Five Steps to a Successful Annual Training Plan


My boss, a former U.S. Army infantry battalion commander, would constantly give me his thoughts about using a “matrix.”

“You should use a matrix. It is a very useful tool.”

“The matrix will help you organize your thoughts and needs to make your operation a success.”

“It will help you plan out anything you are doing.”

“A matrix will help you with everything from designing the overall operation to the details that will identify single-point failures that get people killed.”

I was so sick of hearing these statements from my boss that I finally broke down and investigated what this “matrix” was all about. He had used this planning tool, which he described as an important instrument for any officer. After I understood how useful it actually is, I spent the next few weeks kicking myself for not using it sooner. I found out quickly that a matrix helps you lay out in front of you and visualize your overall plan and, at the same time, helps you identify critical details that are needed to successfully execute your plan.

A matrix also helps you lay out and identify critical details that are needed to execute your plan. It also helps break down a large task into smaller, manageable jobs and break your operation down into manageable parts. It’s like the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

The matrix also helps you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your plan and often points to where you will need assistance with equipment, expertise, or personnel. This article describes how to use a five-step process to develop and execute a highly successful annual training plan for your department.

One of the main benefits of using a matrix is that it quickly takes you from what seems like an overwhelming task (eating an elephant) into a task that you approach with a high confidence level because you see your plan come together right before your eyes. You see solid portions, phases, and segments-areas that need work and areas where you need help (expertise, advice, personnel, or equipment) from others to make your operation a success.


A matrix is simply a chart. The header across the top shows important topics, points, and dates-whatever critical parts are necessary to achieve the goal for which you are planning. Make it work for you; it is completely customizable for the task at hand, similar to when you reach into your toolbox for a specific tool, use that tool to accomplish a task, and then execute that task.

Let’s look at how a matrix can improve your annual training plan. First, some key points on your plan.

Mission statement. Your annual training plan must be based on your mission statement. A mission statement is not only an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirement but also the base for your entire department. In essence, it is what your officers and members will do and not do as firefighters. For example, there is little sense in setting up a large-scale swift water rescue drill if your mission statement says that you will not conduct (be trained or equipped for) these types of operations.

Mission Essential Task List (METL). Define/refine your METL. These are the tasks your department needs to accomplish to execute your mission statement. Examples of mission tasks include engine and truck company operations, vehicle extrication, emergency medical services, and wildland firefighting. A METL further defines tasks necessary for success. A METL may serve all or some of your training topics. For example, engine company mission essential tasks may include establishing a reliable water supply (i.e., hydrant, draft, tankers), stretching and advancing handlines, the use of master streams, and pump and standpipe operations. These METL tasks serve as topics for your annual training plan. Your METL may also include unique tasks such as helicopter landing zones and mass decontamination. They define the skills your fire officers and firefighters must be proficient in and, hence, what your training plan must include.

Annual training cycle. Break down your training into monthly phases: How many days do you want to train each month? How do you make training available to all your members? What time will drills start and end?

Training type. Decide how many and what types of drills you will conduct such as classroom, hands-on, or full-scale or command exercises. Next, list these drills and then distribute them across the months and the year. Some may be repeated if the task is critical to your department’s success, they need reinforcement frequently, or they are newer skills to your officers and members. Delete days or weeks when there will be no training such as for major holidays, events, and so on.

Schedule. Schedule your drills with the local weather forecast in mind. The ultimate goal of training is to conduct it while minimizing the danger of the heat and cold. Drills to conduct in the winter should include interior, mandatory type training such as policies and procedures, OSHA, hazmat refreshers, bloodborne pathogens, and so on. Conduct drills in the spring and fall that require full turnouts because of the cool, clear weather. Drill on drafting and master streams in the summer so firefighters can safely operate in bunker pants, gloves, and helmets.

