Alan Rufer: Volunteer Recruit Training Programs: A Recipe for Success

By Alan Rufer

Developing a volunteer recruit training program is not an easy task. Training officers often become frustrated as their research results in a “buffet” of recruit training programs in their county, region, or state. For example, they may find that one department has a highly detailed recruit training program that has internal and external requirements, while a neighboring department may only require its recruits to meet the minimum standards set forth by the state.

Lack of time and lack of resources are common reasons cited for not having an internal recruit training program. I often hear that it is easier to send the recruits to a local technical college or a regional fire academy to complete a curriculum that meets the state’s minimum training requirements than it is to design a recruit training program.

While technical colleges or regional fire academies are a great resource for managing and delivering a recruit training program, most often these programs are generic by design. The program curriculum is often built around the job performance requirements (JPRs) listed in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. The process and number of required hours for completing a recruit training program often vary from state to state and may or may not require passing a written and/or practical exam.

For example, in Wisconsin, a firefighter is required to complete a 60-hour training program prior to participating in interior firefighting operations. This is a noncertification program that does not require passing a written or practical exam. An additional 36 hours of training and the successful completion of a written and practical exam are necessary to receive certification but are not required by the state.

Regardless of whether the training is delivered through a technical college or an external source, these programs are designed to provide the basic knowledge and skills to perform on the fireground and meet state requirements.

Where these “canned” programs fall short is in preparing the recruits to operate/function on “your” fireground. Ultimately, as a profession, we share a common goal: putting out fires. However, as individual organizations, we have the autonomy to decide how we will achieve that goal. Because departments tend to mold their methods/SOGs to fit their particular strengths and weaknesses, it is important to have some form of an internal recruit training program in addition to the external program used to meet mandated requirements.

An internal recruit training program integrates new members into your operations. To help training officers overcome what can be an intimidating and overwhelming process, I would like to share some simple, yet effective techniques for designing and implementing a recruit training program for volunteers.

Much like the incident command system, the following ideas can contract or expand to fit your individual needs. As I mentioned earlier, training officers often tell me they don’t have the time or resources necessary to develop or implement a recruit training program. My first tip is: Don’t make developing a recruit training program more difficult than it needs to be. The very basic recruit training program can be broken down into three parts: curriculum, evaluation, and graduation.


Don’t spend your time recreating the wheel. Make a list of the training lessons you already have, modify them to meet the instructional and learning levels of a recruit, and then compare the list to the JPRs provided in NFPA 1001. Often you will find that most of what you need to accomplish already exists in your department’s regular training program; simply add the skills that may be missing and put them on paper.

Although a written syllabus with objectives and teaching outlines is nice, it certainly is not required prior to implementing a recruit training program. A fellow training officer once said to me that he was not very good at writing a syllabus. I encouraged him to begin by breaking it down into four parts: the what, when, who, and how they will deliver the training. By tackling these parts individually, the task of writing a syllabus is less intimidating.

After determining “what” will be in the recruit training program, you need to decide when, who, and how it is going to be delivered. Decisions such as, “Will the recruit training be in conjunction with or in addition to our regular training schedule?” will affect how quickly the recruits will be ready to function on the fireground.

Including the new members in your department’s regular training provides them with the opportunity to develop relationships with the other members. The downside is that it lengthens the time it takes for them to complete the recruit training process and respond on the apparatus.

Competing interests such as work, family, and social commitments of the recruit and the instructors must be taken into consideration when planning the training schedule. Too aggressive of a training schedule can result in burnout of the recruits and/or instructors. However, recruits often lose interest when training programs are too drawn out, and this can lead to increased turnover. It’s important to strike a balance between what the recruit can give and what the department needs. It is best to address these time commitments before bringing a new recruit on board.

After determining “what” you are going to teach and “when” you are going to teach it, you can begin scheduling who is going to deliver the training. Trying to do it all is a common mistake among training officers. Although I am an advocate for using certified instructors, the reality is that many volunteer departments simply don’t have those resources. Outside instructors can be helpful, but they are often unfamiliar with the inner workings of your department.

These obstacles should not prevent you from moving forward in developing a recruit training program. Identify those members that have an understanding of what you want to teach and the patience to work with new recruits. It is important that these instructors understand that each recruit will learn at a different pace and some may have many questions. I highly recommend maintaining a low student-to-instructor ratio. I have found that a 3:1 ratio for practical exercises provides the one-on-one attention that many recruits need to be successful.

Special note: Don’t limit yourself to subject matter experts or measure instructors’ qualifications based on their number of years in the fire service. I know many exceptional firefighters who are not good instructors, and I know many senior firefighters whose skills do not reflect the tactics of today’s fire service.

