By Mark Heeren
Members of both career and volunteer fire departments know that budgets have gotten tighter over the years, and often the training budget is one of the first areas to get reduced. What money left in the training budget seems to be reserved for the development and refreshing of basic skills, with officer development becoming a low priority. The good news is there are free, nationally recognized courses online, and any fire department member can take them.
The National Fire Academy (NFA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) both have online courses specifically for developing officers as leaders. With these courses you do not have to already be an officer to take them, which allows those striving to become an officer to start preparing to move up the ranks. The courses are also a great refresher for those who are already an officer by revisiting topics such as different management styles, how to improve communications, mentoring, and how to motivate your crew members. The courses offered by FEMA and NFA contain the fundamental ideas, theories, and skill builders every officer needs. Some of the courses are more in-depth and take more dedication, but the payoff is well worth it. The courses take anywhere from two hours to 14 hours to complete and none of them have to be done at one sitting, which allows for great flexibility.
The courses offered by NFA can be found at http://www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/nfaonline/. Once to the site, select “Browse List of Courses” and use the site’s search filter and select either “Management Science” or “Incident Management.” You will find the courses that focus on being in command at a multiple-alarm incident, calling and handling a Mayday, incident simulators, and being a supervisor in the fire service. These courses cover everything from motivating your crew; improving communications with your crew, bosses, and the public; incident simulators; and how to better manage your time.
FEMA has a set of seven courses, each taking two to four hours to complete, that makes up their Professional Development Series (PDS). The courses include leadership and influence, decision making and problem solving, and effective communication. The FEMA PDS focuses on areas including, but not limited to, building trust with your crew, how to facilitate new policies or procedures, developing an environment for leadership development, developing small and large scale multiagency drills, preplanning, and how to effectively make decisions and solve problems while engaged in an emergency. These courses can be found by going to http://training.fema.gov/IS/crslist.asp and then selecting Professional Development Series.
Some of you may be thinking, “I’m a volunteer, why should I do all this extra work?” Here is the answer: The fact you are a volunteer does not mean you are not going to have to deal with motivating your department members to train, have personnel issues, or have to deal with unique situations. When you saw the words “multiple alarms” above, you most likely pictured a large warehouse on fire with 10 pieces of apparatus out front. What about that barn fire 15 miles outside of town where you have six tenders from other towns hauling water to you? Those type of calls fall under the multiple-alarm category. When you have to start doing “mandatory training” to be eligible for grants or to meet state or federal regulations that you have never had to do before, how do you get your members to accept and embrace this change? The above mentioned courses will help you learn how to deal with those types of situations. If you are worried about the amount of time the courses take, don’t be concerned–the courses are designed for you to do 20 minutes here and 30 minutes there, and you can print out the course materials for future reference.
For those who are career firefighters, these courses won’t only give you another certificate to put in your training folder, but help prepare you for promotional exams and the mandatory courses for fire officers. The material you will cover in these courses will consist of some of the same things you will cover in the courses for your fire officer certificate. Because you are familiar with the material, it will be a refresher and allow you to focus more on the material that is new to you. Additionally, when it comes time for promotion interviews, you will have a great answer when you’re asked about what you have done to prepare for the position of company officer. When telling the panel about the courses you have taken, you will show that you are self-motivated and dedicated to training and higher education. These courses are still a great value even if you are still four or five years away from being able to take the promotional exam or are not sure if you want to accept the responsibilities of being an officer. The knowledge in theses course will help you develop better communication skills, become a better informal leader, and give you some insight into how officers from company level to department chief make decisions and evaluations.
As the fire service continues to encourage higher education for its firefighters and fire officers while our budgets get tighter, we must find ways to train effectively. The courses offered by NFA and FEMA have already been paid for with tax dollars. Why not put those tax dollars to good use and improve yourself as a fire officer or officer candidate all from the comfort of the easy chair in the station or your home? If you still need motivation to take one or all of these courses, consider doing it for those who look at you for guidance and leadership. Do it for the men and women who are looking for an officer they can look up to by showing them even officers have to continue to train both as firefighters and officers. Do it to improve yourself, your company, and your department, because we all should take pride in ourselves, our company, and our department and do everything we can to make them the best they can be.
Mark Heeren is an eight-year veteran of the fire service and serves with the Sterling (IL) Fire Department. He is a contract industrial firefighter with the rank of lieutenant for Pinkerton Government Services, assigned to a global heavy construction manufacturer. He is an Illinois-certified Fire Officer I, Hazmat Tech, Confined Space Rescue Tech, and Illinois Department of Public Health EMT-Basic.