TRAINING DRILLS FOR LINE OFFICERS
It’s the monthly officers meeting in an average-size volunteer fire department. Among the topics up for discussion on the floor are the budget, attendance at meetings and drills, the past month’s alarms, and an upcoming fund-raiser. Each officer has the opportunity to speak about problems or topics of interest.
When it is the training officer’s turn to speak, he talks at length about the upcoming drill to be held in the downtown section of the community. His presentation includes a detailed account of what is expected of each officer, according to the apparatus in which the officer responds to the scene. All aspects of the drill are laid out in advance so that no surprises are encountered and no mistakes are made the night of the big drill. After all, the press might be there, and a crowd of curious onlookers is sure to gather. Department members want the drill to be as close to the “real thing” as possible.
THE LINE OFFICER TRAINING “GAP”
Unfortunately, however, unlike scheduled training exercises, fires do not follow set plans. Knowing how to deal with the “unpredictables” on the fireground can determine an operation’s success. Learning how to overcome the obstacles that can arise on the fireground can be achieved only through training and drills. In many cases, however, these learning opportunities are not widely available for an important segment of department personnel — the line officers who hold the middle officer ranks.
Most rookies, on joining a fire department, are required to attend at the minimum an essentials course in basic firemanship. Other courses take them through the varied tasks of firefighting. Those who aspire to the chief officer ranks have available to them advanced courses in areas such as incident command, management, and administration.
Line officers usually find that they have two instruction paths available to them: the “basic” courses they already have taken and the courses for those aspiring to be department chief, which are structured for a perspective other than that suited to the line officers’ needs. Department drills can be used to fill this training void.
THE PARTICIPANT VS. EXECUTOR DRILL
Many fire departments plan and conduct their drills in the manner described above. But all this type of drill tests is the line officer’s ability to follow directions. It does not develop or reinforce the officer’s ability to make decisions on the fireground. Simply changing one aspect of the customary drill will provide your line officers with the opportunity to participate in the drill instead of merely executing a plan that had been adopted at a department meeting.
Training topics should be taken from a “master” plan chosen by the department’s chief. The plan should be comprised of evolutions to increase skill and proficiency in firefighting functions. As classes are conducted for functions such as using and caring for SCBA, placing ladders, stretching hoselines, and conducting ventilation, however, provisions should be made to make line officers aware that in addition to knowing how to perform these tasks, they also must be ready to lead the personnel under their command with regard to the when, where, how, and why of each job. In other words, the training should incorporate teaching middle officers how to manage at the tactical level.
One modification that can enlarge the scope of the customary drill to include management at the tactical level is to have the department chief and training officer plan a drill using the following format instead of discussing the drill with all officers beforehand:
- Choose a target building.
- The officers responsible for setting up the drill visit the site and discuss the strategies and accompanying tactics appropriate for the building.
- The officers determine how the fire will be fought using the department’s resources.
- Information about the fire scenario is recorded on individual file cards, to be given to each responding appa-
- rat us or officer.
- At the time of the drill, line officers and crews are assigned to apparatus.
- The officer in the first-due apparatus is given a card describing the initial radio communication from dispatch (for example, “Engine 1, respond to 123 Elm Street for a reported fire at ABC Bakery”).
- The officer’s training in the 13 points of size-up should begin with the receipt of the alarm. The officer should develop a mental picture of the neighborhood and structures located within it on the way to the “incident.”
- Additional file cards are given to other apparatus at intervals to duplicate response patterns.
THE FIRST OFFICER
As the first company arrives at the scene, the officer is handed a second card describing conditions on arrival: “heavy smoke condition 1st floor, no visible fire, reported night watchman still inside.” The fire belongs to the the first officer on the scene. Drawing on the department’s SOPs and drill evolutions, the first officer begins the initial fire attack. It is this officer’s responsibility to get the first line in operation and to decide where the line should be placed and the objectives to be accomplished.
At the same time, the first officer must worry about water supply, laddering, ventilation, the safety of the operating forces, and whether additional help is needed. As the incident commander, the first officer also should be constructing a mental tactical plan based on size-up.
As other trucks arrive, the first officer assigns duties as needed. These assignments should be based on what already has been accomplished and what ideally should be accomplished next. How well the officer understands fireground operations as they pertain to the department’s SOPs will be reflected in the decisions made. Other arriving officers must be able to see what has been done and what still must be accomplished. They should take supporting roles based on the department’s SOPs.
The obstacles presented can be kept simple for junior lieutenants or made complex for captains. They can be changed at any time just by handing a new card to the IC. The obstacles can take the form of a missing member, a collapse, or even a burst length of hose. Any of these occurrences can upset the best of plans.
This method of training gives junior officers the experience of making tactical decisions based on “real” fire problems. Hands-on decision making without the accompanying risks can be a real confidence booster for the inexperienced officer. The subsequent critique of the drill can be used to point out any deficiencies evident in the operations with regard to the department’s SOPs or accepted firefighting practices.