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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Simply stated, members of a small fire department must see an application of what they are being taught to their duties. If they do not, attendance at training will be scant at best.

As stated by Randy Novak, bureau chief of the Iowa Fire Marshal's Office Fire Training Bureau: "All fire departments (including small volunteer fire departments) need to focus their training efforts based on the level of service they provide. Today, the fire service is not responding to enough working fires to remain proficient in the skills of fire suppression. This means we need to train (practice) on our basic fire suppression skills. As a fire department increases its level of service to the community, they must train on those new skills, and maintain their existing skill level."

While your more experienced members may not realize it, they need refresher training to maintain knowledge and skills as well as to bring them up to date on new information and technology. That challenges a small fire department to make the mundane repeated skills interesting enough to hold attention. Some creativity and forethought are required to accomplish that mission, not just showing up on drill night and having everyone go through the same evolution they've done for the past five, 10, 20 or more years. Be careful not to let refresher training dominate the department's training program. Firefighters need exposure to new knowledge, tactics and technology if the department is to grow and members are to receive the challenges they seek. Stagnation is never a good thing.

Finding the right balance between hands-on and classroom training is important. Firefighters don't like sitting inside a classroom when there's beautiful weather outside and there are hands-on activities they can be doing. Putting rookie firefighters through bloodborne pathogen training on a day suitable for forcible entry and water application training is never a pleasant experience for student or instructor.

New firefighters need tactical training soon so they at least have an idea of what is happening on the fireground. More tactical training can be blended in with other training as the firefighters progress.

Determining a small fire department's training needs is not that difficult. "A good method to use in determining the department's training needs may be to conduct a scene analysis of past incidents or operational problems with an emphasis on addressing deficiencies or improving efficiency," observes White. "You should not allow your department to become complacent. There is always room for improvement."

Another means of determining training needs is to conduct a periodic skills evaluation that determines the proficiency level of each member. Training guidance for small fire departments is often founded by requirements in the department's constitution and bylaws that mandate accomplishment of certain levels of training as well as annual refresher training. Though there is a tendency to resist such regulations in small fire departments, they serve as benchmarks to track progress toward meeting training goals and in keeping a fire department's training program on track.

Aside from department training requirements, there may be legal basis for some training in certain jurisdictions such as the provisions of 29 CFR 1910.120q, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation related to emergency response to hazardous materials incidents. The basis for training requirements may also be found in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards such as the NFPA 1000 standards, NFPA 1500 Fire Department Occupational Health and Safety Standard and the NFPA 472 Standard for Professional Competence of Responders to Hazardous Materials Incidents.

Many volunteer fire and rescue department training officers have difficulty developing and implementing a training program. The challenges of developing a training program that works can be overcome if five principles are kept in mind, White says: