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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Instructing is such a solitary endeavor. Many shrink at the proposition of teaching. It is also not uncommon for new instructors to become quickly discouraged. Wood says that a brief survival skills class is essential for new or wanna-be instructors. Wood contends such a class needs to focus on giving the fledgling instructors knowledge about such topics as how to handle classroom problems such as difficult students. "So often, we say to a newly promoted officer, 'You're a lieutenant now, you ought to be able to train.' This just isn't true," says Wood.

3. FIREFIGHTERS ARE MOTIVATED TO TRAIN

People join a small fire department for a variety of reasons, but the underlying motivation is self-gratification, feeling good about themselves and the job they do. Training is the means to achieving the kind of self-gratification people seek. So if training is the key to excellence and the boost in self-esteem that people seek when they join a small fire department, the training needs to be good if they're going to be motivated to train.

"I don't care if you're a volunteer fire department from a community of 200 or 200,000, good motivational training that is engaging and keeps people coming back to the table is vital," Kirtley says. "When training becomes routine and boring fire departments loose their focus on the value of training. When people quit coming it becomes a de-motivator for the rest of the department."

Development of, and/or delivery of, training that fixes the desired training objectives inside a firefighter's head becomes the task for small fire departments. There is no magical formula. The way a small fire department arrives at the desired means of all of its members actively participating in training is varied. One element that is essential has to do with the instructors themselves and the amount of enthusiasm they put into the task. Enthusiasm is a force multiplier.

Another prime motivator for training is safety. "My first observation of firefighter death is that if not by heart attack, then by screw up. My corollary to the first maxim is that people screw up mostly due to lack of, or poor, training," observes George Oster, past executive officer of the Iowa Fire Service Institute.

Firefighting equipment that is compliant with all the standards is one component of firefighter safety, but in the hands of an inexperienced or untrained firefighter even the best equipment can be deadly. The only way to assure safe operation in any aspect of fire department operations is training and education. Having firefighters who understand the consequence of a negligent regard for training is a motivational force in itself.

"I think one of the most essential components to keeping people in small fire departments motivated is live-fire training," Kirtley says. "It keeps their confidence level up, particularly when they're only getting one or two structural fires a year."

Indeed, live-fire training cannot be underscored in its importance as a training tool for small fire departments. A good house burn impacts skill levels more readily than a year's worth of monthly drills or a 24-hour class in the basics of firefighting. Unfortunately, environmental regulations have put a damper on live-fire training and continue to make it more difficult for fire departments to have such training exercises.

Clarence E. "Smiley" White, program analyst with the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and a field instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI), agrees that live-fire training is important. White further notes that a live-fire training exercise is not something a fire department should keep all to itself.

"Training with several departments together is important. The composite of knowledge can create a very fine training experience," says White, who has been a member of three volunteer fire companies.

With the future of firefighting pointing in the direction of more joint responses and joint efforts among fire departments, the necessity of neighboring fire departments training together becomes all the more important.

4. THE DEPARTMENT MAKES USE OF AVAILABLE TRAINING RESOURCES

Training opportunities await every fire department no matter how small or impoverished it may be. The opportunity is right under the small fire department's nose or just down the road and the good news is most of it is free.

State agencies have training programs, some of which are available for free. The state point of contact (fire marshal, state fire training system, etc,) can be found on the National Fire Academy's web site by going to: http://www.usfa.fema.gov/fire-service/st_pocs.cfm.