Recruit Training Academy From the Ground Up

By Brian R. Brauer

One of the flagship programs of the Univer-sity of Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) is the Certified Firefighter II (National Fire Protection Association Fire Fighter I) Academy. The Academy program dates back to the early 1970s. The facility’s rural setting allows the burning of Class A materials and a limited amount of exterior Class B fuels to offer a realistic approximation of heat and smoke.

The Academy is a six-week program, encompassing more than 330 hours. Days begin at 0620, when the house watchman reports, and end between 1700 and 1900, whenever the day’s objectives are met. The specific objectives for each day are derived from the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal, whose program objectives for Illinois Certified Firefighter II are drawn from the NFPA standard.

While all certification objectives are taught in the program, they are not the driving force within it. The Institute’s organizational philosophy is “Teaching Firefighters To Do the Work.” In keeping with this concept, we first identified the skills and attitude a new firefighter needs and then arranged the objectives required for certification within this framework. Figure 1 presents a sample of the daily objectives. Figure 2 shows the layout of the first three weeks of the program.


In addition to the Daily Objectives and Schedule, several other documents outline the expectations of recruits in the program and provide a framework for the day’s activities. The Academy draws firefighters beginning their careers from dozens of departments around the state, so it is necessary to identify for the recruits what is acceptable and expected behavior while they are in training. These documents include the following:

1. Rules and Regulations: Just as each department has rules, so does the Academy. They are in addition to the recruit’s home department rules and regulations and address recruit conduct, required academic performance, grooming standards, grounds for dismissal, and program completion requirements.

2. Standard Operating Guidelines: This document opens with the “General Orders” for the program, as well as expected behaviors in fireground evolutions. The index for the Academy SOGs can be found in Figure 3. This document is reviewed on Day One, is referred to daily throughout the program, and serves as the parameters for passing actions on the final practical examination course.

3. Dress Code: Outlined is the dress for classroom, fireground, and formal Academy activities. Daily attire is modeled after station wear, to keep the recruits dressed alike. The recruits wear the navy shirt from their home department.

4. Cleaning Handbook: For younger recruits with no military experience and no experience living outside their family home, there was a need to outline the specific tasks that were involved in the daily cleaning of the fire station. Even jobs as commonplace as emptying trash cans and cleaning the bathroom are as foreign as hose leadouts and basic ladder skills to some new recruits. This document identifies the daily and weekly cleaning tasks that must be accomplished.

5. House Watch Book: This handbook outlines the daily order of operations. A sample of the daily schedule can be found in Figure 4. Each recruit has a day as the house watchman. This watchman has no line responsibilities but is the first person held accountable for daily cleaning and preparation work. This includes apparatus checks, preparing the burn buildings, and housework. The watchman also receives alarms for the class, coordinates the movement of the entire class from classroom to drill ground, and dispatches the “on-duty” recruits to the simulated emergencies. We also use this position to help instill an understanding of chain of command. Each shift of recruits has a shift leader who reports to the house watchman, the watchman reports to the instructors (company officers), and the instructors report to the program director and deputy program director (command officers). Each student rotates through the house watchman position.


The class is run with 24 to 27 recruits. These new firefighters hail from all types and sizes of departments. The recruits are divided among three shifts, with one shift on duty each day. The on-duty shift is responsible for cleaning the classroom and fire station, as well as emergency responses for the day. The outgoing shift stocks the burn buildings and builds fire sets for the upcoming activities. The off-duty shift has no assigned duties but usually is present to assist the duty shifts with their tasks.

The day begins at 0620, when the house watchman reports. The watchman assigns the on-duty shift to the apparatus. A recruit has a predetermined partner, tool assignment, and responsibilies on simulated emergencies. For example, the officer’s side rear jumpseat on the squad is the hydrant man. This recruit has assigned tools and responsibilities for forward and reverse lays, pulling a line, and search. Each of the eight or nine on-duty positions has predetermined tools and tasks to be performed when the company “goes to work.” (See Figure 5.)

From 0630 thru 0700, the daily cleaning, apparatus checks, and burn building setup are accomplished. Then 0700 through 0730 is reserved for daily conditioning. At 0730, a quiz is administered covering the previous day’s assigned topic. From 0800 to approximately 1000, the instructor for the day reviews the topic the recruit read the night before—not a full lecture but a review of the high points from the reading material. Once the classroom objectives are satisfied, the class is moved outside to get hands-on practice that ties in to the classroom session from the morning. The staff was initially skeptical about reducing the classroom time, but we have found that holding the recruits more accountable for their nightly reading and giving them more psychomotor skills practice has been an all-around success. There has been no drop in academic performance.

