Three Options for Training Rookie Volunteer Members


For many combination and all-volunteer fire departments across this country and Canada, one of the most daunting challenges is how to effectively train their new volunteer members. Balancing the initial training needs of new members against the time available has always been a challenge, but it has become even more difficult in today’s society with the increasing time demands of work and family on prospective members coupled with the increase in training and response demands on volunteer firefighters. This article presents combination or volunteer fire officers with some rookie training options for use in this struggle with time.

An important consideration associated with this topic is, when will the volunteer rookie be able to ride the apparatus and respond to calls? Holding new members back from the fireground while they complete a basic level of training not only may discourage them but, in some cases, may lead them to leave the fire service before the volunteer rookie training period ends. This is especially true if they perceive the delay to be excessive. For smaller departments, the loss of just one new volunteer member who may work out to be a fine firefighter can have a significant operational impact. This is certainly true in smaller communities, such as in both of my northwest Louisiana volunteer departments, which see a very limited number of potential new members each year.


Make the Sale: Recruiting Volunteers


The Volunteer Firefighter Training Crisis—and a Solution

In large part, the answer to the above question will depend on any current standard operating procedures (SOPs) detailing what rookie firefighters can and cannot do; but, of course, those SOPs can be revised by the department leadership so they will work with any newly developed training program. The length of the “no-ride” period is determined by the number of tasks the volunteer rookies are expected to perform on the fireground—the fewer the number of tasks, the shorter the “no-ride” period. In a combination or volunteer department covering a smaller community, this may not be a significant issue since the task inventory, which we will discuss in detail later, may be limited by the department’s operations or building and occupancy stock. In this situation, not having a wide base of skills, especially if there is significant supervision available, will likely not have a major impact on crew effectiveness.

However, in a busier combination or volunteer department with a wider variety of structures and occupancies and, hence, a greater list of commonly performed tasks, allowing an early ride-out period for the volunteer rookies could be problematic. The volunteer rookies may not have enough skills early in rookie training to be able to operate effectively as company members because they cannot operate at real-time speed in the variety of fireground situations they may encounter. On the other hand, allowing the volunteer rookies to ride out as soon as is feasible will provide them with more opportunities to practice known skills during responses and to train on new skills under the supervision of experienced members and officers.

Your department must weigh the advantages of providing rookies with real-world experience during the training period vs. possibly negatively affecting crew effectiveness. The level of supervision company officers or senior members can provide is an important consideration when making this decision. The officers responsible for developing the training program must consider all of the variables.

What Do You Want the Training to Achieve?

The recruit training program will be most successful if it is based on the needs of the department and the members. Before deciding on a program, consider the following questions:

  • What tasks do you expect the members to be able to perform at the completion of the rookie volunteer training program and while riding as rookies?
  • How quickly do you expect them to perform these tasks while operating on the fireground?
  • Under what level of direct supervision do you expect them to work? What level of supervision is available within your organization?
  • Considering the free time of your potential volunteer base, how long of a training period can you allot?

Next, identify some of the variables that may factor into developing the details of the volunteer member training program: call volume; types of calls; other time demands such as fundraisers, standbys, work details; current departmentwide training schedule and training requirements; availability of department instructors; availability of training props for hands-on components; availability, travel time, and cost of state-offered rookie training programs; and the likelihood of delivering your rookie training program in cooperation with mutual-aid departments.

During my 40-year fire service career as a fire department instructor, training officer, and chief officer in several suburban and rural volunteer and combination departments in Vermont; New York; Massachusetts; and, currently, Louisiana, I have had experience with three types of volunteer rookie training programs. From the perspectives of a regional fire school instructor, a state fire training agency adjunct instructor, a National Fire Academy contract instructor, and a trustee of training for a local F.O.O.L.S. chapter, I have observed the pros and cons of each. Each of the three options is discussed below.

New members should receive cognitive and manipulative training on all hose and appliances they are expected to use.
Rookie training should include live fire training at the introductory and, later, more advanced levels. This may be performed in burn cells or in acquired structures that have been properly prepared.

(1) New members should receive cognitive and manipulative training on all hose and appliances they are expected to use. (2) Rookie training should include live fire training at the introductory and, later, more advanced levels. This may be performed in burn cells or in acquired structures that have been properly prepared. [Photos 1-3 courtesy of Bienville Parish (LA) Fire District 3; photo 4 courtesy of Bossier Parish (LA) Fire District 1 staff.]

