TRAINING IN A VOLUNTEER ENVIRONMENT
BY CLARENCE WHITE
Many volunteer fire and rescue departments find it difficult to plan and carry out a training program. In developing and delivering a training program in a volunteer environment, consideration must be given to the following: the training audience, scheduling and frequency of training, delivering training that is meaningful and relevant, incorporating measurable results, addressing regular and special training needs, responding to imposed training requirements, maintaining accurate records of training participation, and formal training vs. in-service training conducted in stations. Consideration must also be given to meeting specialized needs, improving the service the department provides, and members` attitudes.
Fire and rescue personnel must train for various reasons: to provide better service to citizens and to prevent mishaps that may result in injuries, exposures to communicable diseases or hazardous materials, temporary or permanent disability, or even death. Additionally, properly trained personnel also decrease liability for the political jurisdiction, the department, and the individual. Finally, training is necessary to meet applicable regulations, standards, and department requirements.
WHO NEEDS TRAINING?
Who needs to train? This may sound like a silly question, but it is not intended as such. New members need training in basic skills that will allow them to function at a minimal level until they can obtain further training. These basics may include some form of prebasic fire or EMS training program conducted in-house that will allow new members to go to the scene and participate in exterior or support activities.
Experienced members need refresher training to maintain skills as well as to bring them up-to-date on new information and technology. Individuals who function primarily as drivers, for example, should go through an initial emergency vehicle driver training program and participate in a periodic reevaluation to document their knowledge and skills levels, both as drivers and as operators of the unit(s) for which they are responsible.
Officers also need training in incident and administrative management, supervision, and technical and tactical training. Unfortunately, many times the department focuses on the emergency scene aspect of management and expends little effort on the nonemergency side of the department, which may be more important for retaining members. Specialists and technicians participate in training for skills maintenance and periodic updating of information. The bottom line is that everyone–operational and administrative personnel–needs training. Failure to maintain knowledge and skills levels may cause the individual to be a safety hazard to himself and others.
When developing a training program within a volunteer fire or rescue department, the composition of the department can directly affect members` availability for training. Among the membership are students in high school or college who have assigned after-school work; individuals working one or more jobs to make ends meet; individuals with family obligations that might include caring for elderly or disabled family members; single parents trying to raise a family but who still would like to volunteer; individuals involved in other community activities that may also be demanding but personally rewarding; individuals, such as local- or state-level office holders, with civic responsibilities; and individuals with various knowledge and skill levels who may feel they may not need training.
Training must meet the department`s overall needs as well as those of the individual members. No rule, written or understood, should restrict the development of training or its delivery only to certain individuals. Use available time and resources for the benefit of all members.
WHY MUST YOU TRAIN?
Training in many departments is guided by requirements in the department`s constitution and bylaws. These documents lay out the courses that must be taken and the timeframes in which they must be completed as a requirement for membership maintenance. These requirements should be reasonable and realistic. A positive training environment can serve as an incentive for members to meet the requirements.
There is also a legal basis for some training. Although many individuals may not realize it, the only training required by law nationally is meeting the provisions of 29 CFR 1910.120 (q), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation related to emergency response to hazardous materials incidents. The basis for training is also found in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards such as the NFPA 1000 series,1 which are the professional qualifications standards, as well as NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program–1997.
WHEN DO YOU TRAIN?
Scheduling training in a volunteer organization can be difficult. Schedules should be developed to accommodate members` work and other obligations and to ensure members` availability. Among the factors to be considered are the following: the frequency of training in relation to response levels; the frequency of training in relation to individual and departmental needs; the mixing of training subjects in relation to the different services provided by the department (fire, rescue, EMS, and hazardous materials, for example); the relationship of training to other departmental activities such as fund-raising; separating the various audiences–young and middle-aged, rookies and experienced, members and officers–to personalize training and deliver it to segments of the department with common interests and needs; and repeating training activities at different days or times to increase attendance. If the department is to have properly trained members to provide service, it must take some initiative to make the training available in various modes and times to reach as many members as possible.
HOW IS YOUR SETTING FOR TRAINING?
While bringing flexibility into the training schedule may improve attendance, it is also important that the training be meaningful and relevant to the audience. A department must create an environment in which members can and will attend training because they want to instead of because they have to. The first step in this effort is to analyze audience needs. The training must have some practical application to which the members can relate; provide current information; and relate to individual interests and needs as well as departmental needs.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?
The training program can be divided into the department`s service areas, giving attention to each area. The first training offerings should involve the maintenance of basic skills in the areas of fire, rescue, emergency care, and hazardous materials operations. There are also periodic knowledge and skill-recertification requirements related to bloodborne pathogens, hazardous materials emergency response, SCBA, CPR, and basic or advanced life support. In addition to the maintenance of basic skills, training and retraining must be provided to meet new services initiated by the department, such as confined space, trench rescue, and hazardous materials emergency response beyond the operations level. A good method for determining the training needs of the department is to analyze past incidents or operations with an emphasis on improving efficiency. Do not become complacent; there is always room for improvement.
