Training: Pathway to Excellence For Small Fire Departments

Steve Meyer shows that a fire department with a reputation for professionalism at incidents is sure to have a strong training program as one of its attributes.


A small fire department with a good reputation for professionalism at incidents is sure to have a strong training program as one of its attributes. Training as a means to proficiency sounds easy. Sit new firefighters in a classroom, then give them some hands-on experience and you've got firefighters...


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A small fire department with a good reputation for professionalism at incidents is sure to have a strong training program as one of its attributes. Training as a means to proficiency sounds easy. Sit new firefighters in a classroom, then give them some hands-on experience and you've got firefighters capable of tackling anything.

Those who have walked under the helmet of a training officer in a small fire department know it's not that simple. The training budget in a small fire department usually amounts to only a few hundred dollars. On drill night, the firefighters who most need the training find all kinds of other things to do and besides, "We don't have that many fires anyway."

The last statement, rather than justifying a disregard for training, cuts to the core of why training is a most important function in any small fire department. For the most part, small fire departments do not respond to alarms frequently enough to gain or maintain skill levels from alarms alone. Add legal and liability concerns associated with poorly trained firefighters, plus consider how pride and motivation from doing a good job influences the small fire department's mission, and it becomes obvious why training is a big priority.

Training challenges in small fire departments center on time, leadership and desire.

"Training is a real challenge in small fire departments. They must balance training time with time spent at meetings, equipment maintenance, fundraising and answering alarms," notes Training Specialist Chuck Burkell of the National Fire Academy.

This will not be an article about instructional techniques or that outlines a training program for small fire departments. Rather, this article will focus on key issues influencing training in small fire departments and will provide ideas for coping with the training challenge.

The key issues are:

  1. Leadership is committed to training.
  2. Department members spearhead training.
  3. Firefighters are motivated to train.
  4. The department makes use of available training resources.
  5. Firefighters receive training that caters to their needs.

1. LEADERSHIP IS COMMITTED TO TRAINING

This is a point that doesn't need belaboring. Essentially, without support from the top, a small fire department's training program is at best stymied and most likely doomed to failure. It's a simple formula. If the chief wants firefighters to train, then he or she had better participate in training. That doesn't mean the chief has to sit through recruit training over and over, but it does mean that in order to set an example the chief must regularly attend training that assists in the performance of the job. There is also no excuse for a chief not participating in department drills and at least stopping in during a rookie training class occasionally to show interest and give a healthy dose of support.

Ultimately, many of the challenges and problems a small fire department encounters can be resolved through training. A concerted top-down emphasis on training not only helps a department's members gain knowledge and skills, it also gets members circulating among firefighting brethren. The interaction and networks developed with other firefighters are key components of problem solving.

The ultimate responsibility for safety rests on the shoulders of a small fire department's leadership. The best assurance fire department leadership can have of a finely tuned, safety-conscious firefighting force is training.

The chief can also cultivate opportunities for small fire department members to excel as training officers. Any effort expended toward developing training officer skills and abilities will return itself many times over in the small fire department.

It is up to the small fire department's leadership to see to it that the ideal of prioritizing training permeates the department from top to bottom. How leadership is able to finesse such an attitude toward training is a function of leadership style and the environment the chief operates in.

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