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Whiteboard Drills Simulate Tactical and Leadership Skills

In today’s fast-paced environment, with all the technological advancements, we sometimes forget the simple things. Just go to any fire equipment trade show and you will see new technology everywhere. I walked the show floor at the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore this past year and the amount of technology was just amazing.

Computers have really taken hold on the fire service over the past decade. They are in the station’s office, on our apparatus, and, in some instances, they are being strapped to our sides capturing our movements as we crawl down the smoke-filled halls of a burning structure. Some are even noting the temperatures and other conditions and signaling warnings to us.

But, for every computer, we can find just as many whiteboards. They’re everywhere too! In just about every fire station we find one or two, or even more. Go into any office environment and you will find one hanging on the wall in just about every meeting room. Generally, these whiteboards are used to list ideas or keep track of a meeting. I see whiteboards in the fire station being used to post items that need to be picked up for the station’s supplies. But how often are whiteboards being used to their potential?

We got a good look at the versatility of these whiteboards back during the presidential elections in 2000 when the late host of “Meet the Press,” Tim Russert, used a small whiteboard and grease pencil to drive home a point…Florida, Florida, Florida… meaning that this was going to be the swing state during the election. More recently, Karl Rove, a Fox News Contributor, used a whiteboard to show polling information and statistics for this year’s elections. Whiteboards come in all sizes and can be stored just about anywhere. But what is your whiteboard being used for? If your fire station has a whiteboard, it’s probably hanging in the kitchen displaying a list of grocery supplies. Some department have one hung in the communications office or in the company’s watch room with information posted on it regarding hydrants being out of service, dangerous conditions, and the like. But this whiteboard still has more potentials and use.

As a company officer, I have seen whiteboards being used by members to remind them that they took a piece of equipment off the truck. The most common is a reminder that the portable radio is being charged in the charger (this is a necessary piece of fireground equipment that if left behind could cause chaos on the fire scene). Additionally, I have used whiteboards on the fireground to capture accountability of our firefighters as they operate and move from assignment to assignment. At some incidents, I have used the whiteboard to illustrate a point I wanted my firefighters to see while we were still at the incident. By drawing it on the whiteboard, a quick visual of what the situation was conveyed to our members. If they have additional notes or comments they want to bring up, or relocate something on the board that was put in the wrong place, they can.

Many times a firefighter will sketch the fire scene and bring it back to the fire station to transpose onto a larger whiteboard. In doing this we are able to get our equipment back in service and have a hot cup of coffee in a more relaxed environment while we chat about the incident. What is nice about this board is the fact that anything that is drawn can easily be erased or relocated. Hoseline placement, ladders, and considerably much more information can be captured and impregnated in the firefighter’s mind. You’d be surprised how firefighters will remember information off these whiteboard discussions.

With winter upon us, these whiteboards can also be used for training. For those of us who live in areas where winters do not always cooperate with our desire to get outside and train, we can pull out a whiteboard and use it to enhance our training. Several techniques can be attempted. If you are into drawings, great, but bullet points can work just as well for putting down items or topics for discussion.

From time to time, individual members may pick up some new tactics, either from a training course or from a friend in another fire department. Once others in the station hear about this additional training or information they are eager to share it. Again, this whiteboard comes in handy for drawing the important items that these particular firefighters want everyone on their company to grasp hold of or to reinforce the importance of the tactic they learned.

And, as a final thought, one of the nice features of these whiteboards is that you can use a variety of color markers to enhance the pictures and points. This makes it easy to identify different hose diameters that are being used. If need be, a color key can be plugged in at any one of the corners for a quick reference.

The next time you come back from an incident, try using the whiteboard in the fire station to critique the incident. You might be amazed at how helpful something as simple as the whiteboard can be to enhance the message. If you don’t have a whiteboard at the station, consider getting one. The benefits will far outweigh the cost the very first time you use it for diagramming an incident or for reinforcing your ideas. Sometimes it’s the simple things, like a whiteboard, that get overlooked yet can have such an impact.

RUSSELL MERRICK, a Contributing Editor, has over 30 years in the fire service and has been with the Rochester, NY, Fire Department, since 1986 where he serves as a captain and station commander. He developed and implemented the health and safety program for the department and held the position of incident safety officer before leading the department's special operations command. Russell authors the Weekly Drills and speaks at Firehouse Expo, the New York State Professional Firefighter's Annual Safety Seminar Series, and for the New York State Association of Fire Chief's.