If you are seeking to improve the safety of your personnel or the capabilities of your department, the quickest, most effective and least-expensive process is improving your training program. This will improve all aspects of your department, including your image, your capabilities and the safety of your personnel.
The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has embarked on an initiative to improve the health and safety of our nation's firefighters through the Volunteer Firefighter Health and Safety Priorities. These priorities are set forth in a series of "B.E.S.T. Practices," which are divided into four focus areas of behavior, equipment, standards and training. To view the complete list of "B.E.S.T. Practices," please visit the NVFC website at www.nvfc.org/health_safety.
Within the training category is the priority of "utilizing fire training programs that conform to the highest professional standards." Consider whether your training operations they conform or are in line with the highest professional standards. I have been fortunate to witness the benefits of quality training programs as a volunteer firefighter, an officer of regional and state firefighter organizations, and as a member of the staff of Kentucky's Fire Rescue Training Program.
As we review the "B.E.S.T. Practice" of using training programs that conform to the highest professional standards, please do not get overwhelmed by the word "professional." It is my belief that when a citizen is having the worst day of their life and they dial 911, they are seeking a paid responder. The citizen does not care, or may not even know, whether the responder is career/fully paid, part-time paid or fully volunteer. They need responders meeting professional standards to solve their problem.
Many of you will first think of the cost when contemplating quality training programs. I agree that cost should be considered, but the emphasis must be on the benefits of training programs that conform to the highest professional standards:
- Increased capabilities to provide better services to your citizens.
- Increased safety of your personnel, with a direct result of reducing injuries to your personnel.
- Increased interest of your personnel in your training program. Seldom will you find anyone seeking to be just average; they are seeking to be as capable as possible.
- Improved image of your department. As capabilities and safety increase, the public will recognize your department's improvement. The public may not understand that the increased capabilities and safety are a result of enhanced training, but they will recognize the improvements in your department.
- Improved relationships with adjoining departments. As your capabilities and safety improve, adjoining departments will see greater benefits in responding with you, both on your incidents and theirs.
- Ultimately, your recruitment and retention rates will increase as people want to be part of an organization that strives to reach the "highest professional standards."
As you conduct your cost/benefits analysis, I would like to guarantee that all of these benefits can be reached with minimal cost to your organization. There is no cost to increase commitment and dedication toward higher standards, although your department may need to purchase some training materials or send some staff to specialized educational programs.
When considering improvements to your training program, in addition to considering costs, you need to consider your personnel. Your staff will want to know what is required of them and what the benefits to them include. Benefits to personnel include:
- Responders will be safer during training and responses. I believe each instructor always teaches personnel that the first priority is safety of our own personnel.
- Families will appreciate the commitment of both firefighters and the department to improving safety.
- Responders will be more effective and efficient.
- Increased and improved training will enhance firefighters' qualifications to advance in the organization.
- The best ("B.E.S.T.") news for firefighters, as we seek to conform our training programs to the highest professional standards, is that we will strive to train smarter. This translates to the goal of making sure every minute a firefighter is in a training program, he or she is participating in the best training program possible.
Leadership in your department will need to help responders understand the benefits of striving to meet the highest professional standards, and they need to be strong partners in this effort. For those still deciding whether to make this commitment to encouraging firefighters to train toward the highest professional standards, take a few minutes and search the Internet for "student expectations." You will find many documents that highlight the validated concept that students will rise to the level of expectations set for them. If you expect little from your firefighters, you will get little in return. If you expect much from your firefighters, such as striving for the highest professional standards, they will reach these levels.
Those studying and documenting this concept of student expectations will understand there are different speeds at which individuals learn, but reaching goals or expectations is more a result of effort than ability. In Kentucky, we have witnessed firefighters rising to meet higher expectations. The Kentucky Fire Commission/State Fire Rescue Training Program provides a voluntary competency-based certification system accredited by the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC). In addition to Kentucky's certification system, which is required by statute and regulation based on a clock-hour system, thousands of firefighters participate in knowledge and skills exams as they seek IFSAC-accredited certifications based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards.
Determining the highest professional standards requires fire department leaders and training officers to evaluate the mission of their organization against professional qualifications for the levels and types of services provided. These professional qualifications may be set by a variety of organizations and agencies at the local, state and national levels. For example, if you are a fire department responding to hazardous materials incidents at the operations level, I am not suggesting you change to responding at the technician level. I am encouraging you, when planning and selecting operations-level training programs, to be sure these training programs meet the highest professional standards for the responder at the operations level.
Faith in and use of voluntary consensus standards established through the NFPA continues to increase. All segments of the fire service are offered opportunities to inject thoughts and opinions as standards are created or updated. The Department of Homeland Security has adopted many of the professional qualifications standards of NFPA. If developing training programs in-house, NFPA standards provide excellent outlines as you follow the objectives and job performance requirements. When purchasing training materials, you have greater support materials than in years past. Publishers now produce excellent teaching packages to go with the textbooks and each should be cross referenced or validated against the appropriate standard.
As you strive to use training programs that conform to the highest professional standards, you will benefit from working with other fire departments through county, regional and state associations. If your department is unable to afford teaching materials individually, you may be able to join in with other departments through your county or regional association to buy a set for multiple departments to use. (Please do not copy materials that have a copyright.) Instructors should subscribe to one or more of the national fire publications, as they consistently provide the latest information on training programs and standards.
Take advantage of programs offered through your state firefighter training agency. In addition to state programs, these agencies deliver National Fire Academy training programs. Volunteer and combination fire department personnel should take advantage of the National Fire Academy's (NFA) Volunteer Incentive Program (VIP), which provides two-week courses in a compressed six-day format. This program provides opportunities for personnel to attend classes at the NFA's Emmitsburg, MD, campus, with costs of travel, lodging and student materials covered by the academy.
BRYANT STILES has been with the Kentucky Fire Commission/State Fire Rescue Training for 19 years and is director of the State Fire Rescue Training Division. He is the Kentucky alternate director for the National Volunteer Fire Council. Stiles has been involved in the fire service since 1974, including six years as chief of the McLean County, KY, Central District Volunteer Fire Department.