Option 1: Firefighter I Certification

This option is the most time consuming for new volunteer rookies and the department or the agency delivering the training program, but it is also the most comprehensive and delivers well-trained and well-rounded firefighters. In some states, this is the only option because the state requires that all firefighters, including volunteers, have this certification to operate as firefighters.

For career firefighters, obtaining this certification or a department equivalent is an expected part of the process. It is likely they will complete this training at a department- or a multidepartment-run academy or by attending a state-run fire academy while being paid. In some cases, the department may deliver the training in-house while the students work their assigned shifts at the station. Although this requires dedication even for career recruits, the fact that they are receiving a paycheck and benefits during the process puts them in a far different boat than a new volunteer member who must obtain the same certification.

For volunteer members, who are likely employed full-time outside of the fire service, the most likely scenario is that new volunteer members will have to attend classes in the evenings and on Saturdays. The training could take up to eight months to complete and would include the required incident command, hazardous materials, and basic first aid preclass components. There may also be significant travel time if the class is conducted by an agency other than the member’s home department. In addition, significant cognitive knowledge study and hands-on practice time are required to pass the testing and achieve certification. For a volunteer juggling full-time employment, sometimes in excess of the basic 40-hour workweek, and family commitments, this can pose some significant challenges. In many cases, this training requirement is not workable and keeps many potential volunteers from applying.

This option also requires significant commitment from the department or departments involved, especially if the instructors are also volunteers. Delivering the class will necessitate multiple experienced and certified instructors for class and practical evolutions, supervision for student practice time, curriculum development, planning, and class preparation time.

It entails the availability of the appropriate facilities for conducting the ladder, search, rapid intervention, and live fire behavior and fire attack drills required by the Firefighter I curriculum. If these facilities are not available, possibly arrangements could be made with the state fire training agency to make applicable mobile props available or to use the training facilities of other local departments.

In many of the departments in which I have worked, the volunteer students began to ride apparatus and make calls roughly halfway through the Firefighter I curriculum. The rationale is that at this point, the students have gained enough baseline cognitive knowledge and hands-on skills to participate under experienced supervision in limited operational roles.

In other situations, especially where state law or statute is involved, departments do not allow full participation as a firefighter until the class and testing have been successfully completed. This approach minimizes risk and liability to the department, but it also delays the member’s responding or functioning beyond the role of an observer on the fireground.

Some departments allow the rookie volunteers to ride as observers soon after the class starts. Although this necessitates a clear understanding on the part of the company officers and the rookies as to what they can and cannot do, it can be extremely valuable to the members and the department when proper supervision is available. Again, this involves primarily observation and very limited participation; additional operational participation may be allowed as the students progress through the program. The department should have written department policies and procedures covering this issue.

In smaller communities or rural departments, some of the skills taught during the Firefighter I class may not be needed or be especially relevant. Leaders must consider that new members’ time is limited and is being consumed by learning and practicing skills they may rarely or never use.

Another approach is not to require Firefighter 1 certification for initial rookie training or members volunteering at the rank of firefighter; however, it is required for promotion to lieutenant or captain.

Overall, although Firefighter I and, possibly, Firefighter II certification as the initial training requirement will provide the department with a volunteer rookie firefighter capable of stepping into a wide range of firefighting and rescue situations, the time commitment is considerable. Some volunteers may be able to complete this training, but others will find it a burden because of a lack of time.

When performing rookie training, it’s critical that the instructors take the time to provide clear expectations and directions at the beginning of all evolutions.

(3) When performing rookie training, it’s critical that the instructors take the time to provide clear expectations and directions at the beginning of all evolutions.

Option 2: Mini Schools

This option is a compromise between Firefighter I certification and the Train-As-You-Go volunteer rookie training option, discussed later. It requires an up-front training commitment by the new member, but it does not eat up the 150-plus hours required by Firefighter I. These programs can be department- or state-mandated and can range from a 20- to 40-hour program to 60 hours or more, as was the case of my previous suburban volunteer department outside of Burlington, Vermont.

In that case, the department had run a 20- to 25-hour Basic Apprenticeship class since the 1970s for all new members. In the mid-1990s, the department leadership determined that the course was no longer adequate to meet the changing district demographics and firefighting situations being encountered by the members. Among the changes was an increasing number of large-footprint and multilevel hotels, offices, and commercial development. A committee developed a 65-hour rookie class based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications. The program focused primarily on firefighter safety, local building construction, fire behavior, personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), hydrant-based and rural water supply operations, laddering, search, and residential fire attack operations.

