BY ROBERT STUMPF
As head of the training Division for the Bloomington (IN) Fire Department for the past five years, I have wrestled with the responsibility of how to keep our training curriculum interesting, useful, and consistent. Since I was promoted to training officer, the department has seen a tenfold increase in the amount of personnel-conducted training, the implementation of a rapid intervention team (RIT) program, construction of a nonburn training tower, and a live fire facility groundbreaking. We have also seen the natural ebb and flow of a new evolution each week to nary any activities; overemphasis on EMS; and, at times, missed in-service hours for the technical disciplines. After numerous discussions with instructors, chiefs, and firefighters, I have found that two main questions arise: How do we maintain a consistent approach and level of proficiency for all of our personnel? and Why do EMS personnel have to recertify every couple of years, but a 50-year-old fire certification is as valid as one issued today? Hopefully, our new training passport is the answer.
During an instructional staff meeting two years ago, the idea of conducting annual skills evaluations for line personnel was raised. Although open to the idea, most of us were in agreement that, if not packaged properly, this could be insulting to our proud incumbent firefighters. We needed a way to evaluate organizational proficiency without giving the impression of singling out any one group of firefighters and to provide opportunity for our personnel to demonstrate their skill without coming across as an administration-driven mandate.
The suggestion was made that we take the same approach as our comrades in EMS and issue a book to each member outlining the skills and activities in which they must participate. Medics and EMTs have been carrying around blue and green books for years, getting autographs from instructors at the end of each in-service. After a few drafts were circulated, we arrived at its current incarnation, and the Bloomington Fire Department training passport was born.
The training passport is divided into several sections of firefighting skills, EMS, apparatus operator, officers, department regulations, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), RIT, and individual goals. The expectations are laid out in the very first section: “All shift personnel are expected to remain proficient in the basic job functions defined herein ….”
The following pages outline basic firefighter skills, such as donning personal protective equipment (PPE) and advancing an attack line, EMS skills covering local protocol and skill assessments, successful completion of an Emergency Vehicle Operators Course (EVOC), and participation in an officer development program for company officers and chiefs. The OSHA page covers our confined space rescue training requirements, use of PPE, bloodborne pathogens/infection control, and power tool safety. We have included an SCBA endurance drill, gleaned from others’ work with air management. Our RIT policy has a training component that requires annual in-service hours to maintain proficiency. Subsequently, there was a page in the book for RIT skills; one page is dedicated to crew level review of departmental policy and another for individual and crew goal setting.
Essentially, the training passport combines all of the requirements of OSHA, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), local ordinances, hospital protocols, Insurance Services Office (ISO) ratings, and departmental directives into a pocket-sized guide that is convenient and user-friendly.
Once a final draft was approved, we spent one week providing orientation to our personnel on the new passport system. It was imperative that this new idea be presented in a way that would generate buy-in from our personnel; it was sold as a guide that allowed us to meet the various requirements placed on us by federal, state, and local agencies and an outline of the training to be offered in a given calendar year. By identifying all of the various mandates, we shifted the focus to make it appear as if we were simplifying the process. We also stated that the current training passport was a work in progress; as we found things that didn’t work, we could amend the passport.
Orientation discussions centered on how much of the training requirements could be met in-house rather than during formal training activities set up by the training division. This helped our company officer get used to the idea of facilitating training evolutions rather than overworking the same two or three instructors.
We ended with a Q & A where personnel voiced concerns with the training passport. “What if I don’t …” and “What if I don’t do well on …” were common themes of the questions asked. Rather than have one training officer field questions, our chief of department was present for each session. In addition to his taking the heavy questions, it sent a message of full departmental commitment to the new program.
HOW IT WORKS
At the start of the year, each member is issued a training passport; the expectations are reviewed, and members are encouraged to carry the passport to each training activity.
Throughout the year, company officers, shift training officers, and instructors are the only ones who can sign off on whether a member has successfully completed a component of the passport. The books are collected and kept in each member’s personnel file. Specific activities, such as the SCBA endurance drill and the preplans, are logged into our computer network for reference.
SOME UNEXPECTED BENEFITS
Although still in its infancy, this program is already having the desired effect. The first and most profound result of the training passport has been the ability of the training staff to map out a calendar for training evolutions six, nine, and even 12 months out. For many years we have scheduled training a week or two at a time, wondering what we were going to do next. This ability to forecast our curriculum removes a great deal of stress from our instructors, allows them to schedule personal time, and lends an air of professionalism to our program. Our training program is more consistent because of the training passport; we have the same amount of fire, EMS, and specialty training in January as we do in August and December, and we strive to schedule around weather, service testing of equipment, fire prevention, and public education activities.
We have seen an increase in company-initiated activity by implementing the training passport. A component of the orientation-highlighted activities that was recommended for the company level was the previously ignored activity of preplanning target hazards. Today, crews are out exploring their districts, making contact with property owners and taking ownership of their training.
The training passport has added instant credibility to even the most mundane activity. Before its inception, instructors shied away from evolutions that required old salts to don gear or hit hydrants for fear of insulting someone’s intelligence. Two weeks ago, we scheduled an evolution called “Page Five Drills.” It was a three-hour program on all the basic firefighter skills on page five of the training passport, set up like a field day where crews rotated from one station to another. We had probationary firefighters donning PPE with firefighters who had been on the job longer than the probies had been alive, doing it as a timed event, with no griping about whether the activity was too basic for someone or if it had merit. Why? Because it was listed in the book. Having a training passport documenting what is expected of personnel has allowed us to conduct simple exercises without concern over dumbing them down.
The training passport also puts greater emphasis on several activities. Personnel know there are specific skills that they will be required to perform and, at the very least, brush up on in the weeks preceding the scheduled in-service.
Documentation of our training program is as thorough as it has ever been. The training passport has allowed us to better document the specific nature of the training that takes place, who teaches it, who participates in it, and how well they perform.
We’ve seen a few minor drawbacks to our training passport. Most notably, if an activity is required of all personnel, an instructor is on the hook for facilitating the activity until every member who was sick, injured, or on vacation has participated; it makes you wish you worked for a smaller department. Our SCBA endurance drill, which identifies total operating time for each member using a 4,500-psi cylinder, was scheduled for two weeks in May. After four weeks, we still hadn’t finished. To that end, the orientation made it clear to personnel that the activities in the training passport would be offered as many times as the training staff deemed reasonable and that it would be the responsibility of the individual and his officer to see that the requirement is met.
We have had a handful of members lose their books, and at the end of the year, we will surely have a rash of “my dog ate it” or “it was here on my last tour of duty.” We are tinkering with the notion of digitizing the document so there is nothing to misplace and so members treat this as an important means for them to demonstrate their commitment to proficiency and professionalism.
Time will be the true measure of the training passport’s success. At the end of the day, when the last engine crew returns to service from training and the last firefighter climbs on the rig and says to another firefighter, “Did you get your book signed?” I like to think we’re on the right track.
ROBERT STUMPF is a battalion chief with the Bloomington (IN) Fire Department and on the board of directors for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors.