prepared for the tasks that needed to be accomplished at the firefighter level. The lists indicated how to perform the steps safely and also served as documentation. A signature on an attendance sheet does not document that a member has performed a task; the skills checklist is a better record and should be signed by the firefighter and the evaluator.

Moving from Competency to Proficiency

Skills checklists are the heart and soul of most entry-level fire or EMS educational programs. They are used to make sure steps are completed in a specific order and nothing is missed. However, to achieve peak performance, the checklists need to be used over and over until they are committed to memory so that members can use the “checklist in their mind,” analyze the scenario before them, and apply their knowledge safely.

When members complete an academy or a training class, they are deemed competent. But, is that where we really want them to be? Take, for example, competency with ladders at the end of Firefighter 1. A firefighter or a company of firefighters able to remove a portable ladder from an apparatus, safely carry it to a designated location, and raise it correctly in a training environment would be considered by most to be competent in deploying a portable ladder.

Now, look at this task at a live incident. What would those same firefighters do when a bush or a shrub is in the way or if the building is built into a hill or the land is sloped? Would they know why it is important to throw the aluminum extension ladder with the fly section out and how to tie the halyard correctly? The objective is to develop “thinking firefighters” who will be able to analyze the situation, draw on the information and training they have received, and apply them to the new or different situation.

(3) Photo by Nicole Brown.
(3) Photo by Nicole Brown.

When the department in the case study rolled out its new approach to firefighter training in 2015, the committee focused on competency in firefighter skills, and the results were amazing. Members were excited to come to drill night. They got dirty and put their hands on equipment and spent time in their SCBA with a face piece on their face breathing air. Members were proving their skills, but something was still missing. The firefighters remembered what they were taught in Firefighter 1 for the most part and were able to explain why they were doing it, but they were not proficient!

In the initial firefighter training, for example, in a donning drill, students’ gear is organized in a circle. When the instructor says go, the firefighters kick their already unzipped or untied boots off and do the truffle shuffle to get on their gear and breathing air in two minutes or less. Is this what it looks like when the bell goes off in your firehouse? Or, are members rushing to their lockers or the side of the truck, kicking off their boots, jumping into their bunker pants, and heading for their seat while putting on their coat and carrying their helmet and face piece? The differences in these scenarios can be played out for a multitude of skills.

About six months into the process, the training committee added drills called, “The First 5 Minutes.” In these drills, members were already in their bunker gear and in the apparatus. An officer, an apparatus operator, and two to four firefighters were in each vehicle. The officers were given a scenario and told to return to their apparatus. The apparatus was staged down the street from the fire station. Using a portable radio, the member running the drill dispatched vehicles to the fire station based on the type of alarm-for example, for a fire alarm, the standard response in their area, one engine and one truck, was started; for a reported structure fire, the entire department complement was started. The crews from the engines performed the usual engine tasks while the crew from the truck company performed the usual truck company tasks. It challenged the skills of the firefighter and the apparatus operator. They needed to take into account other arriving apparatus, firefighters who may have already exited vehicles, and equipment that may already have been deployed. It also challenged the company officer, who needed to pay attention to the radio and listen and anticipate where they were going to be in the apparatus arrival order. They used information and skills they were taught in their initial training, analyzed the scenario set before them, and applied their knowledge based on the new information.

The Company as a Team

Running a fire department is much like running a football team. The first thing the team needs to know is how the players fit in the game. The department was ahead of the curve on that one, with standardized seat assignments. The members knew if they were in the rear-facing seat behind the driver on any first-arriving apparatus, they were the hydrant person. If they were in the same seat and second due, they were the irons person on the truck company or the backup to the nozzleman on an engine company. The standard plays needed to be addressed. The chief is the head coach. In an ideal situation, he is the first one there. He calls the play into the responding apparatus based on the conditions presented. The company officer is the quarterback. He tells the firefighters what the play is and oversees how the play unfolds. The firefighters run the play.

Just as with any drawn-up play in sports, it looks complicated on paper. When the play is practiced and initially run at half speed or less, it becomes simple and routine. In this sequence, multiple essential fireground skills are performed and evaluated.

Firefighter training programs need to be dynamic, but they need to have a foundation as well. The foundation comes from the following:

  • Response area. Your response area dictates your training curriculum. There is no sense in training in high-rise operations if the largest building in your response area is a single-family residential dwelling.
  • Ability to respond. An insufficient number of personnel affects your abilities on the fireground. If the best your department can muster during the day is a firefighter and an apparatus operator, you had better have a plan and train on what you are going to do when a call comes in.
  • Apparatus and equipment. Train with your apparatus and equipment. If you have an engine with limited water, train on limited-water scenarios.
  • Members’ abilities. Your members will dictate what your department is able to do.
  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs) best practices, policies. They are the rule book by which your department runs. Follow the rules when you train. In most departments, the officers make the rules. If the group doesn’t like the rules, change them.
  • Seat assignments and arrival order. Have basic seat assignments, and train on the role each firefighter will take when exiting the vehicle.

The father of the modern fire service, Benjamin Franklin, once said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” Firefighter training programs cannot solely be a series of lectures or a bunch of practical skills sessions where everyone who “attends” gets credit for the drill. Learning doesn’t happen that way. Firefighters need to be involved in their training. Developing a training program is not a simple task. It means the department, its members, and the leadership have to take a very hard, long look in the mirror; tear the organization down to its roots; and build a solid foundation by identifying the weaknesses and fortifying the vulnerable areas. You need vision, direction, and obtainable goals with measureable results. Firefighter training programs in the modern fire service need a new approach: Do the Skill or Do the Drill from competency to proficiency.

ROBERT FINGER JR., EMT-P, CIC, a 20-plus-year veteran of the emergency services, is a lieutenant with the Manlius (NY) Fire Department, municipal training officer, and director of the Training Division. He is a paramedic and certified instructor coordinator with the New York State Bureau of EMS. He has a BS degree from the State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse and has been teaching firefighters and EMS and healthcare workers for most of his career.

Robert Finger Jr. will present “Firefighter Training Programs: A New Approach,” on Wednesday, April 20, 3:30 p.m.-5:15 p.m., at FDIC International 2016 in Indianapolis.

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