Drills and the Four-Step Method of Instruction

By Ron Hiraki
Good firefighters and fire officers know you can’t train or prepare for every situation. You learn and train as much as you can, and you acquire experience to “put tools in your tool box.” Many times you will use standard techniques and procedures, but you will encounter problems and have to adapt “the tools in your tool box.” One way to learn how to adapt is to create and do problem-solving drills. The objective of the training is to learn to adapt when a problem arises in what should have been a standard procedure or operation. Adapting will mean (1) recognizing that there is a problem, (2) remaining calm, (3) recognizing when to repeat the standard procedure or operation and when to do something different, and (4) figuring out how to do something different with the available resources.
You can use almost any standard procedure, drill, or situation to create a problem scenario for a student (person receiving the training). The students should know that this is problem-solving training in which they are expected to take some action to solve the problem. You can introduce a surprise element by not making the problem immediately known to the student. Although you should not actually “break” equipment, you can label it as “broken” by putting a piece of duct tape, medical tape, or fire line tape over a valve, an intake, a discharge, or any other piece of equipment.  

Here are some examples of problem-solving scenarios.

  • The ladder, coupling, appliance, equipment, or tool that you would normally use is missing.
  • The engine company driver is alone and lays reverse and runs out of supply line or large-diameter hose (LDH) 80 feet short of the hydrant.
  • The engine company responds to a fire on the sixth floor of an eight-story building. The standpipe siamese or fire department connection is damaged, and you cannot connect to it.
  • Hoisting or carrying different pieces of equipment up to the first level of a roof and then moving it to another, higher roof.
Sometimes, it may be desirable for the student not to solve the problem. There is a great deal of learning and acquisition of experience that occurs when making a mistake in training. After all, that is one benefit of training or practice–make your mistakes here and not at a real emergency incident. Never make the atmosphere of the training such that a student feels tricked or fooled. This type of training is best in a smaller group where everyone has had a previous opportunity to work or train together, has a common relationship, and is informed of the type of training being offered.
Once you set up or create a problem with the surprise element, start the training scenario and allow the student to work through the situation. Many times, they may surprise you by not only solving the problem but also coming up with a solution that was not known to you. If the student is not immediately able to solve the problem, allow him to continue to try. When the student is out of options, stop the training scenario. Take a few minutes to talk about the problem and possible solutions. Make sure that the student does not feel bad if he did not solve the problem; not solving the problem can be self-motivating for the student. By not solving the problem, the student has helped you demonstrate the need for this training. Additionally, the student has helped provide valuable training for other members of the group as they see the problem and begin to think about how they would react.
Do the training scenario a second time, with the exact same problem. You may want to do this at “half speed” so that you can coach the student through the steps necessary to resolve the problem. This may be especially important with more complex problems. Don’t skip or hurry through this second time. You want to make sure the student has it right and, most importantly, feels comfortable identifying the problem and working through the situation. This coaching at “half speed” is the traditional form of training where the instructor teaches the student. Take an extra minute to ask the students if they have any questions, to review the proposed procedures, and even quiz them about what they would do. Do not introduce any new elements at this time.
Finally, do the training scenario a third time. Make every attempt to do this without any coaching. This allows the students to apply what they have learned. The third training scenario also allows you to evaluate what the student has learned from this training. When the students have successfully completed the third training scenario without any coaching, they can envision a practical application and feel successful. The students will walk away feeling productive and good. 

Many of you remember and continue to use the classic Four-Step Method of Instruction.

  • Preparation
  • Presentation
  • Application
  • Evaluation

You will recognize the first training scenario as a form of preparation. The second training scenario is your presentation to the student. The third training scenario is the student’s application and your evaluation. In this article, we continue to use the Four-Step Method of Instruction, but we add variety and a degree of challenge to firefighters who are competent and comfortable with standard procedures and operations. The best part is “stepping up” and training ourselves and our colleagues to think “outside of the box” when problems arise.

Ron Hiraki began his career as a firefighter in the Seattle (WA) Fire Department, working in a variety of operational and administrative positions leading to his final assignment as Assistant Chief of Employee Development. Completing his career as an assistant chief for a small combination fire department, Hiraki has nearly 30 years of fire service experience in urban and suburban settings. He holds a Master of Science degree in human resources development and is a consultant to a number of public safety agencies for their selection and performance evaluation programs.

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