Realistic Firefighter Training: “Do It” Drills

Article by Jerry Knapp

Training fire department members is always a challenge. The purpose of this article is share a couple of thoughts that have been very successful for me as a department training officer and to present a type of drill that seems to always be successful.


There are essentially three types of firefighters that need training: probies, experienced firefighters and senior men, and leading firefighters and officers. For the purpose of this article, the term firefighter also means officers. In addition, there are three types of officer that parallel the categories of firefighters described above: the new lieutenant, the experienced captain, and the leading assistant chief or chief.

Training objectives vary for each of these disparate categories. When designing a training drill, how do you incorporate them all and impart information that is valuable to all of them?

Consider a “Do It” drill (I tend to call these “Do or Die Drills,” because they are scenario-based and you either succeed or the victim die. The training officer sets up the scenario. Clearly describe the situation to the officers that are in your training group; let them lead the members in a realistic way.

These officers must

  • size up the situation
  • determine a course of action
  • identify significant hazards
  • direct firefighters to resolve the problem by assigning skilled firefighters to appropriate tasks.

In the example in the photo above, I placed a mannequin under an old shipping container. The rescue company rolled in (at our training center, lights and sirens), and went to work as they would at a real scene. Here members are using air bags and cribbing to get enough lift to free the victim.

Members were of course advised before the start of the drill that it was a “Do It” drill, and to act as if it was a real deal. Work like it was a real alarm (within the limits of safety). The lieutenant on the rig was in charge. If we had a chief there, they could obviously be involved in the leadership portion and add value of the drill.


What does this type of drill do for firefighters? Let’s examine the benefits for each category we mentioned above.


Probationary firefighters get an opportunity to be part of a realistic response and to witness the various parts of an entire operation. It helps them get a basic understanding of this type of operation. This may sound trite, but consider what the probie doesn’t know yet. This rescue scenario may be something your probie has never seen and will impart a wealth of knowledge, such as:

  • what members have particular skills
  • what tools were selected and why
  • how officers evaluate and size up the scene, and
  • how to prioritize tasks.

The probie will also learn through experience how he fits into the overall scenario at real alarms at this point in his career. In the example I described, they learned about tool cache placement and debris pile site selection. If the probie is motivated, it should generate a thousand questions and discussion points for him to discuss over the next few days to sharpen his skills for similar alarms.

Experienced Firefighters

For experienced firefighters it is a challenging drill. Boring drills are boring. Challenges will keep them coming back for drills. Alarms are challenging, and our training should be, too. These drills are also opportunities to perfect his skills. It may also be an opportunity to try a different technique than the one he usually uses, or give him a chance to use a new or different tool and evaluate it.

Senior Man

For the senior man it is an opportunity to keep current on techniques and innovations and or new hazards. It could be an opportunity to assign the probie to him to help develop the probie’s skills; this also helps the mentoring skills of the senior man. It may be an opportunity to test his creativeness and ability to apply off-job skills to this response.

Junior Officers

These drills are a perfect opportunity to develop his size-up and company leadership skills. They let him work on his ability to provide clear and concise directions and orders. He can observe his crew to see how well they work together and identify individual and/or team strengths or weaknesses.

Senior Leaders

“Do It” drills are an opportunity to observe the team in action, to size up its strengths and weaknesses to help focus future drills. It is also an excellent chance to evaluate the ability of the company or department. What are they good at? What do they have difficulty with and what can’t they accomplish? What gets done quickly and what takes time?


“Do It” drills should be the culmination of training events. The goal is for members to succeed because you have given them the training they need before this drill. For example, conduct hands-on drills with hydraulic spreaders, rams, cutters, torches, and stabilizing and shoring equipment. This may encompass several drills, as many as you think necessary to develop proficiency with all the tools needed for the “Do It” drill. When you design the “Do It” drill, try to incorporate as many opportunities to use these tools as possible.


Be sure the drill has a realistic scenario, one that has happened in your area or that members have heard or read about and can relate to. Plausible scenarios make it that much more real in the minds of your members. Telling your members that they are going to respond to a collapse of the George Washington Bridge is not realistic. More realistic: They are responding to a building collapse as part of a mutual-aid rapid intervention team and are assigned a task within the limits of their personnel and tool cache.


Consider your staffing levels and how much work the drill will entail. If all you have is a few firefighters, scale the drill down so they can complete the task as you describe it to them. If you have 200 members from your department and one or more days, the scenario can be much more complex and demanding. A single-company “Do It” drill should usually take no more than two hours.


Conduct an after-action review immediately after the drill is terminated, whether it is because the rescue or operation was successful or had to be stopped for other reasons, such as weather or member fatigue. Note that this review is not a critique. No one likes to be critiqued and when we call it that, critical comments are all that come out. First, focus on what went right. Despite problems, was the mission accomplished? It may not have been textbook or pretty, but if it was successful, review what members think should be sustained. What did we learn and what should we keep? Lastly, look at areas to improve. Identify weaknesses in a positive way and make it clear that we have identified the problem and found a tenable solution or improvement. Look toward being better and successful in the future because of this drill.

“Do It” drills are a critical part of your overall training plan. If you only train at a slow, nice, relaxed speed, guess what? That’s the speed and efficiency you will operate on the real scene. Put the pressure on once in a while. After all, it is our ability to do it under these conditions that often determines if our customers live or die.

Jerry KnappJERRY KNAPP is the assistant chief for the Rockland County (NY) Hazmat Team and a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 35-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire protection, and was a nationally registered paramedic. Knapp is the former plans officer for the Directorate of Emergency Services at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.


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