The Professional Volunteer Fire Department, Part 17: Planning That Drill

By Thomas A. Merrill

As I talk to volunteer firefighters from all across the country—and even in my own hometown—I continue to hear complaints about training drills. In fact, over the course of my Professional Volunteer Fire Department series, the article that has generated the most feedback concerned training. Although some comments are positive, and members talk excitedly about what they learned and how well organized and fun the drill was, far too many firefighters are complaining that their department drills are unorganized and led by uninspired teachers who have not done their homework and were not properly prepared. I find this troubling; I firmly believe that the professional volunteer fire department has a duty and obligation to offer pertinent, well-organized drills.

Understandably, our busy personal lives limit the amount of time that we can dedicate to our volunteer departments. Taking on the additional responsibilities associated with being a department officer further increases the demands and workload placed on us. Planning and running drills is but one of the many tasks we need to accomplish. But it must get done, and departments need to ensure that they have an organized efficient manner for not only running drills, but assigning personnel to do it. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies that you can employ to assist you with the training process and make the drills well coordinated, relevant, and ready to go.

First and foremost, think and plan ahead of time. The time to plan the drill is not the hour before the drill. The time to think of potential obstacles and challenges is not as members arrive at the firehouse. Drill planning should start early; it should be days or weeks ahead of time. It imperative that the drills be well thought-out, planned, and coordinated to deliver the maximum impact and to keep our members motivated to continue attending training sessions.  

Somebody needs to be in charge of training. That being said, he does not have to run every drill. But, a training officer of some type should be in charge of coordinating and assigning drills. He needs to ensure the drills cover established department standard operating procedures (SOPs) and that the training is relevant and pertinent to department operations. He also needs to ensure the instructors clearly understand the topic and are comfortable delivering it. If needed, he must act as a mentor to the instructor(s) and provide advice and important information to help deliver the desired message.

To lessen the burden placed on our officers and instructors, spread the responsibility for teaching drills out among a particular group of firefighters such as firematic officers and seasoned veterans. Whenever possible, pair up a newer officer or trainer with an experienced one so he can learn how to prepare and deliver the drills. Teaming members up is a great way to teach and mentor your department’s next generation of instructors.

ALL officers need to expect to be trainers. Do you want to be an officer? Then be ready to deliver training drills. Planning and running a smooth informational drill not only makes the firefighters better prepared and more proficient but it also makes the trainer a better firefighter because of the time spent researching a topic and rehearsing a particular skill. I also like to tell officers that by teaching drills, they are building their credibility as a knowledgeable, engaged, and competent officer.

No idea what to teach? This is an unacceptable statement. I have heard stories about firefighters standing around in the apparatus bay on drill night trying to think of what to train on. Really? There are more things to cover than time can possibly allow, and books have been written to help develop training drill ideas. Consult these books, read trade magazines, consult the Internet, and discuss training topics with past chiefs and senior members. You will find no shortage of topics—and that’s just to cover the basic bread-and-butter operations.  

There is nothing wrong with planning and developing drills well ahead of time. Try and encourage officers and trainers to work on drills and map them out even if they have yet to be assigned a date. I previously worked on various topics throughout the course of a year even if I had no idea when the topics would be delivered. I always liked to have them in what I called “the hopper”—ready to go or ready to pass off to an officer to deliver.

In addition to lining up drill instructors, the training officer should clearly communicate (there’s that word again) the goals and objectives of the assigned drill with the instructor. If there are particular points that need to be stressed and reinforced, the points should be reviewed early on so the instructor knows he is expected to cover them. This is also an opportunity for the training officer to ensure the instructor is well-versed with the topic, is comfortable teaching the topic, and that the topic complies with established department SOPs.

If the instructor has assistants, the assistants need to be included in the discussion. It is better for all the players involved in training to discuss important information and emphasize the main teaching points ahead of time so everybody operates on the same page. Otherwise, confusion and dysfunction can reign over the training ground. This can distract and demotivate our firefighters and, worse, discourage drill participation, lead to poor attendance, and ultimately hurt our emergency scene performance.

I have heard stories of members being asked to help out when they arrive at the firehouse on drill night. In some cases, this might be okay, but this can catch people off guard and not allow time for preparation. I always liked to line up assistants well ahead of time to keep them involved in the planning process.  

Understandably, with volunteers’ busy personal lives, it can prove difficult and undesirable to schedule additional meetings for drill planning. You can help save time by bringing the training team together when they are all at the firehouse for a type of “company meeting” night. Since they are already at the firehouse, they can meet before or after the event for which they originally came. You can do the same thing after an emergency call response or after another drill.  

There are other ways to save time and lesson the burden on our trainers, such as trainers using e-mail to communicate and review the drill plan. They can also use the age-old method of talking on the telephone. It is disturbing to me when I hear firefighters complain that they never received a response to an e-mail or a text (another way for our trainers to communicate), but they never tried actually picking up a phone and placing a call. By using e-mail and phone calls, you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home.

No matter how it’s done, the key word is communicate. The training officer must communicate with the instructor. The lead instructor must communicate with any assistant instructors. Finally, the instructors must communicate effectively with the students.

Hopefully, by employing some of these strategies, the drills run smoothly and everybody on the training ground is on the same page. Now, it’s time to deliver the drill, which I will cover in the next article.

We expect our firefighters to give up their time to attend training drills. It is only fair to expect our training officers to spend time effectively communicating among themselves while planning and coordinating those drills. Doing so will pay huge dividends for the professional volunteer fire department.


Thomas A. Merrill is a 30-year fire department veteran in the Snyder Fire Department, which is located in Amherst, New York. He served 26 years as a department officer, including 15 years in the chief officer ranks, and recently completed five years as chief of department. He also is a professional fire dispatcher for the town of Amherst fire alarm office. He can be reached at


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