Whether you're a full-scale career agency or a tiny rural volunteer operation, fire departments have one thing in common when it comes to training: keeping up with the latest in firefighting technology through formal education can be time consuming and costly.
When the Coquitlam Fire Department (CFD) in Coquitlam, British Columbia, purchased a series of new compressed-air foam (CAF) systems, the majority of firefighters were unfamiliar with using the new technology. Protecting approximately 125,000 residents within an 80-square-mile coverage area east of Vancouver, the CFD operates out of three stations staffed by 136 firefighters. Receiving operator instruction on the new CAFS was essential, but educating 136 firefighters through factory orientation courses simply wasn't feasible.
To obtain the vital education, but save on costs and downtime, the CFD worked with Waterous Co., the manufacturer of the department's CAF units, and arranged product orientation and education courses for the department's emergency vehicle operators (EVO) committee, a group of eight select firefighters.
"All of our front-line engines are equipped with Waterous Eclipse CAFSystems," said Assistant Chief Tom Boechler, who coordinated the factory education courses. "Part of the purchase agreement with Waterous encompassed training on the apparatus, and we arranged for a train-the-trainer program. This option made the most sense, simply because it was too costly and time consuming to have the factory train all our firefighters at the same time."
Working with factory representatives, the EVO committee participated in an in-house education program that focused on the new apparatus, and then went on to educate their colleagues. The end result provided cost- and time-saving advantages, while creating a foundation for effective ongoing education for the Canadian department to keep its firefighters' skills up-to-speed — essential criteria in maintaining a fully capable staff.
The First Day of School
The CFD courses began with classroom orientation, then moved to hands-on activity and practice, all of which were facilitated by Waterous factory representatives with significant firefighting experience. Topics in the classroom included foam properties, CAFS components and operation, nozzle reactions, safety and troubleshooting.
"In the classroom we looked at the theoretical aspects of operating the CAF systems, then moved to practical components on the training grounds and in smokehouses," Boechler said.
After completing drills on the training grounds, the CFD used an acquired structure for a live burn, which let the firefighters learn to use the CAF units in a more realistic setting. Because of restrictions governing live burns, the acquired structure was a rarity, and provided a tremendous educational opportunity for the EVO committee.
"In our area, it's very difficult to obtain acquired structures, so this was a great training opportunity for our EVO crew," Boechler said. "The structure was a two-story abandoned house, and we put a number of sets in the structure to practice what we had learned in the classroom and on the training grounds."
Continuing to be cost-conscious and time-efficient, the CFD organized and facilitated the live-fire educational situation on their own without the assistance of the factory representatives.
"We didn't have an acquired structure available when Waterous came to do the orientation, and it's simply not cost-effective to have the experts come every time we needed training," Boechler said. "So once we had access to a suitable structure, we conducted the live-burn situation based on what they taught us in the classroom."
Implementing the classroom education, the EVO crew lit approximately 10 sets in the house, one at a time. The firefighters would let the fire build up, knock it down, then light another set in a different area of the home. Lighting isolated sets in an assortment of areas within the structure provided numerous opportunities for the firefighters to experience the capabilities of the CAF systems and learn a variety of suppression techniques for fighting fires under different conditions.
"I wanted the firefighters on the EVO committee to experience knocking down fires in many diverse situations, and experience how the CAF systems operated at different stages of the fire," Boechler said. "Overall, we were really impressed with the knockdown capabilities of the CAF units, and the training situation in the acquired structure was an invaluable experience for the EVO guys."
Students Become The Teachers
Once the EVO committee completed the classroom courses and practical training, the members transitioned their newly acquired skills back to their fellow firefighters. "We were fortunate to have the experts out here for the initial product orientation, and the EVO committee transitioned very well from the role of student to the role of teacher," Boechler said.
To educate the remaining firefighters on the new CAF systems, the EVO committee held in-house courses on the CFD's training grounds and smokehouses for the pump operators and nozzle crews. Drills encompassed advancing CAFS lines through the smokehouse, protecting exposures, managing nozzle reactions and experiencing knockdown capacities with the compressed air foam technology under a variety of situations.
"The only challenge of this training experience was that the EVO committee members were the only firefighters able to participate in the live-burn situation with the acquired structure," Boechler said. "Acquired structures are hard to come by — that was the first we were able to utilize with live fire in about 12 or 13 years. The EVO committee experienced that valuable learning opportunity, whereas the rest of the firefighters did not, which is unfortunate."
Despite the lack of acquired structures for all firefighters to gain such practical experience, the CFD found that, overall, implementing a train-the-trainer program was much more cost-effective and time-efficient in fulfilling their educational needs.
"Having the EVO committee facilitate the courses for the department as opposed to hiring a factory facilitator certainly saved on costs," Boechler said. "It was much easier and more efficient for scheduling as well, because the EVO-led courses could be conducted on-shift during downtime from emergency situations."
The in-house education programs additionally provided long-term benefits to the CFD, as the EVO committee members consistently use their knowledge and experience from the factory's education courses to keep the firefighters' skills up to speed.
"As the department changes through attrition and new employees, there's a constant need for education," Boechler said. "We have a good group of dedicated individuals on our EVO committee who have a real interest in facilitating our in-house continuing education. By having those staff members who are knowledgeable on the latest products and procedures, we're much more effective in maintaining a fully capable staff and continuing professional development within the department."
Since the time following the CAFS orientation, the CFD has used similar education programs from Waterous for instruction on new apparatus. "The factory experts from Waterous teach the EVO committee, and then the committee teaches the rest of the firefighters," Boechler said. "The program works very well. All the firefighters learn the necessary skills, and the department saves time and money."
Throughout the year, the CFD conducts in-house training for existing employees and new recruits. Ranging from basic pump operations to extensive CAFS training to aerial operations, the EVO committee is busy leading any number of education courses.
"There's constantly a training course of some kind or another taking place, and the EVO committee really enjoys the instruction," Boechler said. "We've got a good group of dedicated individuals who have a real interest in that area, which makes the program run smoothly."
Maintaining vital knowledge on new technology and apparatus is essential for departments to instill confidence and peace-of-mind within the citizens they protect. By using Waterous' in-house education programs, departments like the CFD can save time and money, while continuing to keep abreast of new technology and techniques required to maintain the skills, knowledge and expertise to do their jobs.
KEITH KLASSEN has been active in the fire service for over 33 years, and has worked for volunteer and professional departments. He is a captain in the Summit Fire Department in Flagstaff, AZ, and the CAFS Instruction Program Manager for Waterous Co.