BY MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO
Does this scenario sound familiar to you? A new fire apparatus driver/operator candidate, midway through behind-the-wheel training, walks into your office and asks for a minute to chat. He breathes a big sigh, stammers a bit, and then finally spits it out. He doesn’t feel like he is cut out to be a fire apparatus driver. He thanks you for giving him the opportunity to try it, apologizes for wasting your time, and tries to make a quick exit. I agree that not everybody is cut out for the job of apparatus driver. I also can respect a person who recognizes when he is in way over his head and makes the right decision. However, if this happens regularly, this might indicate an even bigger problem within your department that will require your attention.
The first few months in which new drivers train and interact with the driver trainers are critical to the new drivers’ long-term success as apparatus drivers/operators. Chances are that the habits, feelings, friendships, adversaries, and attitudes they develop during the training period will shape the new drivers for years to come and can make a difference in how they approach the role. The people training new drivers from the get-go can make a huge impact on your driver recruiting program and, in the long run, can set the tone for how your new drivers conduct themselves.
EVERYBODY CANNOT TRAIN
We can all think back to a teacher or training officer who made a difference in our life. These instructors were concerned, caring, and even-tempered and gave you the feeling that you could do it even if, on the inside, they were scared to death that you might not. The same applies to fire apparatus driver trainers. Often, I hear from drivers who say they have been behind the wheel for years and, therefore, should be the trainers. Not so! Driver trainers should always have a can-do attitude. They should always be supportive and keep in mind that people learn at different speeds and have different learning styles. They must be patient and not easily frustrated when a candidate needs extra attempts at backing the aerial or parallel parking a large rescue rig. Trainers must also have a flexible schedule and be available to provide extra one-on-one training for candidates having trouble “getting it” during the behind-the-wheel training program. Trainers should also not be your most emotional or theatrical firefighters. They need to provide you with very accurate details about a driver candidate’s skills and how these skills can be developed over time. A trainer who says a candidate “almost wiped out the whole station” when backing in might not be accurately or professionally describing a training incident.
TRAINING OR HAZING
There is a difference between training and abuse or intimidation. Trainers should pass on the skills and knowledge they possess, but they should stop short of reinterviewing the candidate, showing off, or acting as if the new driver will be taking the driver’s position away once the new driver gets cleared to start driving. It is not the trainer’s role to dig into the candidate’s lifestyle, schedule, long-term interests, or dependability. Friendly conversation to get to know the driver/operator candidate is appropriate and important. However, informing a driver candidate that he has no chance of ever getting behind the wheel on a “real run” because he doesn’t have seniority or, in a volunteer setting, he doesn’t live near the station, undermines the candidate-trainer relationship. The trainer clearly should set a positive example and be a person the candidate can go to for advice and to review “best practices” as they begin to drive on their own to calls. The driver trainer should be careful not to take the attitude that “things were not easy for me, so I will make it hard on you” or harbor “pay your dues, rookie” type feelings. Simply demonstrating a parallel park for the candidate is proper. Boasting how many times the trainer can get it right while the candidate continues to struggle with the procedure is not proper and can damage the candidate’s overall confidence.
SENIORITY IS NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER
Many fire departments award apparatus driver training hours or the title of driver trainer by seniority only; however, this is not always the answer. Many of your more senior people may not have had the exposure to new training standards or updated rules and regulations, whereas some of the newer people may have had state-of-the-art training but little wheel time. The ideal candidate for trainer should bring a balanced mix of classroom and behind-the-wheel experience. Driver trainers should have also a valid, clean commercial class driver’s license (CDL). Although operators of fire apparatus do not require a CDL in many states, having it sets a positive example. The type of person who does the job correctly not only when you are watching but also when you are not most likely will pass that attitude onto your new apparatus drivers.
AVOID THE CLIQUES
The driver trainer should be a person who reaches out to driver recruits during and after training sessions. We all know how difficult it is to walk into the dayroom following those first few runs you drove as a new driver. All eyes are on you, and the comments-positive and negative from crews and even other officers-can fly freely! The driver trainer should be the first person to offer words of encouragement and provide tips for improvement. The driver trainer should share any serious concerns about responses with the driver candidate in private.
SETTING THE EXAMPLE
Fire apparatus driver trainers must know they are expected to set the example at all times. They should be serious about their job and careful not to cut corners or take chances while driving to calls themselves. Driver trainers who fudge apparatus inspection or truck-check sheets or who neglect apparatus fueling and cleaning or washing duties may pass those habits on to new drivers. Also keep in mind that although it is a nice gesture for a trainer to have pizza with the new drivers after a driver training class/drill, the trainers are working in a pseudo management capacity on behalf of the fire department or fire company/district. Inappropriate fraternization between trainer and recruit could lead to trouble in the workplace. The driver trainer may have to participate in disciplinary proceedings with firefighters they have trained, and becoming too cozy could be risky. Driver trainers must also always remember that consuming alcohol at a department picnic, a party, or a banquet should be done responsibly. Driving home from an event allegedly intoxicated sets a terrible example for all apparatus drivers, including the newest ones, and clearly sends the wrong message. ■
■ MICHAEL P. DALLESSANDRO is a 22-year veteran of the volunteer fire service and a life member of the Grand Island (NY) Fire Company, serving on its board of directors. He is an experienced conference speaker and trainer for the fire service and the public transportation industry, a certified commercial vehicle driver trainer, and a public school administrator.