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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  1. Identify who the training audience is and what their needs are.
  2. Establish how frequently training sessions should be scheduled.
  3. Determine what the training program should look like.
  4. Determine the most appropriate means of delivering the training.
  5. Determine how results of the training program can be evaluated.

Yes, even the smallest fire department must evaluate training. If a means of determining whether a learning or skills objective has been achieved is not established, how will department leaders know if it is progressing on the path to excellence?

Wood explains an effective instructional technique for small fire departments: "Typically, when you have a training session in a small fire department, you have a group of up to 25 firefighters with just a few that are doing everything. Breaking the big group into small groups creates an environment that demands more attention from all of the firefighters. This also gives the opportunity to focus attention on specific training needs with newer members and the more experienced."

Leon Flemming, a MFRI instructor from Carroll County, MD, explains an approach to training that has helped small fire departments in his area: "Members of some departments in my area are getting together an hour before their meetings and having roundtable discussions about training issues, things like when they should have training and what they need."

Such an approach not only helps identify training problems and deficiencies, it also gives ownership by allowing all members to have input in the solution. Having a sense of ownership is a big motivator.

Training has implications beyond impacting knowledge and skill levels in advancing a department's quest for excellence as noted by Buckman: "Training in a volunteer fire department is one of the most significant issues that impacts the recruitment and retention of volunteers."

At first look, it may not be easy to see a connection between training and recruitment and retention. If training leads to professionalism, and professionalism leads to a good public image and a good public image helps boost recruitment and retention efforts, then training is indeed a foundation for recruitment and retention efforts.

A discussion about anything mandatory is certain to polarize volunteer firefighters and raise a variety of issues, along with tempers. Many small volunteer fire departments have mandatory training requirements, even a few states do. Though a change to mandatory training is certain to cause upheaval in a small fire department, once the threshold is crossed and some time has passed it becomes the accepted norm, much as it has with emergency medical services and law enforcement. No one in any echelon of those services ever questions the role of mandatory training.

As to training philosophy, consider George Oster's views:

  1. My first observation of firefighter death: If not by heart attack, then by screw up.
  2. Corollary to first maxim: People screw up mostly due to lack of, or poor, training.
  3. My first rule of training: Do it.
  4. Corollary to first rule of training: demonstrate you do it (this means certification).
  5. My second rule of training: Really put someone in charge of it (not a training officer with 50 other responsibilities).
  6. My corollary to the second rule of training: Every future chief ought to be in charge of training. (Who better to set the future tone of the department? How better to mold the department and how better to get known?)
  7. Third rule of training: Training starts with "values." (You need to teach the values of the department).
  8. Best training is done in context - i.e., as part of a complete evolution.
  9. Training must be repetitive (people forget a lot).
  10. When deciding what training is to be done - need to look at what is done by the department - too much time is wasted on unlikely events in the small department.
  11. Since in 10 years 90% of all small departments will depend on automatic mutual aid or tiered response, they need to train together.
  12. Training needs to be mandatory (if people quit over this, you didn't want them anyway).
  13. Training must focus on safety.