The department invited the two departments most commonly used for mutual aid to join in the program. At that time, we were running a significant amount of automatic mutual aid on brush fires, alarm trips, smoke investigations, and reported structure fires. After a few minor hiccups during the first year of delivery, the program has proven to be very effective. In fact, it has served as the basis for a countywide new volunteer member training program being delivered on a regular basis.

In my department, the new volunteer members were not allowed to make runs until they successfully completed the class. In some cases, they were allowed to make the fireground in support or postincident roles such as changing SCBA cylinders, setting up lighting, picking up or loading hose, or placing SCBA back into service after the incident.

The class, which generally ran two to three months, was delivered two nights per week and on selected Saturdays, which were used primarily for hands-on evolutions. The new volunteers were required to attend 80 percent of the classes and had to pass written and practical testing on the completion of the class.

They were also required to continue to attend the regularly scheduled department training night, which at times was used to deliver components of the class. If they failed the final written or practical tests, they were allowed to take the tests for a second time after a period of remediation. If they failed either of the tests a second time, and some did, they were generally offered noninterior firefighting, driver, or support volunteer positions.

Some may feel that this type of a program compromises firefighter safety because it does not meet the full NFPA 1001 standard. I do not agree. It is true that not all NFPA 1001 skills were included in the program, but it did contain the vast majority of the everyday residential firefighting tasks new members were expected to perform in our response area, and they were tested on those skills per NFPA 1001 criteria before being allowed to respond on the apparatus and operate on the fireground. In addition, they were well supervised once they were allowed to respond; they were paired with an officer or a senior member on the fireground until the department was confident that they had grasped the skills and were able to apply them safely and effectively in actual fireground operations. The commercial building firefighting and alarm investigation skills taught during the class were supplemented by department-level training on scheduled drill nights.

This type of program can be delivered by a single department exclusively for its new volunteer personnel, but there are significant advantages in delivering it in a multiagency format such as described above. First, it enlarges the class base and makes it worthwhile to run the class more often, which will reduce the waiting time for those wanting to start the class. Also, it enlarges the instructor pool, which increases the level of subject matter expertise for the class. It also gives newer instructors a greater opportunity to deliver classes and increase their experience and skill. It may also reduce “instructor fatigue,” as multiple agencies share the instructional load.

It also creates a common tactical and skill base, allowing for a greater level of interoperability, reducing delays and errors caused by incompatible fireground operations when operating together. It will likely also increase firefighter safety and allow members from different agencies to work on the same task or function with a reduced risk of injury because they all will be functioning on the same page.

However, there are also challenges associated with the multidepartment rookie volunteer training model. Probably the biggest issue is that it forces the departments involved in the training program to develop a single curriculum based in great part on common fireground procedures. Departments that may already be operating together from a “common script” may not experience problems, but for departments in areas that operate differently, a successful multiagency training program may necessitate significant changes in department culture, attitude, and maybe even leadership.

Another issue that may create problems is conflicting scheduled drill nights. Selecting the same drill night for all the departments involved would be ideal, which also could be difficult to accomplish.

The final issue involved with developing and delivering a multiagency volunteer rookie class is determining what baseline knowledge and skills will be delivered. This will not be a significant challenge in districts with a homogenous building construction, occupancy, and hazard base as it would be for departments with differing response area demographics. In addition, for departments that offer a differing set of specialized responses such as vehicle extrication, technical rescue, water/ice rescue, or hazardous materials response, determining what, if any, of those operations will be listed as a basic or baseline skill to be taught during the rookie class could prove to be a daunting task.

Generally, the most practical way to handle this is to have each department develop a task inventory of the fireground tasks and associated skills the newer department members most commonly perform. Comparing these lists will identify common tasks and functions. Those skills that are unique to departments and are not covered in the group training can be taught at the department level at the completion of the class.

