One of the most challenging aspects of designing and implementing a training program is the ability to make the training applicable to all of the members who will be participating. Regardless of the length of the program, whether a company level "quick drill" or a department-wide in-service, the firefighters on the receiving end will have a variety of experiences with the topic. From the seasoned veteran to the "2-20" rookie (you know the one - 2 months on the job, 20 years of experience at the mouth), matching your training/leadership style to their developmental level will greatly improve the success of the delivered program. In this article, four training/leadership styles will be discussed. These are Directing, Coaching, Supporting, and Delegating.
The directing style is used when the students have little to no experience with the topic being presented. This style is most commonly used in the fire academy setting. However, anytime a new tool, technique, or procedure is being introduced, it would be appropriate to employ the directing style until the group begins to develop familiarity with the operation. For example, your department purchases a new (never before owned by the department) rescue tool to be used during firefighter rescue operations. As the instructor, you will plan the exercise and provide the background and introduction. You will give specific instructions and explain what successful performance "looks like". And finally, as the training progresses, you will provide constant feedback to assure that the objective outcomes are being fulfilled.
As student proficiency improves or if the training topic is somewhat familiar, the next training leadership style to employ is that of coaching. Coaching will have many of the same components as directing, however, because the firefighters have some familiarity, you should include frequent recognition of good performance. These positive strokes will provide the fuel to keep motivation high for improved performance. As an example, if your engine company is changing the deployment of attack lines for particular situations, the crew that is training on the new technique should be coached. They already have familiarity with the equipment being used and the basics of handling hose; they only need instruction on the new deployment method. While coaching, you should be prepared to provide greater and more detailed explanation. At times it may be appropriate to ask for input on different applications of the tool, technique or procedure. As the instructor, now is the time to facilitate their growth that goes along with learning.
The supporting training/leadership style is used when instructing a group that has a good comfort level with the task. This style can be used when evaluating performance in order to get a feel for the level of skill or understanding. As an example, you can discuss the use and considerations of deploying ground level master stream devices. Then, after the initial introduction, allow the crew to gather, assemble, and operate the equipment - while you provide supervision, but minimal input into the step-by-step procedures. During this time, the "coach" will allow the students to have the lead roles, will continue to provide feedback and reassurance, and will assist in problem solving. When problem solving at this level, consider your role as that of a facilitator and encourage the crew to work through the problem. Again, positive feedback (strokes) should be given for a job well done.
Delegating can be the most rewarding training/leadership style to use. At this point, you are working with and training a group of highly motivated and experiences firefighters (remember - motivation and experience will be related to the expected task). If you think that this style is appropriate for a training session, then consider these steps. First, topic selection should be picked jointly. When delegating, you are expecting the students to deliver the material, therefore, they need to have a strong comfort level with the topic. Once the "student instructor" selects a topic, review it with him/her to assure it meets the current needs of the company. Allow the firefighter to design the training program and provide support for any resources he/she may need. And finally, review the designed program before it is delivered to prevent any surprises or embarrassments. For a job well done, provide some type of award (buy them dinner) and recognition for their efforts.
In review, the success of your training program is contingent upon your ability to identify the level of development for the firefighters for the specified topic. If a new piece of equipment is purchased or a new standard operating procedure is being introduced, almost always, all members will need to be instructed with the directing style. Conversely, the highly motivated and trained firefighter(s) in your company might be the one you can delegate to some of the training responsibility. Your ability to read the student also lends itself to a good outcome. Nobody wants to be "talked down to", and it is human nature not to admit when the material is "over our heads". Your job, as the trainer, is to find the right balance and to be effective!