Sure, we go to fires in hot, cold, snow, and so on, but when training, safety is paramount. Do you want to take a chance of getting someone hurt during a drill that can be done more effectively in better weather? Consider how much learning and skill reinforcing are going on if members are dropping in the heat or shivering in the extreme cold.


Frame your matrix with information such as the date and time of drill, the training topic, the person responsible for conducting the drill, the drill location, the training aids needed, and any other notes you think you may need.


Now, use your matrix to schedule your training. My department has trained every Monday night for the past four years, and members have learned to expect a drill on this day and at this time. This sounds like a lot, but when you consider that most members can’t make every drill, multiple opportunities make it easier for them to attend and work around their family, job, and so on. Also, if you have 25 members at a hands-on, skill-oriented drill, there is a lot of standing around until each member gets his turn. Experience has shown me that a good hands-on training session should incorporate about 10 to 12 members. Big groups are good for your ego but bad overall for training.


Now that you have built the frame for the matrix, start with easy blocks first. For my department, the first Monday is reserved for a company drill, not a department drill. Company captains want some time to accomplish tasks specific to their company’s missions and METL. One company was a truck that wanted to focus specifically on truck tasks at least once a month. Another was an engine that wanted to focus on its required skills. This still allows three more monthly opportunities for department-level drills and allows the department training officer to focus more on department-level training such as coordination of truck and engine company skills and operations for overall department safety and fireground effectiveness.

Again-fill in the simple boxes first. Block out holidays, and put in mandatory training. Now, look at the schedule from an annual perspective. Fill in the skills on which you want to train more than once a year, and spread them out or group them together appropriately. Next, consider full-scale exercises at your training center where companies can work together on a fire operation or at your burn building or drill tower. Refresh these skills at drills before the full-scale exercises to ensure success for the larger, full-scale, full-speed exercises.

The first Monday of each month is reserved for a company drill; this can be for cleaning the firehouse or for a specialty skill exclusive to that company such as using an oxyacetylene torch. This drill is the responsibility of the company captain or company president. So, as the department training officer, you don’t need to plan, schedule, or execute this drill time.

Next, plan for and schedule your next department drill. In Figure 1, June 10 will be used for the collapse simulator for firefighter assist and search team operations as a “DO IT” drill, which is a live, full-scale exercise on the training ground under realistic conditions.

figure 1

I have trained our officers and members to recognize DO IT drills as drills that will present a situation where the officers will lead members in rescuing the victims, extinguishing the fire, and so on-whatever the situation calls for. This is not a drill where anything but the situation will be explained. Specific training and skills required to execute a DO IT drill were accomplished prior to this realistic response.

In this case, I am the lead trainer, which means I am responsible to reserve facilities, prepare the drill site, develop realistic scenarios, and take any other actions necessary to run the exercise. The location is at the fire training center; we will use our collapse simulator. Notes show that this is a confirmed department drill requiring attendance by both companies in the department.

On June 17, Lieutenant Mike Smith will conduct the master stream drill. Figure 1 shows the location of the drill, the equipment members will use, and that it will be a department drill. “Hands on” indicates that Smith will quickly explain the portable monitors and then members will set them up and use them as they would during a fire suppression operation. This is not a DO IT drill, so members are encouraged to ask questions, and experienced members can assist less experienced ones while they work in a hands-on, no-pressure situation to gain confidence in their skill with the tool. Several weeks later, part of a DO IT fire attack drill will require using the monitor in a more realistic, time-sensitive pressure situation.

On June 24, we are conducting rappelling training off our drill tower. Clearly, high-angle rescue is not in our mission statement. Called “adventure training,” it is a diversion from mission-essential training.

The Rockland County (NY) Technical Rescue Team will conduct the operation, and members will safely rappel down the face of our tower. Tech rescue team members first will conduct a capabilities briefing describing what and how they will assist county departments with specialized rescue and then conduct the training, which starts with becoming familiar with a class 3 harness and the needed equipment. Members will then rappel with a rope tied off to the frame of the safety net six feet off the ground and advance to the first floor (about 10 feet above the net). Since the anchor is tied off at the roof level, they can now get out of windows as high or as low as they feel comfortable under close supervision of the technical rescue team members.

