The Company Officer: The Perfect Training Officer

By Brian P. Kazmierzak and Forest F. Reeder

No matter how organized, educated, and professional your department’s training officer is, your company officer is still the perfect person to effectively train your members. This is a fairly bold but dead-on-target statement that career training officers make. Regardless of the type of department you have, company officers have two main responsibilities: to make sure everyone goes home and to train them for the next event.

While differences exist in training, drilling, and education, the core value of any training program is that it directly yields results in getting everyone to come home. You can view training as the initial skill-level awareness or entry-level training into any job/duty area. Drills reinforce learning in an attempt to create skills and knowledge that members can recall and use naturally. The phrase “drill it into your head” comes from this portrayal of the learning process. You can view education as the higher end of the learning process that may provide the critical thinking skills and information necessary to move to the next level of application. Some may even say that this level of learning gets the member ready to move up into the next position.


(1) A company officer watches his company conduct a basic ladder raise evolution. (Photos by authors.)
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Company officers influence and interact in all of these types of learning applications. During training, the company officer sets the pace and tone. If the company officer approaches the training session unmotivated and unenthusiastic, the training session will usually mirror that. Training should be an event that members look forward to, and it should be the focal point of the day. In volunteer, paid-on-call, and combination departments, the training session may be the only nonemergency opportunity for members to come together—so it had better be effective and efficient.

Keep in mind that pay status or pension benefits have little to do with a training session’s effectiveness. It is the instructors, their knowledge, and their attitude that can make or break a drill. The company officer must use every opportunity to make a difference in members’ skills and knowledge.


(2) A company conducts an aerial ladder spotting drill after an activated fire alarm at the same location.
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The department training officer is in many situations someone who fills multiple roles in the organization, including safety officer, mentor, training records manager, and program developer. This job is time-consuming and requires skills in multitasking and project management; thus, the delegation of the delivery of company-based training sessions is necessary. The company officer’s job description may include training or instructional responsibilities; NFPA 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, even states that certification as an instructor is desirable and part of the officer’s duties. With all this being said, the company officer has not only the authority to instruct the crews but also the responsibility to do so.

If you struggle with topics or ideas on which to conduct company-level training, try to focus on basic skill-level drills. Remember why you drill: to improve skills and make them natural. See “The Company Dirty Dozen Training Drills” in Figure 1 for drill ideas.

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After responding to emergencies, the next most important part of an officer’s duty should be to make sure the crews are prepared and ready to respond. This is the company training mission.

The company officer is the number-one influence on a fire company, more so than the chief or training officer, because of the amount of time the company spends with the company officer. The company officer is positioned to be the perfect training officer in many ways.

First, when a crew is assigned to an officer, the department and those members place their trust in the officer to keep them safe and prepared. Safe and prepared mean that every firefighter has to be trained and skilled. After all, when trouble occurs, we fall back on our training.

TRAIN AT EACH INCIDENT

Each incident presents an opportunity for the company officer to conduct a training needs assessment by observing the actions of each crew member. The officer’s placing training at the top of the company’s values creates a learning culture within the company.

It is important for the perfect training officer to involve everyone in the company in incident review and input in training sessions. At each incident, after the situation has been stabilized, the company officer has a perfect opportunity to deliver the best training available. On-scene, on-site, and in the field where the job is getting done—this is the most realistic training environment. Most firefighters and adult learners will say they would like to have more hands-on and out-of-classroom training, so here is the perfect solution. Treat each incident as a training opportunity. (For “Routine Response Drills,” see Figure 2.)

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For example, a simple walk-through of the operation on-scene in which everyone discusses what their actions and thoughts were allows the company to understand each member’s role. These impromptu training sessions present the opportunity to correct mistakes, express safety concerns, and discuss ways to improve efficiency. Remember to coach, not criticize, during these sessions. One way to frame these sessions is to have each crew member analyze the “Conditions/Actions Taken/Outcomes.” As a company, we then learn in the perfect training laboratory—the incident scene.

The perfect training officer will run into many challenges. The adult learner, especially the fire service adult learner, brings specific and challenging training delivery baggage to the table. Most firefighters and adult learners want to be involved in the learning process from beginning to end. They prefer not to be lectured to, they don’t want to do that same old training drill again, and they want to get their hands-on practice during the drill.