Another method for determining training needs is to conduct a skills evaluation to determine levels of proficiency. Identify certain skills and the performance level of each member or group of members for these skills. Consider incorporating in the training programs the cross-training of individuals in more than one service area or specialization. Keep in mind, however, that it is very difficult for an individual, especially a volunteer, to maintain proficiency in several knowledge or skill areas. With the level of training and service being provided today, it may be beneficial for the department to have a mix of generalists and specialists instead of having all generalists and all specialists. It is difficult to know who will be available for any particular incident.
HOW DO YOU ORGANIZE THE TRAINING?
To increase participation and interest, training must be planned and organized. Lack of planning may result in poor attendance. Training should be planned with short- and long-term goals instead of haphazardly without logic, sequence, and ultimate positive change. Training should be delivered by qualified presenters who have the ability to teach and technical knowledge in the subject area being presented. Training presentations should be supported by lesson plans/guides, which also can serve to document the subject matter delivered should a question arise later. Arrange for outside speakers and logistical support well in advance so that speakers` needs can be identified and met, if possible. Delivery should be sequential with a logical flow of material. Lack of planning and coordination shows up very quickly in a training program and may produce negative results, no matter how good the speaker or subject may be.
WHAT DID YOU ACCOMPLISH?
To be effective, training programs must be based on established objectives that address the knowledge to be imparted and the skills levels to be achieved. The objectives should be quantifiable and qualifiable so training effectiveness can be measured. Incorporating a means of evaluation will make it possible to determine if the desired outcomes have been met. Evaluation can be through oral or written questioning, a written examination, or the satisfactory performance of skills. Measurements must be reasonable, realistic, and substantiated by nationally recognized standards, texts, or practices. Participants should be given feedback concerning how well the objectives were realized.
WHO ATTENDED TRAINING?
Documenting all training conducted is important for a variety of reasons. Minimal levels of training may be required for membership maintenance; it may assist the department in protecting against liability protection by documenting members` knowledge and skills proficiency; and participating in training may be the basis for recognition for individuals as well as the department. Also, the department may have to provide records of members` training and participation as part of an insurance ratings review. Proper documentation may also help to have an officer avoid assigning members to tasks for which they have not been properly trained.
SHOULD IT BE FORMAL OR IN-SERVICE
The initial training an individual receives is generally formal training, such as Firefighter I, Emergency Care Basic, Basic Rescue, and Hazardous Materials Operations. This training may be provided by the department but is generally delivered through an outside source such as an academy. Departments need to supplement formal training to bridge the gap between the formal training received and the knowledge and skills required by individual departments. Do not rely solely on formal training to prepare individuals to operate within your department. Although formal training may be fairly comprehensive, it is general, not specifically directed at each department`s operations and apparatus. In-service training generally bridges this gap. In-service training, however, must be consistent with the formal training received to avoid confusion. It must also build on what has already been learned. The bottom line for all training should be that safety considerations are not negotiable. Generally accepted safety practices, guidelines, and standards must be followed in any training activity.
WHAT SHOULD THE TRAINING PROGRAM LOOK LIKE?
In-service training must be planned. Topics may have to be progressive in nature, build on each other, and be drawn together at the end of the training period. Departments that provide more than one service and conduct in-service training only once a month should mix the topics so that the department`s various needs are met.
HOW DO YOU IMPLEMENT A TRAINING
The first consideration when implementing a training program is frequency of the training sessions. Although it may be difficult to get members together at certain times, in-service classes should be held at least once a month to supplement any formal training members may have received. Consider segregating audiences based on need, even if it means having to schedule more than one session per month. This approach may help to focus the training on a particular audience need while minimizing repetition to other members. If the department provides multiple services, integrate the training based on the services provided–i.e., fire, EMS, rescue, or hazardous materials response.
In many departments, station officers conduct training. Although these individuals may be the most knowledgeable in some areas, they may not be the most appropriate individuals to conduct training in all subject areas. Consider using nonofficers or outsiders to meet specific training needs. It also gives others, especially senior members, a chance to get involved.
Consider giving training awards, some type of pocket card, or a certificate to department members who participate in certain training programs or achieve higher levels of knowledge or skills.
A well-organized training program will attract participants and reduce the need to mandate attendance. It will also increase professionalism and improve the quality of service provided. n
1. The NFPA “qualifications” standards include the following: NFPA 1000, Fire Service Professional Qualifications Accreditation and Certification System–1994; NFPA 1001, Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications–1997; NFPA 1002, Fire Department Vehicle Driver/Operator Professional Qualifications–1993; NFPA 1003, Airport Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications–1994; NFPA 1021, Fire Officer Professional Qualifications–1997; NFPA 1031, Professional Qualifications for Fire Inspector–1993; NFPA 1033, Fire Investigator Professional Qualifications–1993; NFPA 1035, Public Fire and Life Safety Educator Professional Qualifications–1993; NFPA 1041, Fire Service Instructor Professional Qualifications–1996; NFPA 1051, Wildland Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications–1995; and NFPA 1061, Public Safety Telecommunicator Qualifications–1996.
CLARENCE WHITE has been a member of the Maryland volunteer fire and rescue service for more than 32 years. Over the years, he has held various line officer positions. He also served as a member of the Maryland State Firemen`s Association Training Committee for eight years, one year as the chair, and the Frederick County (MD) Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association Training Committee, serving as its chair for the past five years. He has been a firefighting, heavy rescue, and hazardous materials field instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute since 1974.