Company Drills: Keep Them Coming Back for More

Firefighters attack a vehicle fire

What makes a company drill exceptional? What makes a good drill great? One answer: the instructor. With proper preparation and practice delivery, a company officer can make any drill great. Even with limited resources and minimal experience, instructors can devise a great drill. All they have to do is care and give it effort. The more company drills instructors perform, the better they will get, and the better the drills will become.

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Drills need not be complicated or resource intensive but must be realistic and relevant. Nobody wants to go to an empty parking lot and drop hose or throw ladders against a blank brick wall for the hundredth time. What makes a good drill great? Creating an environment in which the drill is realistic and relevant. It’s not hard to do, but it requires some thought.

Performance Standards

When thinking about what to do in a drill, consider the firefighters’ experience and education. Company drills are generally not for learning new material but to expand on what was previously learned, enabling members to master that information. Sometimes, company drills are competency measures; if we are measuring competency, what is the minimum standard? We must measure competency against published standards that the local fire department or authority having jurisdiction developed.

If there is no standard, what is good enough? More importantly, do we judge a firefighter’s performance against the average performance of most members, which may exceed the standard or gauge the firefighter’s performance against some minimum standard? Published standards set the bar, keep it fair, and provide a target for achievement. The whim of one instructor isn’t a standard.

Company drills are not formal courses of instruction and do not teach a whole set of skills. They are not designed to provide certification or prepare one for the job. They focus on particular skills to be used under specific circumstances. The company drill should replicate the circumstances as realistically as possible while observing all proper safety precautions. Every company drill should have one overarching or terminal objective, which may have multiple (three to seven) smaller or enabling objectives. Objectives are important; they tell the student what to accomplish and how performance will be measured.

Defining Success

Although a set of standards may describe the scale to be performed, the instructor must set a realistic, relevant image of what success looks like. If a company drill combines several skills, the scenario must describe what success looks like. Let’s look at a rooftop ventilation drill. Our goal is to cut a hole in the roof of the structure. To cut that roof, we need to get on it. To make the hole, we have to operate certain tools (e.g., a saw) and observe some safety precautions.

An instructor may brief the company by saying, “We will perform roof ventilation on this structure. Our goal is to do it as quickly and as safely as possible without sacrificing one for the other. So, we will throw the ladders, get to the roof, ensure the work environment is safe, start our saw, and make our cuts. When we’re done, we will acknowledge that the cut is complete, get off the roof, and advise command of our success.”

Firefighters use a piercing nozzle at a car fire drill.

(1) Firefighters use a piercing nozzle at a car fire drill. (Photos by author.)

Scrimmaging

Scrimmaging involves practicing technique against an opponent, which is our incident response. When you are dispatched to a reported fire or if you have arrived on scene and see smoke showing but you’re not sure that it’s a full-blown working fire, how do you react? Do you wait and see? Do you require substantially more information before you make any tactical decision? Which tactical decisions require substantially more information and which may be automatic, predictable, and preplanned? At what point do you expect your driver operator to locate, flush, and dress a fire hydrant?

If your department, like many, waits for a working fire before it makes fireground decisions, how many times a year would you actually make such decisions? Statistically, the number of working fires is a fraction of the actual responses to reported fires. Therefore, use the opportunities at less-than-working fires to exercise knowledge and skill and develop ability.

Scenario: Engine 1 arrives on the scene of a reported fire in a three-story apartment building. The apartment building has one door on the front and a second door on the rear or C side. The fire hydrant is on the same side of the street as the fire building and within 100 feet of where the engine is positioned. In this scenario, when will, or can, the driver operator flush and dress the hydrant? Why? I am not proposing an answer. But, can you say with conviction why it is what it is? Is there an opportunity to master this skill? How many sets and reps does it take before mastery occurs? If you do this with a hydrant at your station, how does that challenge the driver operator and provide context and a need for decision making? Can you find opportunities to make hydrants?

What about a second engine backing down (reverse lay)? A truck company throwing ladders or setting up its main aerial device? We say companies on a roof need two ways off. If Truck 1 goes to the roof to check an alarm, at what point do they need to have two ways off? Is there an opportunity to set up the aerial apparatus and raise it? If you do this at your station, how does that challenge the driver operator and provide the context and a need for decision making? Can you find opportunities to set up the aerial?

Do What the Play Calls For

In a football game, would we expect some players to stand idle on the field because they know the play is occurring on the opposite side? No, of course not. We expect that all the players line up on the line of scrimmage. When the ball is snapped, every player is to execute their move perfectly. We allow players to use independent judgment when they are faced with facts and circumstances that the play did not account for, such as going left instead of right because they met an opponent. The players don’t get to decide how much effort they want to put into each play or whether they want to run the play. They do what the play calls for. Company drills can accomplish this. If we use a view that every reported fire requires a standard response, then all the firefighters “line up” and execute their roles in the play when they arrive on scene.