Our firefighters are mission-driven; they want to practice their craft, and they are often split among many distractions during their time at the fire station. During the course of any training session, company members will be distracted by radio transmissions or dispatches of companies to emergencies, the other duties and assignments they need to accomplish, and also the many nonfire service factors that are part of normal life. We have become a society overloaded with activity and responsibility; consequently, as a profession, we are loaded with multiple tasks and assignments that can make training only an afterthought. Volunteers and paid-on-call departments face this reality every day. Balancing personal and nonfire service activities with the need for fire service training and education will always be one of the top challenges in these departments.

TIPS FOR SUCCESS

To be successful as the perfect training officer, the company officer should strive for effectiveness and efficiency in each training session. Some ways to do this are through practice, patience, and support of the organization and department training officer as well as through the following:

  • Make training the priority. Next to emergency runs, nothing prepares a company better for those emergency runs than training.
  • Become an expert.The company officer must know each company member’s job better than the members do. This goes for the equipment and apparatus as well. If something doesn’t go right, doesn’t work, or needs troubleshooting, it’s the company officer who will be the first one members ask to help.
  • Know the why as well as the what.It’s pretty simple to work from a lesson plan, quick drill, or skill sheet telling your company what to do. The perfect training officer knows why it’s done that way and how it relates to other steps or tasks. Encourage questions on the “why” part of company-based training. This emphasizes your expertise in the subject or skill.
  • Work within your training system.Make completion of scheduled training sessions as important as anything else on the daily “to-do” list. Know what is expected of your company during scheduled training events, and do everything in your power to prepare your company for the training session. Every successful coach has a game plan that team members rehearse and execute.
  • Engage everyone.Every company member has something to offer, from the newest to the most experienced member. The newest members need drilling and training; the most experienced members need education and will educate the rest of the company on how things work on the street and tricks of the trade.
  • Seek out a training opportunity in every event.Each incident and each errand that the company runs is a chance to learn. The next time the engine comes to a stop at a stoplight, look out of the window of the cab at the nearest building. Ask the crew what type of building construction is present, where the alarm panel may be, and what forcible entry/egress problems may be present. Search the Internet for quick drills and informational articles that you can use as discussion starters. It’s amazing what happens when a crew of firefighters discusses a magazine cover.
  • Know your ABCs—and Ds. Know your audience members by their background and skill/knowledge levels, know what behaviors or changes you want to come out of the training session, and be an expert on the conditions or the tools and equipment used in the training. Perhaps most importantly, define the degree of how well you want the crew to perform the task or know the information. Set that bar high, but reachable, for the audience.
  • Practice and emphasize safety. Safety must be the underlying theme of every training session. Safety means doing it the right way all the time, including wearing all protective gear; referencing department standard operating procedures; creating an environment that allows the members to ask questions; and stopping the evolution, if necessary.
  • Be ready, be patient, be prepared, be responsible. Take ownership of each training session. Few company officers need assertiveness training, but maintaining control of the audience and the environment means taking charge and being responsible. Being responsible means being able to sign your name on the training record verifying that you safely and effectively met the training objectives.
  • Don’t waste their time. Whether you are conducting an impromptu on-scene training session or a scheduled training event, work to make sure everyone gets something from it—one tip, one thought, or one way to improve themselves and the company.

The company officer is the perfect training officer; no one in the organization is better positioned to make a difference. Don’t wait for it to come to you; find opportunities to train often. Don’t settle for training your firefighters until they get it right; train until they can’t get it wrong.

Brian P. Kazmierzak,EFO, joined the fire service in 1991 and is the division chief of training and safety for Clay Fire Territory in South Bend, Indiana, and MABAS Division 201 TRT task force leader. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire service administration from Southern Illinois University and is director of operations for www.firefighterclosecalls.com.

Forest F. Reeder began his career in 1978 and is battalion chief/director of training and safety for the Pleasantview (IL) Fire Protection District and director of training for the Southwest United Fire Districts Fire Academy in suburban Chicago. He was the 2008 George D. Post Instructor of the Year for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors and managing editor and contributing author of Fire Service Instructor Principles and Practices (Jones & Bartlett Publishers). He is also the drillmaster for www.firefighterclosecalls.com and creates FireEngineering.com’s Weekly Drill.

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