Back-to-Basics Training: Manual Familiarization

By Steve Prziborowski

One of the challenges for a fire department is ensuring all members, especially new ones, are versed in the various department specific manuals or binders that contain department-related information. For example, in my department, we have a rules and regulations manual, a policy and procedure manual, standard operating guidelines, a training manual, a memorandum of agreement between the administration and the union local, a line officers administrative guide, and a mutual aid/automatic aid manual, just to name the key ones. All of these manuals serve their purpose, since they provide direction to all ranks as to how to best do their job based on the established direction and vision of the various stakeholders.

Regardless of what your department calls these manuals, chances are the same type of information is documented in some capacity. One of the biggest problems I have found over the years is staying on top of what is written down. When I was hired as a firefighter, I really did my best to stay on top of all of the manuals. I didn’t want to get in trouble for doing something I was not aware that I could not or should not do. I also wanted to make sure I was doing the best I could to be an asset, not a liability.

When it came time to start studying for the captain’s examination while still working as a firefighter, I really appreciated all of that studying I had done since the day I was hired. Why? Because I didn’t have to start learning everything from scratch. When someone is preparing for a promotional exam, they will usually start going through all of those above mentioned manuals about a year or less before the exam, knowing they will probably be asked questions on the written exam or the assessment center, which may contain an oral interview, and possibly an emergency simulation, a writing exercise, and a personnel counseling session.

It kills me when I hear personnel who have been on the job for 10 or more years ask me what they should study to prepare for the next promotional examination. When I mention all of those manuals, their usual response is a look that indicates that they will be opening those books for the first time. Had they stayed on top of that information from the time they were hired, the promotional preparation process would have been a lot smoother: they would be merely refreshing themselves with the information, not trying to learn it and retain it while under the gun.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I know everything in those manuals verbatim or as well as I did when I was a new firefighter, or even as well as when I prepared for past promotional exams. During all of those times, I was probably on top of that information, for obvious reasons. The best thing I have learned is that I realize that I do not know those items verbatim–I’m the first to admit that I don’t try to memorize all of that information because it can feel like information overload at times. However, although I don’t know the manuals verbatim, I do know the key points and, more importantly, I know where to find the information that I need to reference or provide guidance to someone on.

Here is an example of why it is not ideal to presume you know it all and rely on memory. As a newly promoted battalion chief, I was providing a verbal (oral) counseling to a captain when the he said tactfully, “Chief, how can you counsel me when the policy says this, not that (i.e., what I was counseling).” Although my first instinct was to say he was wrong (I thought, “I know these policies verbatim–I’ve read them a million time–how can I be wrong?”), but then fortunately my gut instinct told me to say to him, “Are you sure? Give me minute and let me double-check.”

Lo and behold, when I pulled out the policy manual, we found that he was right and I was wrong. I immediately apologized for putting him in this position, told him I was sorry that I had made a mistake, and asked for his forgiveness. He kindly responded, “No problem, Chief, apology accepted.” I went further to reinforce why it is critical to actually read the department manual BEFORE attempting to offer any form of opinion or discipline, since not doing so can lead to embarrassing moments like this. I have no problem admitting when I am wrong, and I strive to learn from my mistakes. The lesson learned here is to always, always double-check your reference manuals before providing an opinion or even discipline. I regularly reinforce this lesson with current and future company officers and chief officers.


In a perfect world, I would think we should have less documentation. Less is better, isn’t it? Well, unfortunately in today’s world, less isn’t always better. Every department has a policy that usually has a name attached to it–meaning someone did something wrong and now there is a policy in place so nobody can ever say, “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that!” Well, now you know. I have heard many say that we should just require personnel to use common sense, and to discipline them for not having or using common sense. That isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially in today’s world.

