Tailboard Talk: What Is the Best Way for Firefighters to Learn?

By Craig Nelson and Dane Carley

One officer/firefighter organizes or participates in a couple of hours of training every day that the crew works. This improves the crew’s firefighting, emergency medical service, hazardous materials, technical rescue, and other skills they use. A second officer/firefighter sits down with the crew every workday to review internal lessons learned or a national near-miss report. This crew learns what works and what does not from others’ successes and failures. A third officer/firefighter attends the National Fire Academy (NFA). This member learns ways to improve the department’s operations based on fire service research. A fourth officer/firefighter goes to college to obtain a bachelor’s degree. College exposes this person to ideas and potential solutions (maybe with a little tweaking) from other industries.

Which one is doing the most good? What is the difference in their approaches to improvement? There is no doubt each person in the above stories is learning things critical to the success of the fire service. But is there much difference in what they are all doing? Are these examples of education? Are they examples of training? The fire service often blurs these methods of learning, but they are distinct. All of these learning methods have different definitions, intents, and learning outcomes. In this article, we will explore those differences and how they relate to this month’s Reliability Oriented Employee Behavior (ROEB) item, educate (Ericksen & Dyer, 2004).

Educate is the last of the ROEBs. Ericksen and Dyer pair educate and learn (last month’s behavior) together because, although they both help an organization constantly improve, they are not the same thing. We are taking educate in a slightly different direction than they do and tweaking it to fit the fire service. Therefore, we thought this was a good opportunity to review the differences between the examples above and then relate them to the higher reliability organization (HRO) concept — a system that could dramatically improve the fire service for the future.


Although this month’s topic is educate, the terms relating to it (learning, training, continuing education, practice) are defined differently and their differences can be easily blurred. In this article, we want to define them so that we all start on the same page. We need to understand what each achieves so we can correctly apply that type of learning to a given situation in your fire department. Learning was covered last month, but relates to all the terms we are defining this month because it is the result of all of these terms. Although learning is the same word in both months’ articles, this month’s learning is connected to an HRO’s foundation of developing a learning culture through a variety of learning methods. It is what occurs when someone adds to their knowledge or skills through training, education, or practice. Some general examples of learning include:

  • Training
  • Education
  • Continuing education

Tailboard Talk: What Is the Best Way for Firefighters to Learn?


Training, learning, continuing education, education…each term is important to sustain successful operations and improve areas that are not so successful. If each is important, then what difference does it make? It is important because if we recognize the purpose of each, then we can use each more effectively. Instilling a behavior that constantly seeks out various types of learning — through education, training, and continuing education — helps departments maintain basic skills while also looking at emerging trends that will affect the department in the future. Educate, as a behavior, is learning to make connections and correlations in different situations based on a variety of learning experiences. This can be as narrow as connecting the cause-and-effect relationship of building construction to a fire in a basement at a balloon-frame house or as broad as correlating the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) fire behavior research with tactical department fire attack operations.

Tailboard Talk: What Is the Best Way for Firefighters to Learn?

A variety of learning methods complement the educate behavior.


Training is something at which the fire service excels. We train on critical skills constantly (see “Tailboard Talk: Is Your Department Fat, Dumb, & Happy?”). What does training accomplish? Training teaches or reinforces fundamental skills that range from something basic like donning self-contained breathing apparatus to something more advanced like incident command decision making. Regardless of the training level, it focuses on skills. Some examples of training include:

  • Fireground training
  • Incident Command System simulations
  • Pump operations
  • Apparatus driving
  • Basic fire officer classes (ones that tell students how to manage)

Continuing Education

So, what is different between continuing education and training? One difference is that continuing education is often tested and passing students receive a certificate of attendance (this is not the same as certification because it does not require ongoing training for future recertification). The NFA is one example of a respectable institution providing a plethora of ongoing education. The NFA filled a vacuum in fire service education in the 1970s and is critical to the fire service mission to this day. However, it is a continuing education institution by definition because it provides training and curriculum for the fire service to maintain skills and abilities. As prominent as the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program is, it is still an example of continuing education because it does not end in a regionally accredited degree (although, it can be transferred to a college for partial credit toward a master’s degree). Some other examples of continuing education include:

  • College certificate programs
  • Qualified or tested training hours used toward professional recertification
  • Some National Fire Academy classes (e.g. “Command and Control” course)


How is education different from continuing education and training? We have established that training focuses on skills and that continuing education provides information to maintain and update skills and abilities. Education, on the other hand, provides a broader knowledge base, critical thinking skills, and teaches us to rely on research from numerous sources. Education helps us understand the connection between cause and effect; why does action A give us result A instead of result B. Some examples of education include:

  • Earning an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree
  • Completing a certificate program
  • Earning a doctorate or PhD

Each of these learning methods is important to the fire service because each has different outcomes and provides different types of knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is important, within an HRO, to recognize this for two reasons. First, we want to use the appropriate learning method for the outcome we want to achieve. Second, no single method is sufficient by itself. HROs want their employees to be knowledgeable in a variety of areas because it helps bring new ideas and solutions forward. It is as critical to over-learn skills through training as it is to evaluate new ideas and solutions with the critical thinking skills education provides.

Case Study

The following case study is from www.firefighternearmiss.com. The near-miss report, 09-0000990, is not edited. We were not involved in this incident and do not know the department involved so we make certain assumptions based on our fire service experience to relate the incident to the discussion above.

