Drills: From Blank Page to Successful Exercise

BY BOB CARPENTER AND MICHAEL POSNER

“Hey, Lieutenant, your company has drill time today. Do something good, okay?” This shift change statement, heard nationwide, strikes fear in some, anxiety in others, and frustration in most. Why?

Across the country, it seems that the face of the fire service looks younger and younger. Community growth should result in new service, not just stretching the old service thinner. New service means new positions, and that translates into promotions. “Yeah!” shout the regular members along with the unions. More positions and promotions are always a good thing resulting in new hires, and the cycle continues.

This scenario is playing out not only in the predictable high-growth areas but also in regions not accustomed to rapid growth as people relocate to less-crowded, slower-paced communities. Hence, fire departments, large and small, suburban and rural, nationwide are experiencing increases in service demand; if their local leaders are paying attention to public safety, they are in this growth spurt together.

This condition has a trickle-down effect; however, that may put firefighters in danger every day. Gone from many departments are the crusty, seasoned “been there, done that” operations personnel who guided many of us early in our careers. New firefighters and officers with little fireground experience and not much more life experience have replaced them (photo 1).


(1) Full-scale response scenario with recruit class and officer candidates. (Photo by Bob Carpenter.)
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Most fire departments have done little to truly prepare them for what lies ahead. For example, some departments’ promotional systems require that candidates have four or five years as a firefighter to become eligible for the lieutenant’s exam. Hence, an 18-year-old rookie can become a lieutenant by the age of 22 or 23. Even if that member has served at the busiest company under a firefighting guru, how many 22-year-olds have the life experiences and maturity to shoulder the responsibilities of an officer? The system is what it is, so the fire service must give them a full toolbox to get the job done.Since it is an accepted premise that the company officer is the department’s primary and most important trainer, how does your department prepare the officers to undertake that task?

There are “hotshots” in every department who have an intuitive feel for the job, relying on common sense and instinct as much as anything. But they also may not be able to teach you how to tie your shoes. Remember, a good firefighter does not always a good instructor make. We might even be talking about you. How can that be? It is usually an element of approach and organization more than technical knowledge or ability.

So how do we change that? Below we address the daunting task of coordinating a drill, whether it’s a single company or a large-scale exercise. We identify the reasons for single- and multicompany drills, relevant drill topics, and steps for drill organization and discuss how to complete a safety plan that will not only fulfill the National Fire Protection Association 1410, Standard on Training for Initial Emergency Scene Operations, requirements but also serve as a template for the drill and as a briefing/debriefing guide.

WHY WE DRILL

Why drill at all? We have already discussed the issues of youth and inexperience at all levels. In many departments, as much as 50 percent of the workforce has fewer than six years on the job and an average of two years time in their current rank or functional area. That statistic alone should make you head out for a drill right now! But let’s review the reasons for drills.

To maintain or increase proficiency. Perhaps the biggest mistake a company officer makes is thinking, “I already have a real rock star crew here, so let the others have the drill time.” How many times have you seen that theory unravel? There is always room for improvement.

To train on new skills and equipment. You cannot do that sitting around the firehouse kitchen table. Also, you should be training on infrequently used skills. How often have you done the blackout search and rescue evolution in the truck stall? Compare that with the number of drills on ground ladders and standpipe evolutions. If you primarily do forward lays for water supply, mix it up and practice reverse lead-outs.

To increase safety at actual incidents. I am not talking about “safety-ing” us to death. A well-practiced, polished crew that works like a well-oiled machine by default will operate much more safely.

To evaluate company strengths and weaknesses.We all have our share of both. Realize also that at this time the company will also be evaluating you. Showing your passion for crew efficiency and job knowledge pays off daily in emergency and nonemergency situations, which is invaluable for the new company officer. The officer can also see firsthand who the company “go-to” person is, validate that person’s input, and be well on the way to building a team.

PLAN, PREPARE, PRESENT, DEBRIEF

Plan.If you are not very comfortable conducting a training session, don’t pick a subject or skill that is not second nature. If you have to conduct a drill on a subject that you are not 100-percent up on, then take some extra time to prepare.

You won’t have to look very far to find the topic of the drill. Just think about the last nonroutine incident. What went right and what went wrong? Although we often choose the things that went wrong as the drill topic, tread carefully here. It is important to identify and correct these issues, but don’t harp on the negative all the time. Nothing turns the crew off faster. Sometimes, focusing on the things that went right is a perfect segue to addressing the mistakes. Doing so will allow you as the drill coordinator to reinforce the positive and illustrate how the correct actions result in a better, safer outcome.

Once you have identified the topic, set the objectives. This is the tricky part. Far too often, the drill objectives are so convoluted as to make them completely unachievable. The participants must know what is expected of them and what the benchmark is for successful completion. Although there is a place for the large scale, multifunction all-out exercise, this is best achieved by identifying focused objectives for specific units or functions.

Don’t expect a great deal of enthusiasm or success if the crew has to establish the water supply, begin the fire attack, conduct a search, and perform a downed firefighter extrication all in one evolution. Although performing all these tasks could be necessary at any given incident, training on all of them in a single training session should not be typical. Focus on obtainable objectives! I write these words at the top of the page in big, bold letters to remind myself when the creative juices start flowing. This can get away from you if you are not careful.