First of all, we know common sense isn’t as common as we would like it to be. Second, let’s say you are going to be disciplined for something you did not know was prohibited. What’s the first thing you, your union representative, or your attorney will respond with when told you are being disciplined?”Show me where on paper it says that that is forbidden.” If the person applying the discipline comes back saying, “It isn’t written down, we just expected the member to use common sense,” chances are the discipline will not stick. As a result, a policy will be developed for the next similar instance.

As a new training chief, it became apparent that if it was tough for me to stay up-to-speed on all of the written documentation, it was probably tough for everyone else to do the same. I thought long and hard for different ways to ensure that personnel stayed on top of the information. Finally, I put together a plan in which, over the course three years, all personnel would be made aware of the key written documentation from the various manuals. Each month, our training captain publishes the monthly training calendar, with a variety of subjects the station personnel need to review or train on. Most of these items are training mandates, but there is some flexibility, which makes this plan ideal. I went through each of our key manuals and created a plan that would spread the key information out over three years to ensure that all personnel were getting their hands on the manuals and actually reviewing the key information. If someone wanted to take a future promotional exam, this was the perfect study plan for them; even if they did not desire to get promoted, they still needed to stay on top of the department expectations.

At the end of the three-year rotation, we will evaluate to see if the concept met our needs and what needs to be tweaked or scrapped. Although I mentioned above that we also have a training manual (which specifically provides direction on how to use the various tools, equipment, and apparatus used within our department), I elected not to include the manual because of the lack of time I had to put those hundreds of items into the three-year rotational schedule. I’m hoping to find the time to do so when the rotation schedule is evaluated in 2014.

When establishing the rotation, I considered the length of each document, as well as balancing out the entire manual over the course of three years. I also attempted to match as many of the documents as I could to the monthly back-to-the-basics subject. For example, Mutual Aid/Auto Aid manual Appendix 12 is the pre-agreed-on countywide high-rise plan. That item was placed in the same month that was dedicated to high-rise operations in the back-to-the-basics three-year rotation.

As for the delivery, it is expected that the company officer will have the crew review the required items of the month individually or as a crew, and then discuss them as a crew. Good company officers will also take the time to provide real-life examples of their experience of the information, positive and negative. On completing the training, the company officer will log the training hours into our records management system (RMS).

In addition to the benefit of ensuring a regular review all key written documentation items, it provides a focused study guide for a member preparing for a promotional examination.

For the last group of newly hired firefighters, I provided them with a CD containing all of those department manuals in a PDF format so they could review them at their leisure and have their own copy. Unfortunately, this does not ensure accountability or any confirmation that the newly hired firefighters actually will take the time to review the hundreds if not thousands of pages of written documentation related to their new employer. However, our RMS allows us to upload those documents and then assign them to personnel, who must acknowledge they have read and understood the document by checking the box. This provides a permanent record of completion.

For any firefighters hired in the future, we plan to assign them the items contained within the three-year rotation mentioned above over the course of their 18-month probation. Although this is half the time of the normal rotation they will be required to complete after probation, they should be able to fit in all of the required reading if they properly manage their time.

For fire service company officers and chief officers, it stings to have to hear someone say, “I never knew that,” or “nobody ever told me I could not do that,” or, better yet, “I didn’t know we had a policy on that.” Although having a plan will not eliminate those comments, it at least enables us to know that they were made aware of those documents at hiring and through the regular rotation. The last thing any chief wants to hear from a company officer or firefighter is, “Dear chief, nobody was more surprised than I when…” Having a plan in place to review department documentation routinely may help eliminate such phone calls or letters from your crews.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI is a deputy chief for the Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department with more than 20 years in the fire service. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Chabot College fire technology program, where he has been teaching fire technology and EMS classes since 1993. He is a past president of the Northern California Training Officers Association, and was named the 2008 California Fire Instructor of the year. He is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor. He has an associate degree in fire technology, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and a master’s degree in emergency services administration, and has completed the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy. Steve has been published in all of the leading fire service publications including Fire Engineering, and is a regular speaker at fire service events across the country such as FDIC.

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