Example: Selecting Curriculum for Three-Department Training Program

During this process, remember that the focus of the rookie class is to teach basic entry-level skills. For example, my department covered a primarily suburban area with a number of townhouse and garden apartments, a medium-sized college campus with multistory dorms and classroom buildings, a large number of small stores, fast food restaurants, a hospital, multiple three- to five-story office buildings and hotels, and a few medium-sized manufacturing and warehouse properties. We also covered a rural area with a large number of lakeside year-round and seasonal homes of varying sizes, some with significant access and water supply issues. The second department involved covered a similar district, except without the college campus and fewer commercial multistory buildings and warehouse occupancies. The third department involved covered a small city with tightly packed multistory residential properties; mixed-use properties; typical urban business occupancies; and several (sprinklered) Type IV mill structures renovated into offices, retail space, and apartments. All three departments ran truck companies and were heavily invested in strong truck company operations.

This variety of occupancies proved a significant challenge to those who developed and delivered the training program, but after looking at the fireground activities the departments had in common, a compromise was reached, and an effective program covering the needs of all three departments was put in place. The program focused primarily on single- and multistory single-family residential and townhouse fire operations since that represented the vast majority of all three agencies’ fires. It was also determined that because of the large number of alarm trips and commercial smoke investigations (most of which were determined to be false) handled as mutual-aid responses, basic fire alarm system design, basic sprinkler/standpipe operations, and common multiagency fire alarm/smoke investigation procedures would be covered in the class as well. All other commercial building fire operations would be handled through department training nights or common mutual-aid training after the completion of the class.

Certainly, what you choose to cover is entirely dependent on your response area. For example, if my current departments in Louisiana were to design a similar program, we would have to spend far more time on rural water supply operations since we have far fewer hydranted areas and far more time on brush fire and interface operations because our most frequent responses are wildfires that are fast burning and unpredictable when compared to fires involving the typical northeastern fuels.

On the flip side, we would likely spend far less time covering second-story operations because most homes in our area are single-story structures and there are no townhouses or garden apartment buildings. We would also likely delete the sprinkler/standpipe components because we have no multistory commercial buildings with standpipes and have only one sprinklered structure. We also spend very little time on commercial alarm investigations because we have a very limited number of buildings with alarm systems and responses to alarm trips are rare.

Developing the curriculum will likely require compromise on the part of all the agencies involved. The process may not be completed overnight, but with the cooperation of the leadership, the multiagency rookie training class approach can have some significant long-term benefits.

This model has been the most effective for training rookie volunteer members; it delivers a reasonable amount of fireground skills in a reasonable time. In addition, the skills taught are based on local experience and local building construction, occupancy, and fireground operations.

“Parking lot” hose and fire attack evolutions can prove to be valuable and effective when introducing rookie members to the art of hose handling and fire streams.

(4) “Parking lot” hose and fire attack evolutions can prove to be valuable and effective when introducing rookie members to the art of hose handling and fire streams.

Option 3: Train As You Go

This is the most common way of training new volunteer members in the volunteer and combination fire service. It involves new members being trained alongside the existing members of the department at weekly, biweekly, or monthly scheduled drill nights. This method may be the easiest as it involves no significant additional effort on the part of the department and no additional time on the part of the rookies beyond regular drill attendance, but it is also the least effective. The good news is that additional elements and components can be added to improve the model’s effectiveness.

The training drills are divided into two categories: rookies and experienced members. The more fundamental aspects of a topic are taught at the basic (rookie) level; the more advanced material is taught to the experienced personnel. My combination department uses this technique. It delivers quality, experienced-based training and positively affects drill attendance. The training staff may choose to add an intermediate skill level, which, of course, would require more instructors, resources, and possibly training props.

This option necessitates the development of multiple objectives and lesson plans; additional instructors; and, depending on the evolution, additional safety officers. You may also need multiple apparatus and multiple training props. A smaller department may find this multilayered approach challenging because of the added resource needs. It should consider combining training with other departments.

Additional rookie-only training could be scheduled once, twice, or three times a month as a supplement to the department’s scheduled training nights. This option allows the rookies to have additional time on their own to practice and perfect the skills learned during weekly training. The department’s instructors and senior staff will have to commit extra time to the volunteer rookie training program. A combination department will be able to handle this additional training more easily because it has a full-time staff that can deliver the additional components while on duty. Having the full-time staff allows on-duty personnel to deliver supplemental one-on-one or small-group rookie instruction, especially if the rookies are allowed to ride out.

