The Seniors Must Teach the Juniors

By Jeff Johnson

Every day on fire trucks across the country, senior firefighter are relied on for decision making during incidents. As company officers, fire apparatus operators, and firefighters, we depend on that experience and decision making to keep us safe. When a junior firefighter is assigned to a company, he arrives with knowledge received from the fire academy or a firefighter training program and, possibly, some previous experience. These junior firefighters received the same basic training as the senior firefighters. However, they do not have the experience and practical application to understand and make decisions like senior firefighters. Junior firefighters fresh from the academy or training program do not have strategic or tactical knowledge but instead they have “task” knowledge. This article will discuss how firefighters gain practical useful knowledge and put it to use.                                                                       

When a firefighter completes basic academy or a training program, he leaves with the basic task knowledge to implement whatever is being called for by his company officer. If we assume anything else, we are assuming falsely.

Academy training is the foundation on which junior firefighters will build their skills, but after its completion, the experience learning begins. Each time a firefighter practices pulling a handline from the engine, removes a ground ladder from a truck to clean it, or removes a cot from the ambulance, he is learning. Senior firefighters and company officers can use these opportunities to teach tactical knowledge. Although it may be simple learning, it is building muscle memory. On arrival at a fire requiring a stretched handline, the firefighter that practiced regularly basic stretching at the firehouse will be more capable and successful in stretching a handline than a firefighter who has not practiced stretching the line.

Firefighters who attend classroom sessions combined with practical hands-on training will reinforce the knowledge desired. One way to show that repetition will improve proficiency is to think about the math problem “2+2”; you immediately had the answer to that equation without even thinking about it, but how did that happen? When you were in grade school, you were taught this math problem, how to solve it and then, through repetition and application, the answer became effortless.  According to Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), there are two systems in the mind: system 1 and system 2. System 1 operates automatically and quickly with no effort. The “2+2” math problem above is the example of system 1 thinking. Now, look at the math problem “275 × 125.” Now, you know how to solve the problem. However, you do not know the answer without thinking about it and working through it; this is system 2 thinking.

Now, think of it in terms of fireground tasks. A firefighter that has conditioned his system 1 thinking through repetitive practice will stretch a handline more effectively and quickly because of the memory (system 1) he has built. Now, on arrival, the same firefighter steps off the rig, but instead of seeing a fire from a building with which he is familiar, he sees smoke coming from a rolled-over tanker truck. System 2 thinking tells this firefighter that he has something that lacks memory and repetitive knowledge, and he is now searching for a possible solution. If a situation is unfamiliar, sometimes the solutions provided are the best “closest” solution to the problem from previous incidents. The only way a firefighter effectively begins operating on this type of incident is if he has been trained in this type of incident and trained with practical memory-building evolutions. This firefighter will not clearly enough recall the 50-slide presentation on rolled-over tanker emergencies to jump into tactical decisions. These are the types of incidents where senior firefighters with more experience and knowledge must lead the way and help identify the solution. To make sound decisions at incidents requires experience, knowledge, and practical training.

For example, let’s look at a house fire. A less experienced firefighter enters a structure with smoke showing. Alongside the firefighter are the more senior firefighters and company officers. Now, this junior firefighter makes his way down a hallway with heavy smoke, no visibility, some heat, and lots of noise from his beating heart. Firefighters from other companies are on the radio reporting their assignments and conditions they are encountering. We have all been there, right? But why, when we are scared to death, did we keep moving down that hallway while every fiber in our body is saying, “the fires in the drill tower in no way fully prepared me for this?” Because we had our senior firefighters and company officers right there encouraging us, telling us, “kid, we got smoke, but no heat; keep moving.” Or, the officer says, “the fire is located in front of us; you’re doing good.” That was a learning moment that not only will stay with the junior firefighter forever but it will expand his knowledge and experience base for the next time he is on the handline and, eventually, when he becomes the senior firefighter.

A perfect example of this is a story by Gary Klein about a fire where a lieutenant and his firefighters were advancing a handline into a kitchen. Once they made the kitchen, the lieutenant told his nozzle firefighter to open the line and knock down the base of the fire, which he did. But something strange happened; the fire flared back up just as they had found it. Something else was missing, too; the lieutenant could not put his finger on it, but something was not right (a gut feeling), so he ordered his crew out of the kitchen area immediately. Within seconds of leaving the kitchen, the floor collapsed into the basement, which was a raging inferno.

After the fire was out, the firefighters asked their lieutenant what it was that told him to have them back out. He said he realized that the fire should have stayed down if they were hitting its seat. This fire was quiet; he could not hear any sounds associated with a burning fire. Here, the lieutenant was describing years of experience and knowledge that led to a gut feeling of something not being right. The years of training and experience from practical application along with senior firefighters and officers having his back came into play and probably saved his firefighters’ lives.