Prepare.Now that you have chosen the topic and set the objectives, you must prepare. Preparation will make the difference between a useful exercise and something that you will just write on the daily company activity report.

Do your research! Don’t think that you have all of the answers. Ensure that you are current with industry trends and that they do not conflict with department standard operating procedures (SOPs). Cite the relevant sources of the information—skills learned at fire service conferences/seminars, journal articles, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports, and so forth. These resources can legitimize the information presented as long as they do not conflict with local accepted practices.

The drill design and layout need careful consideration. “Drill” usually implies scenario-based evolutions. Although such drills are extremely useful, it is not the only way to skin a cat. For example, Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue (MDFR) uses established drill time for multicompany evolutions each month. Often, these drills are scenario/response-oriented, but when introducing new equipment or evolutions or focusing on a seldom-used skill, we divide the drill time into teaching stations and conclude with operational hands-on exercises.

NFPA 1410 is a great starting point and a good template. These fireground evolutions will provide everything you need—clear, obtainable objectives that are measurable and adaptable to your department’s SOPs. Using these standards, you can establish benchmarks that allow the company officer or training division to assess the individual companies’ effectiveness in basic fireground evolutions and skills and adjust SOPs. It can’t get much easier than that (photo 2).


(2) Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue conducting NFPA 1410 drills. (Photo by Michael Posner.)
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The drill coordinator must consider whether this drill will be a focused skill session or an all-out evolution. In either case, consider the participants’ skill levels—are they seasoned veterans or relative newcomers? If the trainees’ experience levels are mixed, your presentation must be as well. The key is to ensure you can capture and maintain the participants’ interest. If introducing a new procedure, allow for adequate instruction time as well as hands-on activity (photo 3).


(3) The teaching station prior to skill performance. (Photo by Elvin Gonzalez.)
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Have a Plan B, a Plan C, and even a Plan D if necessary, especially if you are planning a drill at an acquired building. Too many things can go wrong to leave this to chance. Recently, MDFR was planning a high-rise drill at a hotel slated for demolition. Many meetings with the owners, the demolition company, and the construction company had yielded a good drill plan. However, the day before the first day of a three-day exercise, the standpipe was inadvertently disabled with no hope of having it restored in time for the drill.

Fortunately, we had an alternative plan. We “built” a standpipe by stretching three-inch hose up the stairs using a well stretch and tying off at the hose cabinet on the fire floor. We then attached a siamese down in the alley to facilitate a fire department connection. It certainly was not what we wanted to present, but we didn’t have to scramble to come up with a new drill from scratch to fill the training time.

Finally, do a mental dry run to eliminate too many surprises. Practice what you are going to say in the block of instruction. We have taught many classes on my empty back porch. We are sure that the neighbors are questioning our sanity, but it pays off on drill day because we have already run through the main speaking points. If your company is the host of a multicompany drill, break down each drill segment and run through the skills with them (photo 4). This provides you with drill time, and you have a built-in support system when you move on to the next step.


(4) A company preparing to host a multiunit drill. (Photo by Bob Carpenter.)
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Present.Now you are ready to present. To begin the drill presentation, conduct a briefing that outlines the drill’s objectives. State clearly what is and is not expected, the timeline, and the event that indicates the drill’s conclusion. Too often, drill coordinators will change the “rules of engagement” if a company or companies are performing too well. Do not fall into this trap. Remember, the point of the whole exercise is for participants to learn or polish skills. Successful demonstration does not negate the drill’s relevance. Frustrating the participants into failure does negate the effort.

Conduct a safety briefing. Do not take this step for granted. Using a written safety plan ensures a thorough explanation of safety concerns and designates such items as the assigned safety officer, the operation’s radio frequency, and even the emergency radio transmission that designates a true emergency. A comprehensive safety plan can be the template for the drill plan, the briefing sheet, and a guide for the debriefing (Figure 1).

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The last step, the debriefing, is conceivably the most valuable part of the drill. Give honest critiques of the participants’ performances. However, do not berate those that did not meet the objectives. Instead, identify steps they can take to improve their performance and increase their confidence, and point out those actions that they performed correctly.

This evaluation should not turn into a debate—either the objectives were met or they weren’t. Focus on the performance; don’t attack the individual. Again, using the written comprehensive safety plan or drill plan as a guide here will help to ensure consistency and clarity.

•••

The time it takes to thoroughly plan a training exercise will prove to be worth it on drill day. Being organized and focused makes for a successful training session and builds confidence for the trainers and trainees alike.

BOB CARPENTER is a 20-year veteran of Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, where he serves as captain and training officer, Operations North District. He began his career as a volunteer and worked for a combination department before moving to Miami-Dade.

MICHAEL POSNER is a 19-year veteran of Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, where he is a captain and training officer for the department’s Operations Central District. He previously served with Margate Fire Rescue. He is a Florida-certified instructor and live fire instructor I and has served as recruit training instructor.

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