During the course of the day, additional instructors are brought in, and the house watchman is radioed or telephoned with an emergency dispatch. These planned digressions from the day’s drills allow us to measure the recruit’s ability to transition from a nontimed practice session to a simulated emergency. These fires are varied and structured to be a cumulative measure of how well recruits are taking the individual tasks they are taught and stringing them together into a complete evolution. These daily repetitions of key behaviors help to build skills to perform tasks, working up to complex and multiple tasks. Initially, the fires are small and can be handled with a pump can. As the skill level of the class increases, the drills are expanded to include preconnected hose stretches and ladder work. As the program goes on, these fire evolutions get increasingly complicated, with longer leadouts, more challenging ladder raises, and multiple rooms and floors of fire. Our governing thought with all drills is to “teach for success,” meaning that we tailor the drill so that the recruit is able to identify areas for additional practice and improvement, without casting a negative pall on their learning experience. This is one of the greatest challenges for the instructors—creating effective, challenging simulations that don’t overwhelm the new firefighter.

Week one begins on Sunday afternoon, when the recruits to get to know each other and learn what is expected of them for the next six weeks. The outdoor team-building exercises not only introduce recruits to each other but also allow the instructors to identify the leadership, followership, and cooperative attributes the recruits bring to the program.

The first three weeks are the nuts and bolts of firefighting. Each day consists of two hours of classroom and two hours of related drill in the morning, as mentioned earlier. After a brief lunch, the recruits return for what we call “HLB” (hose, ladder, and breathing apparatus drills). These drills build on previously learned skills and offer the first taste of how individual skills will be integrated to complete a fireground task. For example, individual skills introduced would be climbing a ladder, wearing SCBA, and carrying a tool. The integrated HLB drill would have recruits climbing ladders, breathing off their SCBA while inside the building, and carrying a tool with them up the ladder and as they search. These drills are initially run for the duration of a single bottle per recruit and are gradually increased as their skill level and consumption of air improve.

Skills are graded on a point system. One point is assessed for “minor” errors, five points for “major” errors. Minor errors are those that do not inhibit completion of the evolution or endanger personnel. Selection of a 24-foot ladder when the officer called for a 28-foot ladder would be a minor error, as long as the completion of the task wasn’t impeded by the mistake. A major error would be one that endangers personnel or impairs the fire suppression effort. Building on the previous ladder example, if the recruits selected a 28-foot ladder when ordered to throw a 35-foot, and this mistake led to ventilation or rescue not being completed, five points would be assessed. These points are recorded on a form that recruits keep on their person. Positive comments as well as errors and areas for improvement are documented on these forms, and they are collected weekly to generate feedback to the employing fire chief.

At 30, 60, and 100 points, the recruits meet with the program director and their fire chief to review their progress, document that the recruits understand they are not meeting expectations, and define concrete actions the recruits must take to continue in the program. The point system is used as both a teaching and an accountability tool. While it may seem harsh to measure students with a numerical tool, it helps to ensure a consistent, objective base for evaluation. Mistakes on the real fireground are penalized at a much higher cost.

The third week of the program concludes with a mid-term practical. This exam is a recent addition to the schedule, intended to offer objective, cumulative evaluation of each recruit’s progress. It is our hope to be able to offer specific, concrete feedback to recruits at this halfway point to allow them to focus their out-of-class time on the areas they need to improve.

In the fourth and fifth weeks of the program, the recruits are exposed to longer days and more challenging drills that extend into the evening hours. These “night drills” are a cumulative evaluation tool to measure how well the recruits are integrating individual tasks into complete evolutions; the greater intensity of fire and more challenging forcible entry problems measure individual and group problem solving under stress. By the time they enter the fourth week, most recruits have bought into the culture of the fire service and are willing to do what they are ordered to do to complete their given objectives. However, some recruits need the physical stress and exhaustion of these two weeks to make an effective change. It is no longer uncommon to have someone enter our brotherhood solely for the schedule or benefits. The demands of weeks four and five help us identify those recruits who are not here to serve outside their own jumpseat. Such information is reported back to recruits’ departments in their weekly evaluation.

The program culminates in the sixth week with the final practical exam on Thursday and the final state written exam on Friday morning followed by graduation that afternoon. The final practical exam is a challenging, 37-skill course that measures mastery of fireground skills. With our focus on preparing entry-level firefighters to go to work, this final practical is an accurate tool to ensure that all of our objectives were met. These objectives are determined by the IFSI, exceed the Illinois Office of the State Fire Marshal and NFPA objectives, and ensure that the recruits are capable back-step firefighters before they graduate from our program. To help the recruits prepare, the Academy Standard Operating Guidelines detail the degree of performance required for each task. This document is reviewed with the recruits on the first day of the program and then used to evaluate their success on the last day.