Every firefighter that goes to any type of incident creates a mental file that will be stored for future recall. The more incidents, the more files created, and things that are practiced or used more often will be more readily accessible. Any incident is a teaching moment, and officers and senior firefighters should take the opportunity to teach. Our responsibility as leaders and senior members is to train these inexperienced firefighters everyday and prepare them for being the future senior firefighters and company officers.

So, how do you train to build that experience? You can do this through the following three ways. Let’s begin with using the simple four-step process to build practical and muscle memory. The steps are as follows:

  1. Explanation.
  2. Demonstration.
  3. Application.
  4. Evaluation.

The drill I have chosen is stretching the attack line. First, start with the explanation. We stretch the handline the way we do is to show that your goal is to have the fewest kinks and bends while placing the nozzle and first coupling at the entry point chosen. For those who operate with small staffing, the explanation might be that you stretch the handline this way because you have one person to stretch the line, and this is the most effective way we have found that one person can stretch.

The next step is the demonstration. This is the practical performance of the skill you are teaching. Physically stretching the line in a slow, methodical process—showing and explaining the steps—make the stretch successful. This is the portion of the training where questions will be asked to make as clear as possible what is expected and how the stretch should look.

The next step is the application process, which is the most critical portion; this is where what has been taught and shown is applied. In this step, the firefighter uses the technique and steps shown during the explanation and demonstration steps to stretch the line. If, at any point, there is an error, you must stop the stretch and correct the error. Once you have demonstrated the stretch properly, the firefighter must practice this stretch over and over again until he can perform it without hesitation.

The final step of the process is the evaluation, i.e., the firefighter performs the stretch effectively without errors. Remember, amateurs practice until they get it right, while professionals practice it until they cannot get it wrong. The next type of training is designed for mental training to build scenarios with which a firefighter can use to make critical fireground decisions.

You can build scenarios using technology as basic as the white board or as advanced as the computer-based simulators. The best way to begin this training is to give a scenario such as a commercial building fire. During this scenario, describe the building construction, the type of occupancy, the time of day, and the conditions on arrival. Draw out the exterior views and interior floor layouts. An example would be a three-story, type 4 warehouse structure that is occupied by a pool chemical company with light smoke showing from the second-floor B side. Within this scenario are many small teaching points such as asking how is the type 4 structure built? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a structure built this way? With this being a three-story building, are you concerned about elevators and movement of equipment and personnel? With this type of occupancy showing smoke, what are the considerations? How are you going to stretch the line and to where? And, once you have stretched the handline, what do you expect to see?

A senior firefighter can give vivid answers to these questions that help build memory files for younger firefighters. Using the simulation, the firefighter will begin building knowledge through making decisions based on the information provided. To add real-time experience, have the senior person pitch in some situations where the firefighter has to make a change in his thinking, asking himself questions such as, “When I enter the first-floor corridor, where do I think the stairs will be located?” The firefighter would then respond with their thoughts, only to be told by the senior firefighter that the stairwell is not located there. How does the firefighter respond to this information? I call this type of training “adaptive fireground decision making.” Here, you are creating is opportunities for the firefighter to use critical thinking to create a memory of a problem and then find out how he solved the issue. We all know and understand that the fire we sized up on arrival is not the same fire when we finally are in place and ready to make our attack.

The last way to gain experience and knowledge is to perform after action reviews when the fire is out. The officer should lead personnel through the building, describing the conditions encountered and the actions made for those conditions. Look at the building layout, where the fire started and how it spread. Recognizing the things that did and did not go well through questions and answers of the companies involved creates impactful learning moments.

This training can also take place in the location of a previous incident on a different shift. The company officer can conduct a walkthrough and discuss the same things mentioned above and then question the officers and personnel that did respond to the incident to see how the two groups would handle the situation. Although some claim that they do not have proper training facilities or their department doesn’t provide that type of training for them, there are unlimited opportunities for company officers and senior firefighters to train firefighters for incidents; particularly, incidents that are low frequency/high consequence in nature.           

You grow into your life’s calling as a firefighter every day you go to the station and get on that engine or truck. You learn every day when you pull equipment off such as handlines, appliances, and hand tools and go over them, learning how to use them properly. You learn every day when you attend a class to expand your knowledge base. You learn every day when you ask why and how decisions were made, and then practice that knowledge.

As a company officer or senior member, you must remember Benjamin Franklin’s immortal quote, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn.” The junior firefighters are there, and they are ready to learn and be involved!

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of Marjory Collins.



Kahneman, D. Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York, NY (2011).

Klein, C and Clinton-Cirocco. Recognition Primed Decision (RPD). Klein and Associates: Fairborn, OH (1986).


Jeff Johnson is a 27-year fire service veteran and a battalion chief with the Kansas City (MO) Fire Department, assigned to midtown. Johnson has served as a firefighter, fire apparatus operator, and captain before being promoted to battalion chief. He is an adjunct instructor with Blue River Community College’s Fire Science program and a certified Missouri Fire Instructor. Johnson has a master’s degree in public administration and has presented at various conferences. He will be presenting at FDIC 2014 in Indianapolis. You can follow Jeff on Twitter @Jefffire89.



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