How to Identify and Develop Quality Instructors

BY ARMAND F. GUZZI JR.

Competent and enthusiastic instructors are critical to the fire service. Without them, how effective would our personnel and departments be (photo 1)? The selection process for instructors should be such that we tap those with the greatest talents and potential within our departments.

(1) The survival of our departments and the life safety of our members and of the public hinge on having effective fire service educators. In this era of being forced to do more with less, it is critical that every member be a contributing resource. Constant training is a must, and thus we need a cadre of instructors who can carry out the mission. As an example, engine and ladder company personnel have to operate in unison to successfully coordinate an interior attack with a coordinated search. Such coordination is possible only through constant training. (Photo by Scott Beaver.)

Our firefighters go through arduous basic and in-service training programs to prepare them for combat. Our fire officers go through additional levels of training to allow them to safely lead their personnel. In either case, who is doing the teaching? Education, experience, and training, coupled with motivation and an outgoing personality, are just some of the qualities a fire service educator needs. Ultimately, our departments rely on these same educators to protect our people. Quite a responsibility! How do we tap this enormous potential that lies at the heart of our departments? 

FINDING THE RIGHT INDIVIDUALS 

The first rule must be to recognize the need for effective education and training. Our departments will be effective only if the members are trained properly. To go to 100 fires annually and constantly make the same mistakes and incur the same types of injuries represents a failure within the organizational structure. Truly effective leadership understands the value of quality education and training. This understanding sets the stage for our future. Departments that don’t embrace this type of culture will fail and end up in litigation or at best have to settle for mediocrity.

Members aspiring to be educators should be the best of the best. They should be immersed in and consumed by the “job.” Experience is an important factor, as is the amount of time on the job, but these two factors should not be the sole determinants of who should or should not teach.

A potentially great fire service educator is a student of the fire service and takes every opportunity to learn. These individuals dissect every experience to get the most out of it and learn all that they can. They can be more valuable as educators than colleagues who have much experience but did not maximize the learning opportunities of each response.

Likewise, a member with 30 years on the job who prominently boasts that there is nothing left to learn shouldn’t be the department’s first choice for the critical position of instructor. It would be better to choose someone with less time on the job who is thoroughly immersed in the profession and constantly seeks to increase his knowledge.

Within our ranks there are members who have a thirst and a desire to contribute to the “job.” They are not politically or socially motivated. Their interest lies in the technical aspects of the job and in improving the organization. Unfortunately, sometimes these people are greeted with roadblocks and are stymied at every turn, which leads to their becoming cynical or, worse, using their motivation and skills in venues outside of the fire service. If we don’t allow these people to grow, the fire service will lose them. Therefore, it is imperative that we seek out these individuals and develop them.

Among the attributes that indicate that individuals will be successful instructors are the following:

  • They are constantly reading books and the monthly fire service periodicals or accessing fire or technical Web-based resources—not only when they are studying for an upcoming promotional exam. (In fact, we are not talking here about members who passed the exam and then put aside the books to gather dust.)
  • They have on their bunks or in their opened lockers a stack of texts and technical literature that are dog-eared and heavily marked up with notes.
  • They take their time during the course of the shift or a company drill to help newer members and show them the specifics of using a tool or performing a procedure.
  • They pursue education on their own initiative, not looking solely for compensation, to achieve self-established goals that are above and beyond department requirements.
  • They effectively speak to their peers and supervisors in an informed and respectful manner, attempting to shed light on an issue they perceive could be a problem for the department if left unresolved.
  • They don’t confuse those incidents on the fireground that need to be resolved instantly with those that would best be discussed at a later time. 

These attributes form the building blocks for the next generation of department leaders and educators. Harness and tap into this potential, and help cultivate their motivation. We are dealing with a fire service that is forced to do more with less and less. Don’t chase away or intimidate those who can make your department shine. Allow these members to grow and to develop. Make them the “go-to” members in specific areas of expertise. Compliment them often, and allow them to grow. 

DEVELOPING THE TRAINING CADRE 

After you have identified individuals you believe fit the criteria for a successful instructor, it is time to develop your training cadre.

  • Meet with the member, compliment his professionalism, and see if he is interested in becoming an instructor. An informal 30-minute session should tell you if this member is suited for the role. If so, consult your chain of command or, if in a position of authority, start to develop this member.
  • Ensure that the individual will have the proper certification and formal education for the position; this is especially important in these days when liability is an ever-present threat. Include a training course based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1041, Standard for Fire Service Instructor Professional Qualifications, level 1 requirements, for example. The prospective instructor should already have a few years of experience and an impressive resume.
  • Provide opportunities for the candidate to acquire practical experience. Have him choose a topic of interest and research it thoroughly. The first presentation should be simple, such as a formal lecture before a small group (a company or two, maybe a dozen personnel). This exercise will provide experience in developing a classroom presentation that includes such tools as a Power Point® video and a black or white board, developing a lesson plan and a lecture, and becoming acquainted with processes such as documentation and sign-in procedures. 

To support the prospective instructor, ensure that the audience of peers is disciplined and attentive and that you provide support should other problems arise, such as “freezing” before the audience. After the presentation, hold a one-on-one critique session with him. Cover everything from classroom logistics to personality encounters. This is a valuable learning experience; it is also a time to offer compliments. Also encourage this new member to continue his education, such as pursuing the next level of instructor certification, continuing self-study, and continuing to attend resident and nonresident training programs. Plan for additional speaking engagements before the department members.

Drill Ground 

After a few speaking encounters in a classroom setting, have the candidate conduct an activity on the drill ground. Ensure that he acquires opportunities to learn about preparing the drill ground and the logistics associated with drills, such as the need for adequate safety personnel and equipment and weather/terrain considerations. For this type of a setting, several seasoned members well versed in drill ground training and safety must be available as support for the member. This exercise would be in a controlled setting and could be as simple as raising ground ladders at a vacant building.

Continually emphasize safety and communications during this development phase. The prospective instructor should not be fearful of conducting departmental training; he should have a respect for what could go wrong.

As time passes, this member will continue to grow and succeed. But it all starts with guidance from a department leader. True leaders do not try to impress others with their skills and prevent others from advancing; they work to develop leaders who can aid the organization and its members. 

••• 

There have been too many deaths and injuries, and it is imperative that our new educators do everything in their power to prevent additional casualties. Departments that embrace their people and allow them to grow and learn ensure that they will be first-class departments. The bottom line is, “You are only as good as your people.”

ARMAND F. GUZZI JR. has been a member of the fire service since 1987. He is a career lieutenant with the Long Branch (NJ) Fire Department and is the deputy director of the Monmouth County (NJ) Fire Academy, where he has taught for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in management and undergraduate degrees in fire science, education, and business administration. 

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