By Jon McIvor
When we think of our own recruit fire academy, do we look back at good memories and strong camaraderie, or was it simply a rite of passage that had to be endured to be allowed to work or volunteer with your respective department? Does your fire academy match the culture of your department and make the most efficient use of the time allowed? Do we have motivated instructors eager to pass along solid information, or have we created a dreaded position filled with mandated personnel longing to leave?
Hopefully, you are leaning toward the positive responses and are proud of the new firefighters you are turning out. What follows are some lessons learned from services and classes of numerous academies that might help with developing or enhancing your department’s recruit training program.
I believe solid preparation is the key to almost any endeavor, and a fire academy certainly requires this. Some questions to ask would be the following: What type of school? Paid versus volunteer? Full-time workweeks or nights and weekends? Are you starting with brand new untrained recruits or people with a fire background? How much time will your department allot for the academy, and how many staff members will you have relative to the number of recruits? What are your state’s minimum requirements for the level of firefighter you plan to certify? What textbook will you use? What training facilities and equipment are dedicated to you? Obviously, the answers to many of these questions are dictated by the state of your organization, and your preparation list would certainly be longer and more detailed. However, as you can see, there are many factors to plan for, and the more answers you have in advance will allow for a more productive and beneficial academy.
Having the greatest facilities and best equipment doesn’t translate to success when you have a staff is unmotivated and cares little for their work. The instructors ideally should want to be there, not placed there against their will and left to take their frustrations out on the students. A culture of making the training academy a coveted position will lead to greater success and better recruits.
A technique we have used is to mirror our departments’ special operations positions is that once selected, barring unforeseen circumstances, you will be allowed/expected to stay for a minimum of three years. This advises the applicants that they will not be transferred and ensures that the applicant really wants to be there since they are expected to stay for a three-year commitment. Some incentives, such as a flexible work schedule or a stipend, budge allowing, may need to be built in.
We switched to a four 10-hours-a-day workweek with a rotating day off so instructional staff can have some weekdays off. An added benefit was that this allowed the instructor to begin one hour before the recruits arrived, giving them additional time for classroom or practical setup and to end their workday one hour after the recruits left so that any discussion or administrative work could be completed without interruption.
Another option is to allow a departing instructor to choose the next assignment. Treating the instructional position as a specialty assignment enabled us to develop a culture of excellence that builds on itself: The positions are now sought after to the point that we now hold interviews and instructor candidates go through a selection process. Find the incentives that are important to your people and incorporate them into your program, and you will have no problems finding qualified people.
Planning the School
Once the instructional staff is in place, begin planning the school. Establish a basic timeline so that, at a minimum, all state or federally mandated objectives will be covered so that appropriate certifications are met. If you have not done so already, develop a relationship with your state’s fire department administrator so you will be aware of these requirements and ensure that they are being met and the necessary paperwork is completed and turned in appropriately. Depending on your allotted time, build extra time for those topics that are important to your department and deserve additional time beyond the minimum.
A method that worked well for us was to develop standalone modules for similar topics with complementary information and allot is an estimated number of days or hours. We were able to begin to insert each module where it fit logistically so the flow of information would be coherent. Having each topic built as a module enabled us to plug in the topics where they best fit and where all the equipment or facilities the needed were available. Many states require that certain topics be taught before live fire training; be sure to consider these requirements ahead of time. As you build the module, assign the instructors so they will know well in advance what topics they are teaching.
Once the topics are assigned, the instructor is responsible for developing the training plan that includes lectures and any practical lessons to reinforce in the classroom. Typically, one instructor will handle the classroom lecture, and multiple instructors would be present for the practical exercises. As one instructor lectured, the other instructor would set up for the practical evolutions and review the skills to be taught so that everyone will be on the same page.
As we know, typically there are many ways to accomplish a task; but in a teaching environment, we sometimes need to settle on one or two accepted methods so that students can later be tested for competency. To aid in continuity and presenting with one voice, the topic or lesson instructor would develop a skill sheet for the practical exercises so each instructor will have the required objectives (state/department guidelines, and so on) with a detailed plan of what they were expected to teach and how the students would be tested. This prevented the students from becoming confused, which could happen if the lecture instructor teaches one method and another practical instructor teaches another.
As the class progresses, build in time for the instructors to share personal experiences and methods. They are invaluable, but always make it clear to the students what methods will be used for testing.
The topic instructor would create, in addition to the schedule and skill sheets, a list of equipment, apparatus, or building needs so that the items could be prepped in advance and, more importantly, would be available. This expedites the class on days with practical exercises; during the lecture, the other instructors would use the equipment list to set up for the practical evolutions. In addition, the instructors are given a chance to review the skills prior to the students’ arrival so everyone will be on the same page.
Human Resources Issues
Establish a policy for handling human resources issues involving discipline, injuries, absences, and other issues. Create a handbook that outlines required behaviors and the consequences for noncompliance. We operate under a regional academy. Our handbook contains academy and city policies and procedures that apply to our recruits. This information is printed and presented to the recruits at the beginning of the academy so there is no misunderstanding of what behaviors are expected. Everyone receives a copy. We allot a time for questions and clarifications, after which the recruits sign a statement of understanding, which we collect and keep on file. No one can later claim they were not aware of a specific policy. In this age where the importance of documentation is ever increasing, this sets the appropriate tone from the beginning.
Once the academy has started, give the students a general schedule of events. Although day-to-day activities are not listed in detail to allow some element of flexibility still exists, we found that the schedule containing a weekly list of topics that will be covered enables students to adequately prepare.
After presenting your expectations, it is essential that the academy staff maintain that level and enforce it. The additional time before and after class is an excellent opportunity to work on any disciplinary issues, evaluations, and so on that need to be completed. When you find it necessary to discipline, do it as quickly as possible after the violation of a rule so the message of expectation is reinforced. Sometimes, when instructors are physically separated during the training day or are working on a particular skill set that day, their view of the class can become narrowed. The additional administrative time is a great opportunity for all of the instructors to brief one another on how the class is progressing and to suggest adjustments if needed.
Jonathan McIvor is a captain and nationally registered paramedic with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department (VBFD), where he is assigned to operations, serves as an accreditation manager, is an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, and is a member of VA-TF2. Previously, he was assigned to the VBFD Training Center. He has a BS degree from James Madison University.