Each week, the program director or deputy program director is in contact with the fire chief for each recruit. This weekly report has a cover page with a summary of what the entire class did for the week and a recruit-specific second page that offers a status report on how each individual recruit is doing in relation to other class members and Academy objectives and expectations.



Buildings. There are three primary live burn structures, consisting of a six-story tower, a two-story commercial building, and a single-family dwelling. In addition, the facility has a two-story, 40-foot-long Saving Our Own© prop (see photo 1), an SCBA training course, a fire station with classroom, and a community that strongly supports the fire service. This community support has allowed us to use acquired structures to enrich the program with actual flat and pitched roofs to open, doors to force, and windows to ventilate. Often, we can have barrel fires within the structure and, more commonly, a live burn of the structure itself. As a fallback, we keep one abandoned mobile home on the training site to be used if no acquired structures exist. This ensures that recruits in each program has the opportunity to perform in actual fire conditions in addition to the simulated Class A burns they experience daily in the program.

Apparatus and equipment. Three engines, one tower ladder, and an articulating boom apparatus make up the Academy’s fleet of apparatus. In addition, two retired engines are available for hose load and leadout practice, and we are anticipating delivery of a retired straight-stick aerial that can be set up as an additional climbing station. Each piece of apparatus is fully loaded with hose, tools, and equipment for response as well as training. We also have additional hose, nozzles, and hand tools as well as a variety of props and simulators.


Staffing. Perhaps are greatest assets are our personnel. The IFSI has three ranks within the instructor core; the Academy utilizes personnel from all three ranks. The lowest rank, assistant field staff instructor, is primarily a support/safety role. These instructors don’t have a large “speaking part” but are learning how to deliver our program. The next rank, associate field staff instructor, plays a larger role in the delivery of the program but does not lecture, lead skill sessions, or serve as the incident commander for simulated fires. The top tier, field staff instructor, plays a leadership role in delivery of the program. These instructors are company officers or above with a minimum of 10 years of fire training experience.

The staff members for the Academy are individually selected and dedicated to the program outside of on-shift responsibilities at their respective fire departments. This arrangement allows for staff that is obligated to the Academy for the full six weeks instead of companies that are just involved in training for a day. There is greater continuity to the program with this approach, and all of the staff wants to be involved in the program.

One technique used to differentiate the instructional staff from recruits is apparel. The dress code for instructors outside of the burn buildings is station wear, but with red shirts and caps. Red was chosen not only because of the visual difference from the navy shirts of the recruits but to help reinforce the concept of rank and chain of command. The recruits address anyone in a red shirt as “instructor.” They do not salute or stand when instructors enter a room but address them by title as they would officers back at their home department.

One administrative assistant, one program assistant, facility support persons, and the facility manager all serve in varying capacities “behind the scenes” to keep the program operating efficiently.


Running a safe, effective program can be expensive. One salaried member of the IFSI faculty oversees the program. In the mornings, only this staff member or one instructor oversees the setup, stretching, and delivering the lecture. During skill rotations, there is generally one station outside with one instructor where the students are at low risk (for example, practice carrying and raising ladders). There is also a second station with one or two instructors where the students are in SCBA with full gear but not in smoke to practice the SCBA maze, searches, or hydrant hookups. The third station is the most intense, both from the training standpoint and number of instructors. This third station is a smoke or fire station, perhaps nozzle techniques, hose movement and suppression, or large-area search. This station operates with two or three instructors, depending on the size of the fire or search area.

“Runs” or responses are staffed with one instructor with the two-recruit engine, one with the three-recruit squad, and two with the four-recruit truck. These positions drive and spot the apparatus, then take over a company officer role. The instructor generally observes without participating in the tasks so the recruits have a better idea of the number of personnel they will have to work with at their home departments. Above these four instructors is one instructor who serves as an IC, one that floats the burn building in a safety role, and a “stoker” in charge of lighting the fires and monitoring conditions to provide a greater margin of student safety.

Costs. The cost for the six-week program is $2,000, exclusive of lodging and any per-diem and travel charges. Dormitory housing is available at $17 per night double occupancy, with reasonable meal pricing. This cost may seem prohibitive for training a new firefighter, but if you look at the investment a department makes in the first year (locally it averages $100,000 or greater), the slightly higher training cost because of travel and lodging is negligible compared with what the Academy program has to offer. Like so many aspects of the fire service, a more significant investment up front will pay greater dividends in the future.

Brian R. Brauer is the firefighting program director at the University of Illinois Fire Service Institute. Among his primary duties are leading and managing the Certified Firefighter II Academy. He is also a 10-year member of the Edge-Scott Fire Protection District in Urbana, Illinois, where he serves as captain. He has a bachelor of science degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago and is an Illinois Certified Instructor III.

Photos by author.

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