Identify high performing members that have the communication skills to explain and demonstrate the tasks step-by-step. Enlisting several instructors will reduce the workload, expose the recruits to different perspectives and teaching styles, and create buy-in among the membership.

Finally, identify how you are going to deliver the program. Which lessons will be in the classroom, hands-on, or a combination of both? Keep the class format in mind when assigning instructors. You don’t want to assign someone to a classroom lesson that is nervous speaking in front of a group of students.

We have all endured the pain of a training seminar where the instructor filled the room with “um,” “you know,” and “ah.” This can be prevented by selecting an instructor that has experience speaking in front of groups and giving him ample time to prepare.

Give thought to how much of the recruit training program will be practical exercises, self-study, and supplemented with video or other resources. I have found that short video clips immediately followed by practical exercises are more successful than videos by themselves.

I have also found that using videos of my department’s people performing the tasks that are unique to the department are very helpful in training new members. The videos are also great for preparing the instructors for the lessons they are going to teach and contribute significantly to the consistency of the program.

There are a number of methods that can be used to capture video and even more programs for editing it. But you don’t have to purchase expense equipment to get started. My department began with a cell phone (smart phone) to take the pictures/video and used free software to edit it.

The key is to take the time and think about what you want to do and what it is going to take to do it. Rome was not built in a day, and something is better than nothing. If you don’t have “techie” people in your organization, check with your neighbors or ask the local high school for some help.


Use objective and measureable criteria for testing the skills of the recruits. It should be clear what constitutes passing and/or failing a particular test station. Take the time to sincerely consider where you will set the bar. Too low, and you will get recruits with weak skills. Too high, and you may experience a high failure rate. Everyone must be held to the same standard; it is the only way for the recruit program to maintain its integrity.

Don’t overlook the need to evaluate the recruit training program as a whole. Formal and informal conversations with members of the department can provide valuable insight as to how the program is working or at least how it is perceived by the membership. Although subjective in nature, this part of the evaluation process is important in gaining the necessary buy-in from the members.

Focus on the feedback as a whole and not any one individual comment. Identify commonality among the responses and be willing to accept the positive as well as the negative. As a note, two surefire ways to kill the feedback loop are failure to act on the information provided and to levy repercussions for negative feedback–real or perceived. It is imperative that you are sincere in your solicitation of feedback.

Evaluating the program is an ongoing process. I recommend creating a daily log that is completed after each training. This log should include the topics covered, the duration of the training, who taught the training, and a section for what went right and what went wrong. Don’t wait until the end of the training program to go back and evaluate each lesson; by the time you are done, you most likely won’t remember most of the important events.

Revising Your Training Program

Resist the urge to make changes to the program on the fly unless they are related to safety or are significant to the success of the program. For example, a near miss during ladder evolutions may justify changing the techniques being taught for safety purposes. However, a classroom lesson on fire extinguishers that left recruits confused over the difference between a class A and a class B fire extinguisher may be reflective of the delivery or instructional preparation rather than program design.

Making adjustments on the fly will create ambiguity in the program and result in recruits who are confused and frustrated. Instead of making incremental changes, take notes, review the daily logs, and make the necessary changes at the end of the program. This will allow you to better analyze the cause and effect the changes may have.


The graduation ceremony is a time to celebrate the hard work and accomplishments of your new members. It is a time to recognize and welcome them as official members of your family. It represents their transition from a probationary member to a regular member.

The graduation ceremony does not need to be extravagant or expensive. My department holds ours in the apparatus bay of the fire station. The ceremony is scheduled in place of regular training so members don’t need to add another event to their already busy schedules. Members wear dress uniforms, and their families are invited as well as some city officials. We serve a potluck-style meal followed by a badge-pinning ceremony.

The formality of the ceremony is not as important as the ceremony itself. This is an event that recruits will remember for the rest of their careers. The single greatest thing you can do to retain members is to show that you appreciate their time and commitment. A graduation ceremony is the perfect place to start.

The number one goal of any recruit training program should be to “put butts in the trucks.” A wise old chief once said to me, “Those are just trucks out there in the bay; they don’t become fire trucks until we get on them.”

Firefighters are active go-getters by nature. A bored firefighter will soon be a retired firefighter. Firefighters left standing around, unable to participate beyond washing the trucks, will soon find somewhere else to volunteer their time. Designing an internal recruit training program will get them on the trucks and provide them with the skills necessary to make a positive contribution on your fireground.


Alan Rufer is the division chief of training for the Monroe (WI) Fire Department. He has an MBA in organizational development and is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s EFO program. He is the author of the book Help Wanted and a frequent speaker at local, regional, and national conferences.

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