Scheduled drill nights for the volunteer rookies can be supplemented with additional rookie-only drill time or computer-, Internet-, or text-based training. Obviously, this approach would be most effective if the volunteer has access to a computer or wireless device outside of the fire station. The program should have a verification or testing component to verify that the rookie read and comprehends the material. That can be built into the computer-driven training or delivered at the fire station after the rookie has covered the materials. If your department uses a point system for time spent training, the verification process can also be used to award points. My combination department uses this method. All new members are required to complete a computer-based Firefighter I training program to complete the probationary process.

A downside to a computer-based system is the cost of the program and technology needed to operate the system. This can be a significant challenge for a smaller department with funding issues.

Another challenge is the ability of a smaller department to provide a member with the training to deal with system issues on a consistent basis. If problems with the system cannot be quickly and correctly addressed, volunteer rookies may stop using it.

Skills Checklist

A skills checklist or a task book is recommended for all three options. The ability to track skills in a volunteer rookie training system is important, but it is especially important when using the train-as-you-go option. It is less structured than the other options and does not use ongoing grades or skill testing. These systems track the students’ progress and provide the instructors with a way to monitor students’ accomplishments at any point in the training. If possible, the checklist or task book should be in electronic form so it cannot be easily lost or damaged.

In my combination department, a rookie skills checklist must be completed at the end of the probationary process. The skills range from basic tasks such as identifying and locating basic tools on the apparatus to changing SCBA cylinders, using a radio, loading and coupling hose, donning all PPE and SCBA within two minutes, completing water supply evolutions, demonstrating the ability to perform basic vehicle extrication operations, and performing fire attack operations in live fire evolutions. Any senior firefighter or officer can sign off on the skill; the process typically takes six to eight months to complete. The rookies are also required to complete Incident Command System 100 and 200. The final component is a written test on Firefighter I cognitive materials and departmental policies and operations.


When mentors are assigned to rookie members to answer their questions, show them the way, and monitor their progress, the rookies’ chances of success greatly increase. Volunteering for even a slower, smaller volunteer department can at first be a daunting proposition. Without somebody to show the way, many new members get lost, confused, or frustrated and quit before they complete the process. Mentors must have the complete trust of the department leadership, as they likely will become the face of the organization to the new members and be the people the volunteer rookies will go to when a question or a problem arises.

Mentors must have the time to dedicate to the volunteer rookies and must want to be mentors. A chief could force somebody into the role of mentor, but mentors will not be successful unless they want the responsibility. Mentors should be company officers or senior members who fully understand department vehicles, equipment, SOPs, tactics, response policies, and any other areas about which volunteer rookies may have questions. Assigning a mentor who cannot answer these questions is setting up the volunteer rookie for frustration and quite possibly failure. It is not recommended that multiple volunteer rookies be assigned to one mentor unless that person has a tremendous amount of time available.

If you are starting a mentoring program, develop a written set of policies, procedures, and training materials. This will ensure consistent expectations of all the members in the mentoring program and, possibly more important, that consistent information is delivered to all the volunteer rookies. Templates for mentoring programs established in other departments can be found on the Internet. You can modify them to reflect your department’s expectations and policies.

It is vital that all volunteer rookies in a combination or an all-volunteer department receive adequate entry-level training before running calls or while responding. Without this strong introductory training, they likely will not succeed as firefighters, will have inadequate skills, and may present a significant safety risk to the organization. It is the department’s responsibility to determine the level of training new members require and how that training will be delivered. Factors that go into this decision include the number and types of runs the departments make; what services are delivered; and the training resources available including staffing, facilities, time, and funding.

It is also critical that departments look at the option of multidepartment volunteer rookie training programs. Departments with limited training staff, resources, or time often produce a higher quality of training for new members when they combine efforts with other departments. Take the time to train your volunteers effectively, as they are the future of your department.

ROBERT CALLAHAN has been in the fire service for almost 40 years. He is the fire prevention officer and a captain with Bossier Parish (LA) Fire District 1 and the training officer and a captain with Webster Parish (LA) Fire District 7. He is the former assistant chief with Webster Parish (LA) Fire District 3. He is an adjunct instructor with the Louisiana State University Fire Training Institute, a contract instructor with the National Fire Academy, and a district representative for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network. He has instructed at conferences throughout Louisiana, including at the Louisiana Arson and Fire Prevention Association Conference, the LSU-FETI Officer Conference, the LSU-FETI Municipal School, the Louisiana Fire Chiefs Association Annual Conference, and the F.O.O.L.S. Brothers of the Boot events.

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