The recognition primed decision making (RPDM) concept has long been proposed for describing how we make our fireground decisions. RPDM suggests that we do not consider all the options or alternatives when presented with a challenge. Rather, our brain searches for a similar set of circumstances and a plan of action that we previously encountered. If the brain feels the circumstances and plan are acceptable in this set of circumstances, then that’s what we go with. We don’t try to figure out the best way. We try to find the first way that worked the last time.

Standpipe operations are the focus of this drill

(2) Standpipe operations are the focus of this drill.

Creating Experience

The only way we can get experiences for our brain is to acquire them. We can’t order them online. We can try to supplement our experiences through training. Sets and reps under realistic, real-world conditions give us experience. The goal of officers should be to create as many opportunities to have experiences. The experiences are good for the officer and for the company. If you think you’re going to win the championship by waiting for that day to arrive, you’re sadly mistaken. Championships are won by studying the film, working with the coaches, practicing, and scrimmaging. Then, games are played before the playoffs are entered.

Company Drills

Here are four examples of company drills you could customize for your own department’s use.

Webbing

If you and your members carry webbing in your pocket, how many uses do you have for it? It’s easy to think of uses, but have you actually tried executing these tasks? For example, use the webbing as a hose strap for maneuvering flowing hoses or to rescue a firefighter from a lower level. A simple Internet search will reveal a multitude of uses. Plan a set of evolutions that will challenge your firefighters to try these techniques.

Response Challenges

Where are there narrow passages or overhead hazards in your response area? Where can you simulate these situations? What other challenges may be in your district when it comes to raising and positioning ground ladders? A simple drill involves identifying three or so of these types of challenges and asking the company members to raise a ladder to a designated level above grade. If you don’t think the firefighters are up to the challenge, you as the instructor can lead the ladder throws as the company officer. Sometimes, this modeling of behavior is a best approach to setting realistic expectations.

Search and Rescue

Are your members expected to make search and rescue markings on a structure? If so, how do you practice that? Not too many people have the luxury of spraying the markings onto a structure. However, the same color spray paint is also available in a spray chalk. The mark washes off using the hose as a pressure washer; the markings can be repeated multiple times. Of course, you would need permission to do this to a structure, such as a training building.

Advancing Hoselines

When a charged hoseline is advanced into the structure, is positioned, and begins to flow, how does the firefighter at the doorway or outside move up toward the nozzle? How does he advance more hose into the structure? How is that need communicated; do you have a standard procedure?

One possible procedure is this: The nozzle team begins to move the charged line into the structure with the firefighter at the doorway or outside feeding hose in. That firefighter sees the hose moving into the structure and knows by touch whether the line has been charged. At some point, the line stops moving into the structure, and the firefighter can feel water begin to flow. This might be a good time for that outside firefighter (unless he has a different assignment) to advance another 10 to 15 feet of hose into the structure to the first turn or bend and then follow the hose up to the nozzle and join the nozzle team. If this is something you’d expect to happen, then how do you ensure that it happens? How many times does a firefighter get to do this at a working fire?

This drill could easily be replicated at any fire station. There is no need to advance a charged line into living spaces. All you need is an outside swinging door in the apparatus bay.

Address Performance Errors

No company drill may conclude if there are obvious errors in the skill’s performance. You must correct errors that involve safety issues. If the time does not permit mastering skill correction, address that skill in a future drill. Firefighters cannot leave a company drill assuming that their poor or inadequate performance is safe. They must know where they are deficient and need improvement. The instructor/company officer is responsible to ensure that the correction occurs.

Be in Position, Dress the Part

Every company level instructor must remember two things. First, know your location in the evolution. The instructor needs to be in the physical position of the company officer unless the instructor is mentoring someone else who is serving in that role. Why should an instructor have someone fill in the company officer role if that person will never perform that role? Also, if the firefighters don’t see the instructor/company officer performing, they won’t know what that performance should look like. Firefighters will model their behavior on the instructor’s or company officer’s behavior.

Second, the instructor/company officer must dress the part. If the company firefighters are required to wear full PPE, the instructor/company officer must wear full PPE. The instructor/company officer cannot occupy a functional position in any evolution and not be dressed in the appropriate PPE. In addition to being blatantly unsafe, the firefighters will model their behavior on what they see the instructor/company officer do.

Excellent, efficient, productive company drills that are realistic and relevant need not be long and drawn out. They must be in accord with published standards and develop members’ proficiency. As instructors, company officers are obligated to put effort into planning these company drills. The first step is caring; the second step is spending your time and energy to come up with simple yet engaging ideas. Safety must always be the number one consideration and a priority. In the end, some effort is better than no effort, and some effort generally will lead to much effort. Your efforts will be rewarded when your company members say, “AGAIN!” not “again?”


DREW R. SMITH, EFO/CFO, LP, is a 39-year veteran of the fire service; he has served 28 years as a chief and training officer and eight years as a regional fire academy director. He has multiple state fire marshal certifications. He is an active participant in state and national fire service organizations and has been a long-standing presenter at FDIC International.

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