Continue filling in the blanks, and be sure you have distributed repeated training topics across the year, spacing them out properly. Also have your schedule follow the crawl/walk/run mentality, explained below:

Crawl phase-a hands-on, slow-speed, no-pressure skill development progression.

Walk phase-a hands-on, task-type drill at the company level as a DO IT drill to reinforce correct procedures and accomplish the skill.

Run phase-a multicompany live burn evolution or full-scale exercise at your training center or other facility.

Include company and department officers in developing your training plan, and ask them for suggestions for drill topics (especially company officers, so members can gain trust in their technical abilities and expertise). It is critical for officers to attend drills and to lead by example and to observe their members so they will know members’ strengths and weaknesses on the fireground. Officers who don’t attend drills regularly are viewed negatively by members. Although often not realized, the drill field is an opportunity to develop trust between officers and firefighters.

The matrix starts with a blank piece of paper, is designed by you for your specific planning needs, and grows to a chart that has many blank spaces but gets filled in until complete. You can schedule your officers, senior members, and other subject matter experts to run drills or, in the case of rappelling, an operation that acts as a fun evolution.

I publish my schedule every three months so department members will know what the training will be and can properly prepare for it. If, for example, they get out of work late and cannot be at the firehouse at the start of the drill, they know where we are and what we are doing, and, often, they will meet us at the site. Also, make members aware of drills out of the routine training cycle. I printed in bold the date of June 29 because it was scheduled to train members on our new air bags.

After the first few months of training, your plan will reveal areas in your scheduling or execution that need improvement. Make notes on and adjustments to your matrix necessary to suit your company or department and on what worked and what did not. Keep it fresh; include several innovative drills during the year. Schedule training topics on calls to which you anticipate responding in the coming months. For example, the northeast heating season starts sometime around October. A review of your carbon monoxide procedures and your meter and action levels would be a good indoor drill to conduct as weather cools and you expect to respond to these types of calls. Since spring increases the possibilities of wildland-urban interface fires, plan drills that will ready your members in time for these types of responses.

At these training sessions, officers can demonstrate the “tools” and expertise they bring to the fight so members can gain confidence in these officers. This is also where chief officers can observe, evaluate, and mentor company officers. Training is important for officers and members to gain skill and knowledge or refresh skills. Include in your matrix training specific for company and department officers.

Your goal is to build the skills and confidence of your officers and firefighters. Design your training plan to build teamwork and reinforce procedures and policies that will help the department to gain the most value as a force multiplier for your often understaffed companies. It is human nature to enjoy success, which will be a motivating factor for members to attend future training. If your drill includes a lot of criticizing, correction, and negative feedback, it is unlikely members will want to return. Always begin your after-action review with three positive statements to sustain trainees’ attitudes, and then offer suggestions on three areas that need improvement.

Make sure the training improves or refreshes their skills in a positive way; this will make them better, more confident firefighters when they are returning to quarters after the drill. Your members’ fireground success and safety depend on the success of your training plan. Using the matrix method makes developing and executing a high-quality training program a manageable and successful task.

JERRY KNAPP is a 39-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department; a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York; and an adjunct professor in the Rockland Community College Fire Technology Program. He is a battalion chief with the Rockland County Hazardous Materials Team and a former nationally certified paramedic. He has a degree in fire protection and wrote the “Fire Attack” chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II and has authored numerous articles for fire service trade journals.


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  • JERRY KNAPP  is a 44-year veteran firefighter/emergency medical technician with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department; a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York; chief of the Rockland County Hazardous Materials Team; and a former nationally certified paramedic. He has a degree in fire protection; is the co-author of House Fires (Fire Engineering); wrote the “Fire Attack” chapter in Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering); and has authored numerous articles for fire service trade journals.

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