Event Description

Our department was dispatched to a structure fire reported by police who were initially dispatched to a burglar alarm. First companies arrived to find a two story, wood frame multi-use structure with moderate smoke issuing from the structure. After forcing entry, the engine company (three person hose team) entered with an inch and three-quarter attack line and a TIC. The crew reported high heat conditions and indicated that the TIC screen was red! They proceeded to the right and pushed to the rear of the structure with heavy black smoke but no visible fire. A rescue company (2 person team) entered shortly after the engine company. They too reported extreme heat at the floor and a Red screen on the TIC. The rescue crew also proceeded to the right and pushed to the rear. Outside, the IC and ladder company crew observed smoke conditions rapidly changing from laminar light brown smoke to a turbulent black smoke pushing from the entry doorway. At this time, IC attempted to contact the initial engine company without success. Back inside, the rescue crew reached the engine company at the rear wall. They all reported the same high heat conditions with no visible fire. Some confusion occurred when personnel mingled together and at some point, the rescue crew lost contact with each other. The engine captain also lost track of one of his two rookie firefighters. One of the rescue members retreated outside and reported he had lost his partner. At the same time, the engine captain attempted to radio IC that he too had lost a member of his crew and to report the condition encountered inside. Back outside, the IC ordered the ladder company to “vent” a large window on the A Side of the structure. As this window was vented, the ladder crew observed fire at the floor level and it rolled across the room toward the rear of the structure. The captain of the engine observed the fire roll over head and ordered his crew to evacuate. He reported extreme heat and made a hasty exit out of a window. Upon exiting, he reported that he had lost his crew and a MAYDAY was called. Almost immediately, all interior crews were accounted for at the entry doorway. The engine captain sustained 2nd degree burns to his face. No other injuries were reported. Crews quickly regrouped. Later arriving companies were assigned to the fire attack, and the fire was quickly contained.

Lesson Learned

Communications: The interior crews had some difficulty with the radios inside. The radio seemed to work fine. User errors lead to the problem. Better training in the use of the radio will correct this issue. Situational awareness: All personnel on the interior crews failed to recognize the conditions they were entering. While it was during the early morning hours, better education and understanding of fire conditions and behavior would prevent this error in the future. During a critique, the involved personnel recognized the conditions and agreed they should have made some tactical priority changes prior to entering. Decision making: The decision to vent the window once the conditions were recognized was a risky one at best. This action most certainly prevented a flashover that could have resulted in a catastrophic event for the interior crews. However, this decision placed the interior crews in extreme danger. The decision to vent should have been communicated to the interior crews so they could be prepared for the change in the environment. All involved personnel did an extraordinary job and reacted to the changing conditions accordingly. The mayday was called immediately in accordance with department policy and a RIT team was in place and prepared when the MAYDAY occurred. Our department has recently increased training in situational awareness, communications, and size up. This training did aid in recognizing the changing conditions but additional training will occur.

Discussion Questions

1. What is the difference between learning, training, continuing education, and education?

2. Is anyone of the learning methods better than another is and why or why not?

3. The writer connects training with radio use. Why would radio use be an automatic connection to training, based on our article?

4. The writer connects education to fire behavior, fire conditions, and tactics. Why are fire behavior, conditions, and tactics an automatic connection to education?

Potential Discussion Question Answers

1. Learning is a balance of training, continuing education, and education. Training provides skills. Continuing education maintains and/or deepens skills and some knowledge. Education provides knowledge (refer to definitions above for more detail).

2. Our feeling is that each is equally important because each has a different intended outcome. Since each is equally important, focusing on only one aspect of learning is detrimental to a fire service HRO because firefighters are not seeing the whole picture.

3. Radio use is a skill. We really only need to know how to use our radios and it is less important to understand why our radios work (there is a completely separate field of education for understanding why our radios work).

4. To understand how fire behavior and conditions affect tactics, it is necessary to understand the why. Why does tactic A cause conditions to change with a certain type of fire behavior?

Where We Are Going

Our last article introduced learning, the seventh of the eight Reliability Oriented Employee Behaviors (ROEBs) developed by Jeff Ericksen and Lee Dyer of Cornell University (2004). Learning improves the rate of success by over-learning critical tasks and reviewing past successes and failures to find areas of improvement. This article discussed the employee behavior of educate because the proper balance of training, continuing education, and education are critical to the growth of a fire department. Next month’s column begins a series connecting the five HRO principles and eight ROEBs we have talked about over the last year and half to fire service systems we use or will use in the future. We would appreciate any feedback, thoughts, or complaints you have. Please contact us at tailboardtalk@yahoo.com or call into our monthly Tailboard Talk Radio Show on Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio.


Ericksen, J., & Dyer, L. (2004, March 1). Toward A Strategic Human Resource Management Model of High Reliability Organization Performance. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from CAHRS Working Paper #04-02: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cahrswp/9

Craig Nelson & Dane Carley: Tailboard Talk

Craig Nelson (left) works for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department and works part-time at Minnesota State Community and Technical College – Moorhead as a fire instructor. He also works seasonally for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter in Northwest Minnesota. Previously, he was an airline pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership.

Dane Carley (right) entered the fire service in 1989 in southern California and is currently a captain for the Fargo (ND) Fire Department. Since then, he has worked in structural, wildland-urban interface, and wildland firefighting in capacities ranging from fire explorer to career captain. He has both a bachelor’s degree in fire and safety engineering technology, and a master’s degree in public safety executive leadership. Dane also serves as both an operations section chief and a planning section chief for North Dakota’s Type III Incident Management Assistance Team, which provides support to local jurisdictions overwhelmed by the magnitude of an incident.

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